Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Science, Evolution and The Magical Thinking of Dr. Ben Carson

by Nomad

Ben Carson's remarks on evolution may seem extraordinary for such an educated person. In fact, there's a very good explanation for his backward way of thinking.

A Relatively Modern Science Concept

This week, scientists at National Academy of Sciences in Washington have released a new version of the tree of life
The graphic shows everything science knows about the relationship of all living things on the planet. With the inclusion of 2.3 million species the graphic is the most complete of its kind.

As complete as it is, it is far from finished. With an estimated 8.7 million of species today, (that doesn't include the species that have gone extinct) there are still quite a lot of blank spaces to fill in the record.

One of the aspects of Darwin's theory of evolution was that all life -including humankind- is related and originated from the same primitive organisms. That every living thing, from microbes to fungus to giraffes, on the planet ultimately share a common ancestor
In some ways, it's a really ethereal idea which helps us find our place in the larger scheme of things. Our uniqueness as a life form comes in our knowing that place.
The history of living things is documented through multiple lines of evidence that converge to tell the story of life through time.
Researcher Douglas Soltis of the University of Florida said:
"As important as showing what we do know about relationships, this first tree of life is also important in revealing what we don't know."
It's hard to find a better statement that better represents what science is really all about. Amid and in contrast to all of this marvelous science showing us the miraculous story of how life began, there was in the same week a video of Dr. Carson and his view of evolution. 

Carson on Newton

Before nodding spectators, Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Republican Presidential hopeful, expounded on his views about creationism vs. evolution at the conference called Celebration of Creation.

Speaking as an educated authority, Dr. Carson told the audience 
“Interestingly enough, this [evolution theory] is a relatively modern science concept. Before Darwin came along, it wasn’t.”
Most science is comparatively modern. However, to put it in perspective, Darwin's 1859 book, Origin of the Species, was printed one year after the source of the Nile was discovered and three years before American blacks were emancipated, (January 1, 1863) 
Carson said
"Before that, people like Sir Issac Newton, one of the most scientific minds ever, inventor of calculus, so many things" , "had a strong faith in God."
Even in a short statement like this there is so much to correct. It seems that Carson- a highly educated man- doesn't understand the concept of progress.
Science by its nature means what people thought was true in the past is subject to revision. New ideas force us to think in new ways. Our base of knowledge continues to expand as we search for answers. 

Is that really so hard to accept?
We may think of science as a candle in the hands of a child. As the flame grows brighter, the child understands how vast the room actually is. He sees wonderful things emerge from the darkness. That doesn't mean, should the candle go out, the room is suddenly small and empty again.

In any case, a belief in God doesn't necessarily conflict with a belief in evolution, only in the Biblical narrative that God created Adam the dust of the ground and Eve from his rib.

Carson's mention of Newton was interesting. Clearly Carson either doesn't know the full story of Newton or doesn't care.

While Issac Newton was indeed deeply religious, it was not the absolute kind of religion that forced him to reject science. Think Galileo Galilei.
It was certainly not the kind of religion that Carson is suggesting. Newton felt religion had no business in scientific exploration and science had no place in religion. 
Despite his intense biblical study and belief in a creating God, Newton observed the distinction between religion and science made by Galileo: “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” During his presidency of the Royal Society, Newton banned any subject touching religion, even apologetics. He wrote, “We are not to introduce divine revelations into philosophy [science], nor philosophical [scientific] opinions into religion.”
The two belief systems did not have to conflict, Newton felt. The books of God and the Books of Science need not be at war. (It was only when organized religions demanded belief in things that made no sense and was not supported by evidence did a conflict arise.)
Newton did not consider one to be sacred and the other secular, nor did Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, or Pascal—all practicing Christians.
Newton would have probably had no problem accepting Darwin's theory.
Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing … all things according to his good will and pleasure.”
Carson's mention of Newton- who was, by the way, the co-founder of calculus and not the "inventor"- was very deceptive since Newton was actually a near-perfect example of how science and religion can live together in peace.    

Satan, Darwin's Enabler

Carson was however only getting starting with his disturbing claims. He told his audience that he felt that Darwin's theory was actually " something that was encouraged by the adversary,” Satan, the Devil." To quote:
“A lot of people believe in God. But I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary [Satan].”
Had this statement came from some graduate of a diploma-mill online university or unaccredited religious university, this kind of superstitious nonsense would be easy to write off.

This comes from a person who is now second in ranking among the Republican candidates for president.
Number two.
This is a man who was educated at Yale University and the University of Michigan. This comes from a person who once served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and who was in 2008 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Carson was even elected into the National Academy of SciencesI Institute of Medicine, considered one of the most prestigious honors in medicine.

That should frighten every intelligent voter two-fold. That a person with such an illustrious background could be so backward. And that such a person would be so popular among a public in desperate search of a leader.

Actually, this Satan blaming wasn't the first of its kind.  He has given Satan a bum rap in the past over science. Carson also claimed that Satan invented The Big Bang Theory.

The Conspiracy that Never Was

Carson was not finished.
He threw in an element of unfounded conspiracy to persuade his naive audience. Belief in the theory of evolution was, he claimed, merely "scientifically politically correct."

The term "politically correct" -which is really all about showing respect for others- has become a dirty word in conservative circles.
So Carson has invented the term "scientifically politically correct" presumably to suggest that creationist scientists are somehow being muzzled by the science establishment. He supplied no examples but he did add:
Amazingly, there are a significant number of scientists who do not believe it but they’re afraid to say anything.”
In fact, although evangelists have continually made this false claim of hidden believers afraid to speak, quite the opposite is true.

While scientists may argue about the details of the theory of evolution, the primary premise has been accepted for over a century.
It is not surprising to learn then that an overwhelming majority of the scientific community accepts the theory. Nearly every scientific society - representing hundreds of thousands of scientists- reject the religious explanation of the formation of life, called creationism, or intelligent design.

Any dissent in the scientific community is a skepticism about the absoluteness of Darwin's ideas. That's a healthy attitude for any scientist. That does not represent -in any way- an absolute denial or rejection of evolution, as Carson implies.  It's something creationists say, but there's not an ounce of truth in the claim.

Attitudes among scientists around the world are so strongly in favor of the evolution and its teaching that the national science academies of 67 countries issued a joint statement warning that scientific evidence about the origins of life was being “concealed, denied, or confused”. It urged parents and teachers to provide children with the facts about the origins and evolution of life on Earth. 
So, if there is a conspiracy, it is exactly the opposite from the one Carson has hinted at. 

According to a 2009 report by The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society, with 126,995 individual and institutional members :
"Nearly all scientists (97%) say humans and other living things have evolved over time.
The study also revealed a schism between the public and science when it comes to evolution.
A majority of the public (61%) says that human and other living things have evolved over time, though when probed only about a third (32%) say this evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” while 22% say “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” Another 31% reject evolution and say that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”
So it is not the scientists who support creationism but a minority of the public. The Gallup poll, which surveyed Americans believe in the paranormal, found 32% percent believe in ghosts, and 25% think astrology is legit.
According to those figures, nearly the same percentage of Americans who believe in a supreme creator also believe in witches. 
That's right, witches.

Be that as it may, the US courts have consistently ruled in favor of the teaching of evolution and against the pseudoscience of creationism in such cases as  Edwards v. AguillardHendren v. CampbellMcLean v. Arkansas and Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.
That evil judicial activism strikes again.

The Great Awakening and the Great Disappointment

If Carson's peculiar notions are shocking, there is a good explanation how a man with allegedly a brilliant mind could become so muddled-headed. It's certainly not because he is ignorant or deranged.
The reason for this quirk of his character requires us to look into background of the man.  

One possible explanation is that Dr. Carson happens to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian The ultimate creed  of this faith which overrides all others can be stated in one phrase: 
"The Bible, and the Bible alone."
The Seventh-day Adventism arose in upstate New York during an era of religious fervor called The Second Great Awakening. Around the same time as the Mormon faith got its start.

Like the Mormons, the Adventists have had an unfortunate history of following church leaders without asking enough skeptical questions.
When Preacher William Miller forecast the return of Christ sometime between spring of 1843 and summer of 1844, many in his church believed him and sold all they had to await the Day of Atonement. When that date came and went without a whisker of Jesus, many of his followers disbanded, obviously and not unexpectedly disheartened. This is called- understandably- "The Great Disappointment."

Those that remained were persuaded that the original calculations were inaccurate, a new date was set. April 18, 1844. 
Needless to say, that was a big let-down too. After some deliberation, yet another date was set: October 22, 1844. That date too proved to be just another day on the rustic prairie. 
Rather surprisingly this religious movement survived. The Advent Christian Church has its roots in this post-Great Disappointment group.

Mark Twain, while touring Europe, heard of a group of Adventists who had come to Smyrna, now Izmir in modern day Turkey that had come some years before.
In his typical acidic manner, Twain in his book, Innocents Abroad, called them 
"A multitude of lunatics in America put on their ascension sheets, took a leave of their friends and got ready to fly up to heaven at the first toot of the trumpet."
Twain was famous for his dislike of organized religions. With absolutely no political-correctness, Twain added:
"Thick headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers work more damage to religion than sensible cool-brained clergymen can fight away"
The Great Disappointment was hardly a great start for a faith, but today, the Adventist religion has a worldwide baptized membership of about 18.1 million people and ranks as the twelfth-largest religious body in the world. The Seventh-day Adventist educational system is the second-largest Christian school system in the world, after the Roman Catholic system. 
*  *   *
The psychology between these (and similar) Great Disappointment events have long fascinated scholars. How can it be explained? What would cause so many otherwise rational and educated people to reject facts in favor of faith?

Leon Festinger theory of cognitive dissonance attempts to explain how the mind copes when confronted with confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. 

Festinger noticed that many people when faced with information that conflicts with what they have long held to be true, have different mechanisms to adapt. The first coping mechanism is to adopt and change one's ideas. However, in many cases, this is simply not possible without having to re-evaluate all of the belief system. 
If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one's belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others.

The Price of Pseudo-Science

All very interesting you might say, but is there any real  and diret connection between Carson's eccentric view on Devil-inspired evolution and his Adventist faith?
The answer is: Yes. 

The modern Creationist movement actually started with Seventh-Day Adventist George McCready Price.
In 1906, without any background on the subject, Price published Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory
Prior to that, Price had been a construction worker, a handyman and later principal of a small Adventist school in Oakland, California.
His introduction of the book begins with an important proviso. 
This book is not written especially for geologists or other scientists as such, though it deals with the question which it discusses from a purely scientific standpoint, and presupposes a good general knowledge of the rocks and of current theories. 
That's about all you need to know about the "science" of creationism.
But if you need more evidence: 
I am free to say that my own conviction of the higher value and surer truth of other data outside of the biological sciences have always been given formative power.
In other words, this is what I believe in spite of all the scientific evidence you may offer me.
Questions immediately came up about his ability to speak as an authority on the subject. Price's education came after the fact. His Wikipedia bio reads:
From 1907 to 1912, Price taught at the Seventh-day Adventist-run College of Medical Evangelists, now known as Loma Linda University, [an Adventist college which did not receive its university status until 1961, only two years before Price's death.] which awarded him a B.A., based partially on his authorship and independent study.  
A review of Price's book by an expert in field said that Price should not expect "any geologist to take [his work] seriously." Further the reviewer summarized Price's scholarship as:
based on scattering mistakes, omissions, and exceptions against general truths that anybody familiar with the facts in a general way can not possibly dispute.
In actuality, Price's ideas were derived, not from scientific sources or methods, but from one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen Gould White. Her writings state:
Every species of animal which God had created were preserved in the ark.
In order to accept the theory of evolution one must reject the Biblical literalist concept of species fixity, the idea all species remained unchanged throughout the history of the earth. That's a view expounded in the Bible, namely in the Book of Genesis. It was a subject that White wrote much about. From the beginning, and not long after Darwin's work became a part of the public discussion, White  spoke vigorously against evolution.

One slight diversion. As a head of the Adventist movement from its earliest days, White reportedly  experienced between 100 to 200 visions after a head injury at the age of nine. (angry words, thrown rock.) Coincidentally, her first vision soon after the Millerite Great Disappointment. 
One prominent critic was Dudley M. Canright who claimed that White suffered from “complication of hysteria, epilepsy, catalepsy, and ecstasy” and stated that her “visions were merely the result of her early misfortune." A more qualified diagnosis was given in 1981 by a paediatrician claimed White suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy
This affliction is a subject brain surgeon Carson could ironically understand and explain.. with science! 

The Threat to Our Future

One writer pinpointed the danger behind the Carson phenomena and why Dr. Carson is probably exactly the wrong person to run the country.
Paleontologist, geologist, Donald Prothero, the author of "Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future" made this interesting observation. Prothero says:
There are lots of people out there who accept science when it’s convenient; but there’s a lot of things that science tells us they don’t want to hear and so then they reject those so-called inconvenient truths.
He realized that that the same people who are denying evolution are often "the exact same people who deny climate [change]."  
"It's true of AIDS deniers, anti-vaccers, a whole bunch of various kinds of alternative medicines--it’s a very common thread. And many of them have very similar strategies in the way they battle against the reality of science...this is a scary thing because they will accept what science has done in the way of 'give us progress' and 'give us technology' and 'give us transportation,' and yet they just don’t want science when it gets in the way of ideology or religion."
It boils down to a species of magical thinking which is defined as
"the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which seemingly cannot be justified by reason and observation."
Meaning, all that science isn't.
Examples of this way of thinking include: When Pat Robertson outlandishly claimed that the Haiti earthquake was a result of a bargain the locals made with the Devil. Pastor John Hagee claimed the Blood Moon is a sign of the coming end of the world. 
Magical thinking, this  lack of cause and effect, led Hagee to claim in his bestseller, "Jerusalem Countdown" that Jews were responsible for their own persecution, including the Holocaust because of their disobedience to the Holy Laws.
Or magical thinking is on full display when religious leaders proclaim that AIDS or Ebola is punishment from God.

Magical Thinking: The Adversary of Rationality

Magical thinking is a common feature of many religions, and the more primitive the religion, the more important is magical thinking. Anthropologists consider the magical thinking rituals to be a means that primitive man had to exert control over his environment, generally with limited success. Casting spells, voodoo, all of forms of ritualized ceremonies all are forms of magical thinking.

There's a reason why people engage in magical thinking: it offers a sense of control and a sense of meaning- often requiring a "leap of faith", making life richer with mysteriousness, more comprehensible, and less scary.
Most of the time it is pretty harmless but sometimes, like we count on good luck and God's blessing instead of prudent precautions and carefully-considered plans, it can be disastrous.

In the sense of offering explanations, science does something similar, but unlike magical thinking, it is based on proof and reproducible evidence, on hypothesis and theories and experiments, on analysis and measurable effects.
The results of that leap forward are, for better or worse, every place you see.

The problem comes when people like Dr. Carson and so many others attempt to use magical thinking to replace science.   

Carson (as all those who have used religion to sway voters) does not really wish to be president of the United States. It is, after all, a very complex job and all the magic thinking in the world won't make Putin in a pal, or make peace with Iran. All the magical thinking in the world won't solve the debt crisis. When floods permanently inundate coastal cities, it will be too late to say "whoops! The magic has failed us!"

No, what Carson really wants to become the nation's top magician.