Social media quickly overflowed with scorn. Critics — and not just archaeologists — pointed to well-documented evidence that the structures were built as tombs, not granaries. Photos of pyramid burial vaults circulated on Twitter. Soon, Carson’s comments had become a meme with references to the food pyramid and “Stargate.”
Ben Carson was becoming a joke.
Carson, a famed neurosurgeon, is no stranger to controversy. He has made a string of incendiary comments in recent years. Carson has claimed that homosexuality is a choice, evolution is an idea encouraged by the devil and, most famously, Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
But to claim that the pyramids, which American kids learn about in grade school, were not tombs for pharaohs but grain silos built by a biblical hero appeared to rise to another level. To some critics, it was akin to Dan Quayle’s infamous “potatoe” gaffe. And when Carson confirmed to CBS Wednesday night that he still believes Joseph built the pyramids as granaries, the video began to assume Mitt Romney “47 percent” proportions as the moment when Carson’s flaws as a candidate suddenly crystallized into a single quote.
“It’s amazing how one can be a neurosurgeon and a dimwit at the same time,” one person tweeted, echoing a common refrain.
The Internet scorn, however, ignored a couple of things.
First, there was the rest of the video: roughly 14 more minutes that frame Carson’s pyramid quote in the context of a bigger critique of both science and ignorance.
Second, it’s precisely that critique, that strange blend of surgical knowledge and scientific skepticism, that may have Carson positioned atop polls in Iowa and in contention for the GOP presidential nomination.
Although attention has focused almost entirely on Carson’s claim that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain, that statement is just one moment from the commencement speech, which 17 years ago already hinted at the beginnings of Carson’s political career.
The entire speech doesn’t appear to be online, but 15 minutes of it were uploaded to YouTube more than three years ago under the title, “The Andrews Experience — Dr. Ben Carson 1998 Graduation key note speaker.”
The video begins with a visibly younger Carson standing at a lectern, congratulating Andrews University’s class of 1998. The school describes itself as the “flagship university” of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, of which Carson is a member.
Carson begins the commencement speech with a prayer, then makes a joke.
“You guys are fortunate today because we have two services and this one’s supposed to be over at 11,” he says. “So it’s a good thing that I’m a surgeon ’cause I can cut this short.”
He then frames his speech around the acronym and mantra made famous in his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands.”
“I thought that I would talk my own personal philosophy for success in life: think big,” he says. “Each one of those letters as you know means something special, but the whole concept is something special also, because we must recognize to whom we belong. We belong to God. And God is the creator of the universe. the original big thinker. And since we are his offspring, there is certainly no reason that we should in any way limit our concepts of what we will be able to do.”
Carson immediately jumps to the example of Joseph, implicitly drawing a parallel between himself and the biblical figure, the son of Jacob and wearer of the coat of many colors, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.
“You know I think back on Joseph, one of my favorite Bible characters,” he said. “Joseph’s big thinking got him into a little trouble. He was thinking, ‘All you guys are going to be bowing down to me,’ and that was okay for him to think that but he shouldn’t have said it. You have to exercise some wisdom.
“At any rate, that big thinking of his, look where it got him. He ended up being sold into slavery. But did that dampen his thinking? In no way. He said, if I’m going to be in prison, I want to be the best prisoner they ever saw. And he ended up in charge of the prison. I mean, that was pretty big thinking ….
“And of course he ended up as prime minister of the most powerful nation in the world at that time, so that should tell us a fair amount about the persistence of having large concepts and making sure that we include God in those concepts. I think that is really the key.
“I think of some of the things that Joseph did as the prime minister of Egypt. Here was a man who was basically able to save the entire world with his big thinking: building grain reserves that would last for seven years of famine. Can you imagine having the technology, the wisdom, the knowledge to be able to do that? We can’t do that now. He was able to do that back then.”
Here, Carson appears to be referring to a passage in Genesis where “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.” According to the Bible, Joseph then fed Egypt and the rest of the world during the seven-year famine that followed.
“Now, my own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson continued. “Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big — when you stop and think about it, and I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time — to store that much grain.”
Carson appears to be interpreting the Bible literally, and concluding that the pyramids fit the bill as Joseph’s grain silos. (Archaeological digs have shown that the pyramids are not hollow and so could not have held large quantities of grain. Rather, they contain narrow passages leading to royal burial chambers.)
“And when you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they’d have to be that way for a reason. And various of scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they had special knowledge and that’s how they were —’ you know, it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.
“That’s really the key. People may not even be able to explain what it is that you’re accomplishing, but they don’t have to be able to explain it when God is there. All you have to be able to do is to accept his presence and his total understanding of everything and link yourself with that. What a difference that makes. It makes you calm.”
Carson then broadens his big thinking to cast doubt on science, more generally, as well as the Big Bang and evolution.
“I have many arguments, I guess you could call them ‘discussions,’ with so-called scientists who think that I should not believe in God because there is scientific evidence of the way life evolved.
“I remember once, a few years ago, there were about eight or nine panelists. They were all Nobel Prize-winners. And the question came up: How did life originate? And after all their machinations, they finally came to the conclusion that life emanated as a result of a bunch of promiscuous biochemicals getting together. That was the best that they could come up with.”
Carson then criticizes scientists some more.
“I recently had a discussion with a well-known physicist. He was talking about the Big Bang Theory and how all this obviously culminated into this wonderful, extraordinarily organized solar system that we now have, which you can set your watch by, where scientists can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming. That’s an incredible amount of organization to have originated from just a large explosion.”
Carson then tells the story of how he supposedly stumped the physicist by asking him how he could reconcile such an “organized” universe with the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy, which says that systems tend to move toward disorder.
“Well of course he has no answer for that. They never have an answer for any of these things,” he concludes, broadening his story into a universal. “And see that’s the wonderful thing about having a relationship with God. God has already told us what happened, so we don’t have to come up with fanciful theories so that we can take the place of God. We don’t have to do that.”
Carson’s critics often portray him as a man who has drifted from a background in science in order to pursue a presidential bid. But the video shows he was criticizing the Big Bang and evolution — and redefining the pyramids — almost two decades ago.
In fact, Carson addressed the appearance of a contradiction between being a brain surgeon and a devoted Seventh-day Adventist in his autobiography. Raised by a single mother who couldn’t read, Carson went from a struggling, angry young man in Detroit to a stellar student at Yale and then the University of Michigan’s medical school, a transformation he credits to his faith.
He retold part of this story in the 1998 Andrews commencement speech, underlining the parallel between him and Joseph — young strugglers who came good through big thinking — even further. In fifth grade, Carson was the “dumbest” person in his class, he says. “It bothered me a lot.”
In his autobiography, Carson describes how that frustration, combined with his faith, propelled him to become a world famous brain surgeon.
“God wanted me to be a doctor,” he wrote. “It’s my belief that God gives us all gifts, special abilities that we have the privilege of developing to help us serve Him and humanity. And the gift of eye and hand coordination has been an invaluable asset in surgery.”
Carson does not disbelieve in science, he explains in the commencement speech. In fact, he complained that American students had, like a younger version of him, neglected their studies in math and science.
“That’s a significant problem for our nation because we have moved out of the industrial age, out of the agricultural age, into the information age where knowledge is power,” he says. “And those of us who claim a relationship with the creator of the universe certainly must avail ourselves of the knowledge that he has provided for us.”
But he views science, and his medical knowledge, as grounded in God. “Every time we discover something new, I now know something that previously only God knew,” he says, citing a friend who is both a scientist and a Christian. “I think that is a wonderful way of looking at things.”
Four national polls currently show Carson ahead of Donald Trump, largely thanks to his support among evangelicals.
“He does the Christian identity thing, and it seems to be working for him better than it has for other previous examples,” conservative activist and 2000 presidential candidate Gary Bauer told BuzzFeed.
In Iowa, where Carson also has an edge on Trump, a recent poll sought to explain why the doctor has surged into the lead. Iowa Republican caucus-goers told Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register pollsters that they liked the fact that Carson wasn’t a career politician, that he was a successful neurosurgeon, that he had an inspirational story and that he criticized Obamacare.
But the things they rated most highly were that “he has said he would be guided by his faith in God” (62 percent found that “very favorable”) and that he “approaches issues with common sense” (70 percent “very favorable”).
Critics who focus on Carson’s pyramid quote miss that he called for better science education in the same speech, or that his comments about God, the Big Bang and evolution actually reflect that of most Americans, if not scientists. If Carson does snag the GOP nomination, then perhaps we will look back at the recently unearthed 1998 commencement speech not for his strange beliefs about biblical pyramid builders, but for another quote near the end of the clip.
When Carson comes to the “H” in “Think Big,” he says it stands for “honesty” and then tells a story he believes demonstrates it.
“I remember a few years ago I made a commercial in Maryland because a vote was coming up about abortion, and I made a commercial basically saying that people needed to think before they killed innocent babies,” he says. “Well, the pro-life people took that commercial and they used it, along with some other things that were not true, to scare people. At which time I called a press conference and I asked them to remove the commercial from the air, and I said that even though I’m very much against the concept of abortion, I’m even more opposed to the concept of untruth, and that I didn’t want my name associated with anything that smacked of untruth.
“And that required a lot of courage. But you know something, when you do something that is right, it’s very interesting what the consequences are because, when all the dust settled, both the pro-life people and the pro-choice people thought that I was on their side.”
Then, as the crowd laughs, Carson delivers a prescient soundbite.
“Somebody said: ‘You know, you ought to run for political office because everyone thinks you’re on their side,'” he says.
“When you align yourself with God you are on everybody’s side,” he adds just before the video clip ends, “because God is on everybody’s side.”