In his defense, Carson first pointed to a Yale Daily News front-page article that mentioned a test-burning incident. But that article mentions it being a parody event in a class called "Psychology 10" that makes no mention of Carson or a prize — and it happened in January, when Carson was still a freshman. Then, he posted a syllabus on Facebook for a class called "Perceptions" — though the syllabus was from 2002. (Carson graduated from high school in 1969 and from Yale University, where the incident allegedly occurred, in 1973.)
Update: Buzzfeed found a classmate that provided much better evidence for aspects of the story.
Except, of course, he didn't. Instead, Carson leveraged an evolving phenomenon in political discourse — the anecdotal rebuttal — to give his supporters enough reasonable doubt to brush away any questions.
There are a few factors that are overlapping to make Carson's strategy effective.
First, there's distrust of the media — particularly (but not exclusively) on the right. We looked at this in the wake of the third Republican debate, during which Carson rebutted questions about his involvement with a nutritional supplement company largely by claiming media bias. Gallup data shows that fewer than a third of Republicans now have trust in the mass media, suggesting a willingness to be responsive to such claims.
Layered onto that is the way in which we communicate these days. On social media, people tend to cluster by ideology, as a study of Twitter published in 2013 notes. By tracking the use of certain political phrases in 2010, the study's authors found that political content "was overall confined to like-minded clusters of users" — at least for the phrases they were considering.
Such a finding reinforces what we might expect, for better or for worse. Americans have also increasingly physically sorted themselves out by political ideology. Not intentionally, of course, but communities with particular political tendencies — like younger people or college graduates — have clustered in particular places. Cities are Democratic. Exurbs are not. And so on.
This means that the people with whom we interact on a daily basis are likely to be people with whom we agree on politics — in the same way that the people with whom we interact on Twitter broadly share our ideologies. "Broadly" is an important word there; this is as oversimplified as saying that Republicans distrust any and all media. But what's happening in politics bears this out.
Consider climate change. Climate change is a politically polarized issue that pivots on debates over scientific findings. Rebuttals to the collective work of hundreds of scientists often center on particular points of contention, some debunked — or, more casually, on the fact that the weather on a particular day is cold. There was a concerted effort to introduce doubt about climate science, which was largely successful. Now, anecdotes or small points are used as sweeping dismissals of the entire idea.
Not to dive into "both sides do it"-ism, but fervent partisans, left and right, are happy to embrace anecdotes with equal alacrity. Fervor plays a role: Underdogs demand more passion and passion tends to erode objectivity. Bernie Sanders fans, for example, insist that their candidate is underrepresented in the polls given how they read the enthusiasm of his crowds. Polls — a subset of the media — have come under repeated fire of late (most recently in the New Yorker). Donald Trump has made cherry-picking poll results a centerpiece of his outreach. The anecdote triumphs.
Of course, polling and the media are viewed skeptically in part because of demonstrated failures. Polls misread the British parliamentary results, underestimated the Republican wave in 2014 and missed the Kentucky governor's race last week. But those failures are also often anecdotal: Polling still gets an awful lot right.
Broader media distrust, meanwhile, is often self-reinforcing.
What's the alternative to picking out anecdotes? Skepticism. A willingness to consider alternative points of view. That's a mandate that's been given to the media, of course, whether or not it does so successfully. But it is ideally how people in general will respond to conflicting information. Ben Carson's defenses simply don't add up, which even Ben Carson supporters should see.
But again, it's hard to resist. After all, my evidence for Carson supporters sticking with their man? Facebook comments from two people. Perhaps the anecdotes I isolated are themselves not representative.