Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ben Carson: an example of why smart people sometimes say stupid things

Retired paediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson provides an excellent example of what happens when someone steps outside of their narrow area of professional expertise and pontificates on subjects on which they are not qualified to offer an authoritative opinion. While professionals from all backgrounds are prone to this problem - the Nobel Prize effect humorously describes how some Nobel Laureates can verge into crank territory post-award - medicine appears uniquely susceptible to this problem. Blogging at Respectful Insolence, the surgical oncologist who goes by the pseudonym Orac gets to the heart of this problem of how sometimes extremely bright people can go off the rails and endorse rank pseudoscience, and be resistant to correction. The parallel with Christian communities where special creationists with backgrounds unrelated to evolutionary biology are feted by laypeople as 'experts' is particularly relevant. Special creationism is wrong, no matter who touts it.
Orac cites neurologist Steve Novella who has also weighed in on Carson's bizarre ideas ranging from his views that the pyramids were built as grain silos to his special creationism. In both cases, Carson, who remember is not an archaeologist or evolutionary biologist or moral philosopher but simply a paediatric neurosurgeon - is effectively saying that the entire scholarly consensus view is wrong while he, an outsider, is correct:
He is a creationist who has stated that he believes Darwin came up with the idea of evolution because of Satan. He thinks the Big Bang is a “fairy tale.”He famously suggested that those who believe in evolution have no basis for their morality, saying:
“Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires.”
This claim is transparently wrong, and discounts a vast and rich philosophical history of morality and ethics. 
Apparently the well of anti-intellectual things that Ben Carson has said is very deep, and the media have no difficulty bringing up more examples. Most recently a video from a 1998 commencement speech has surfaced in which Carson states his belief that the Biblical Joseph built the pyramids of Egypt to store grain. He states directly that the world’s archaeologists are wrong, the pyramids were not built for the pharaohs, but Carson in his brilliance had divined their true history and purpose.

His brilliant insight is that something huge must have been built to store grain, and that structure would not just vanish, so perhaps it was the pyramids. Never mind all that archaeological evidence for how, when, and why the pyramids were built and the utter lack of evidence for the Joseph-grain storage hypothesis.
I bring all this up in order to address a question – how can one person be undeniably brilliant in one sphere of their intellectual life, and shockingly ignorant and anti-intellectual in other spheres? I have heard this question often in recent weeks, pretty much every time a new revelation about Carson’s beliefs comes out.
Novella invokes the well-known Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that those who lack competence in a particular area are more likely to overestimate their competence than those who are competent. As Novella wisely notes, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not something that applies to stupid people, but one that applies to all of us. It is impossible for us to be even competent - let alone expert - in every subject, so all of us are liable to the Dunning-Kruger effect. The wisest thing we can do is freely admit our ignorance in areas outside our own sphere of expertise, and ensure that we consult those do have expertise in those specialties outside our own before commenting.

Jeremiah 17v9 states that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Traditionally, we appeal to that to point out human moral failings, but the heart is deceitful in all areas, not just moral. We are all prone to cognitive biases, capable of self-deception and self-justification, no matter who we are or what we do, and that means we need to be particularly careful to look out for how we can deceive ourselves, so that we do not deceive others. Novella puts it well:
Understanding common tendencies in human behavior, however, does not mean there aren’t important differences in how people form and maintain their beliefs. People have different habits and tendencies. Skepticism is about habitually challenging your own beliefs. Examining the logic and evidence, and using knowledge of human psychology and neuroscience to understand the biases that might be at work in your own thinking.
 That leads onto the second problem behind Carson's fringe views, and that is his medical background. Although things are changing from the day when doctors were practically revered, medical training does tend to predispose doctors if they are not careful, to falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect. As Orac notes
Medical students might be at the bottom rung of the totem pole in the hospital, but they are told that they will soon be top dogs. And so they become top dogs. It’s true that medical practice has become more collaborative over my time practicing surgery. Doctors are no longer the unquestioned kings (and queens) of the roost. However, they still hold enormous power and privilege in the hospital. That’s not even counting the privilege that we as physicians are granted to probe the deepest secrets of our patients, administer medicine, and even, as surgeons do, forcibly rearrange people’s anatomy for therapeutic intent. We get to see the innermost recesses of our patients’ bodies. It’s an incredible privilege that society has granted us. That privilege is reinforced by our being consulted not just for our expertise but by the assumption held by many that because we are experts in medicine we must be experts in a lot of other things too.
It’s not surprising, then, that physicians might come to overestimate their ability to master another discipline, at least well enough to pontificate confidently on it. Of course we can! We’re doctors! We made it through the ringer that is medical school, residency, and board certification. Just give me enough time and enough Google and we can learn anything! Is it any wonder that physicians are particularly prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect? Not to me, at least not any more. The same seems to be true of many other high-achieving people. There’s a reason that most leaders in the antivaccine movement tend to be affluent, highly educated people. J.B. Handley, for instance, is a successful businessman who has basically said that he doesn’t need to listen to us pointy-headed scientists and physicians; he’s learned what he needs to learn about vaccines causing autism himself.
For the average person, the lesson is simple: irrespective of how brilliant or successful a person is in one area, outside his area of expertise, he is no more insightful or informed than any other educated person. In fact, he may be worse because he lacks insight into that fact, and is too proud to admit that point. False ideas are still false, no matter who says then, and the wise Christian would do well to listen to those who actually do know what they are talking about, rather than take their advice on archaeology from a doctor, or evolutionary biology from a retired businessman, or cosmology from a retired insurance investigator.