Politics Archive

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers

Ben CarsonI've been pointing out Ben Carson's anti-intellectual stances in regards to science for a while, now (you can see all my Carson entries here). But just recently, he seems to have caught the attention of many popular science writers. This seems to have a lot to do with a recent YouTube video, which I've embedded below. More specifically, it seems to have a lot to do wtih a Buzzfeed article commenting on the video, Ben Carson: Big Bang A Fairy Tale, Theory Of Evolution Encouraged By The Devil. The video is a speech Carson gave back in 2011, but which was just uploaded this year. It was posted by Adventist News Network, who pretty much agreed with everything Carson was saying. In other words - as bad as the video makes Carson look, they weren't intentionally trying to embarrass him.

I've seen a spate of articles and blog entries about Carson recently that seem to coincide with that Buzzfeed piece. The most prominent article was in The New Yorker, and was written by Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance. Being a physicist and cosmologist himself, Krauss commented mostly on Carson's mangling of the Big Bang theory and the history of the universe. Here's what Krauss had to say after quoting a particularly bad series of statements by Carson.

It is hard to find a single detailed claim in his diatribe that is physically sensible or that reflects accurate knowledge about science. His central claim--that the second law of thermodynamics rules out order forming in the universe after the Big Bang--is a frequent misstatement made by creationists who want to appear scientifically literate. In reality, it is completely false.

Krauss went on to address many of Carson's erroneous statements, giving real explanations for many of Carson's misunderstandings. Towards the end of the article, Krauss moved past simply correcting Carson, and presented some commentary that I agree with completely:

It is one thing to simply assert that you don't choose to believe the science, in spite of a mountain of data supporting it. It's another to mask your ignorance in such a disingenuous way, by using pseudo-scientific, emotion-laden arguments and trading on your professional credentials. Surely this quality, which reflects either self-delusion or, worse still, a willingness to intentionally deceive others, is of great concern when someone is vying for control of the nuclear red button.

On his website, Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne wrote his own entry on Carson, Ben Carson on evolution: an ignorant (or duplicitous) Presidential candidate. Coyne himself is a biologist, and so the bulk of his article was devoted to correcting Carson's untrue remarks on evolution. He did offer a bit of commentary, though such as his introductory paragraph.

I don't care how good a surgeon Ben Carson was (and he was reportedly a terrific one), he's still pig-ignorant when it comes to evolution, geology, and cosmology. And that ignorance--regardless of whether he doesn't know the facts, knows them but eludes them and is lying for Jesus, or truly believes that the facts support creation ex nihilo--makes him unqualified to be President. For the first possibility means he's uninformed (especially as a doctor); the second means he's dishonest; and the third means he's blinded to reality by his fundamentalist faith, Seventh Day Adventism.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy also got in on the act, writing Ben Carson: Evolution is Satanic and the Big Bang Is a Fairy Tale. Here was the introduction to his article.

At one point in time, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson may have been best known as an excellent, even groundbreaking, neurosurgeon. In recent years, though, he's done everything he can to throw that reputation away.

Plait had references to a lot of Carson's statements, not just the 2011 speech, as well as a lot of information refuting Carson's claims. Of course, being the Bad Astronomy website, Plait focused on the Big Bang, but he also spent a bit of time on evolution. After explaining how he tries to be polite when dealing with rank and file creationists, Plait went on to say this.

I take a different stance when it's a politician who espouses these views, especially when he's running for the highest office in America. If someone wants to run this country, then he better show that he has a solid grasp on reality. Dismissing and actively denigrating strongly understood science--whether it's astronomy, biology, or climatology--is at the very least cause to dump him.

Although he can be a bit brash for many readers, I'll also mention P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, who wrote You don't have to be smart to be an MD. He wasn't insulting medical doctors in general, but making the valid point that expertise in one field, even particularly noteworthy expertise like Carson's in pediatric neurosurgery, doesn't translate to expertise in other fields. Here were Myers' closing remarks.

Being a neurosurgeon doesn't preclude being knowledgeable, but clearly we have to overcome this bias of using an MD degree as a proxy for intelligence. / Fortunately, Ben Carson is working hard to demolish that preconception.

I know I've been writing quite a bit about Ben Carson recently. But now it seems that notable science writers are starting to pay more attention to him, as well. So, if you want to see what other people have to say about the man, as well as corrections to his mangling of science by people actually in the fields he's criticizing, go read those articles.


Added 2015-10-02: I finally took the time to watch that whole video embedded in this post, and not just rely on the excerpts that other people have provided. Wow. And I do mean wow. I'd read short interviews of Carson's beliefs on evolution, and some of the comments he's made, but they don't illustrate the depth of his ignorance and arrogance like this video. This was a 40 minute speech, a prepared speech that he had time to research, where he knew the topic ahead of time. This was not an off the cuff remark, or an answer to an interview question he wasn't expecting. This was a neurosurgeon, with the respect that goes along with that profession, giving a presentation to an entire crowd of people. And this speech is what he came up with.

His misunderstandings and ignorance of evolution are absolutely appalling, worse than I would expect from a high school biology student. So many of his misconceptions could have been cleared up just by reading a popular introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. If he was too cheap to buy a book, he could have gone to the Internet and sites like The TalkOrigins Archive. His misunderstandings of astronomy and cosmology were equally egregious, not to mention his mangling of a few other topics he brought up.

Now, this type of ignorance on its own is forgivable in most people (though I would expect a surgeon who had to study biology to be a bit more knowledgeable, and I'd certainly expect presidential candidates to have good enough educations to understand basic science). What makes it so bad in Carson's case is that despite his dreadful ignorance, he was still arrogant enough to give a 40 minute speech to an audience who trusted that he was knowledgeable on the topic. That attitude on Carson's part is the worst part of this. Most people are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues. And if we were invited to talk about something we didn't know about, we'd at least do some research on it. It just boggles the mind that Carson felt he was qualified to speak on a topic about which he is so obviously completely ignorant.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Ben Carson Index

Ben CarsonI've written quite a bit about Ben Carson on this site. It started off when he was much less well known, and was invited to be give the commencement speech at the local university, but with his rise in political popularity, it has expanded into two in-depth series and several more individual entries. So, to give one location with links to all of my Ben Carson entries, I've created this index. If I post more about him, I'll try to remember to add a link here.

Individual Entries

Here are individual entries, in chronological order.

First Series - A Critical Examination of Ben Carson

This was my first attempt at an in-depth investigation of Carson's political positions. I tried to be fair by looking at a 'snapshot' of the articles on his own homepage at the time, rather than focus on issues where I knew I disagreed with him. But, because he's written so many op-eds for the Washington Times, and this series only looked at a small part of the totality of his writing, it didn't necessarily address the most important issues, which is a big part of the reason for the second series below. Still, there are some pretty good entries in this series.

Second Series - Ben Carson on the Issues

This second series looked mostly at the issues on Carson's own campaign website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. However, there were two major issues that Carson failed to address on his website, which I thought were important enough to add to the series - Climate Change and Marriage Equality. Note that the first entry covers so many individual issues because they're each covered only briefly, while the rest of the series addresses the issues a little more fully.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part VI - Marriage Equality

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry, the last of the series, addresses Carson's stance on marriage equality. This wasn't covered on Carson's website, but I consider it a very important contemporary topic, so I figured it was worth discussing.

There's a group called the National Organization for Marriage. Much like other misleadingly named groups like the American Family Association, they're not really in support of marriage as a whole, but in only one narrowly defined definition, trying to restrict the rights of gay people from being able to marry. They have a marriage pledge that they've asked presidential candidates to sign, and Carson is one of the candidates who's signed it.

Here are the first and second positions from the pledge.

One, support a federal constitutional amendment that protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Two, oppose and work to overturn any Supreme Court decision that illegitimately finds a constitutional "right" to the redefinition of marriage. This includes nominating to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal bench judges who are committed to restraint and applying the original meaning of the Constitution, and appointing an attorney general similarly committed.

I wrote about marriage equality years ago when I was still a Christian, in Legality of Homosexual Marriage. I cringe now at some of the things I wrote, but even back then, I recognized that it was not the government's place to try to legislate morality, nor to impose sectarian religious definitions of marriage on the American people as a whole. I even specifically addressed the possibility of a Constitutional amendment, since then president Bush had recently raised the issue.

The amendments in the Bill of Rights were passed to protect people's personal freedoms. All of the subsequent amendments to the Constitution, except for one, have been passed to give additional rights and freedoms, or as changes to the structure of the government. The exception, the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, was repealed [13] years later by the 21st amendment because it didn't work. The Constitution should not be used to take away freedom, it should be used to guarantee rights. If a constitutional amendment is going to be passed regarding gay marriage, it should only be used to protect it, not to make it illegal.

Thankfully, per the recent Supreme Court decision, the Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment does guarantee that right to all people, heterosexual and homosexual alike, so an amendment guaranteeing people's freedom to marry is unnecessary. But people like Ben Carson and this National Organization for Marriage want to pass a new Constitutional amendment and fight against this recent ruling, all to deny a fundamental right to people. That's simply horrendous.

At a recent rally, Carson briefly discussed issues related to marriage equality. You can listen to these remarks yourself on MSNBC, Ben Carson speaks out on Kim Davis controversy, starting at about 42 seconds in, but I've done my best to transcribe his remarks below.

One of the things that came up this week of course, Miss Davis, down in Kentucky, who had to go to jail which was I think inappropriate. There were other things that could have been done. That was probably not the right one. Because the Supreme Court had not overstepped its boundaries and done what they did at the time that she took that job. So the circumstances changed. And all she was asking is that her name not be put on the documents. She was not trying to obstruct anybody from doing anything other than that.

I've already discussed Kim Davis in the appropriately titled entry, A Few Thoughts on Kim Davis. Davis was refusing to do her job as an elected official, plain and simple. Public officials don't get to choose to enforce only the laws that were in effect at the time they started working. Just imagine if police officers attempted similar justifications. If, after the Supreme Court decision, Davis felt that she could no longer perform her duties, then she should have resigned (had she been a normal employee and not elected, she could have simply been fired).

The federal judge in this case, David Bunning, gave Davis plenty of opportunity to comply with the ruling before jailing her. To quote a Washington Post article, Kim Davis is off to jail for refusing to do her job, he even offered her a last minute deal "to 'purge' her contempt of court by allowing her deputies to sign same-sex marriage licenses in her place." She refused the offer (at least before going to jail). It was her refusal to comply with court rulings, and the fact that she blocked any compromises that would have allowed others in the office to issue marriage licenses, that got her thrown in jail for contempt of court. And frankly, when a person tries to use their government position to impose their own personal religious convictions and oppress other citizens, I don't feel much sympathy for that person spending a few days in jail.

I also take issue with Carson's wording of the Supreme Court 'overstepping' its boundaries. This type of interpretation is exactly what the Supreme Court is supposed to do. Congress and Senate pass laws, but if those laws violate the Constitution, then it's up to the Supreme Court to strike those laws down. It doesn't even matter if the laws were passed by a public referendum and have majority public support - laws that violate the Constitution are still illegal. In this case, the Court found that these laws violated the 14th Amendment, and ruled accordingly. If Carson and his ilk don't like this ruling, they should be (and like I wrote above, they are) trying to pass a new Amendment to overturn the 14th and restrict people's rights. But when he talks about the Supreme court 'overstepping' its boundaries simply for doing its job, it doesn't leave me very impressed with his understanding of civics.


So, that wraps up this series. I've learned my lesson, though, and won't say this is the last time I'll discuss Carson. If he stays high in the polls, I'm sure I'll be motivated to write more about him. Someone with views and positions as bad as Carson's deserves to have those positions called out.

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part V - Taxes

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry addresses Carson's stance on taxes. Here are a couple excerpts from Carson's site. Basically, he wants "wholesale tax reform" to make the tax code simpler, and seems to want to do away with "the IRS as we know it".

It [the tax code] is too long, too complex, too burdensome, and too riddled with tax shelters and loopholes that benefit only a few at the direct expense of the many.
We need a fairer, simpler, and more equitable tax system. Our tax form should be able to be completed in less than 15 minutes. This will enable us to end the IRS as we know it.

Not too much to disagree with so far. The tax code is too long and complex and should be simplified. I'm not so sure the IRS can be done away with, but let's ignore that for now and just focus on taxes.

Although he doesn't offer much in the way of policy on his website, Carson has proposed a flat tax (based on Biblical tithing) in other venues. Here's an example going back to one of Carson's op-ed pieces from the Washington Times in 2013, CARSON: Proportional taxation works because it's fair to everyone. But first, even though it's out of order from the article, Carson offered some statements that seem to be behind his rationale for a flat tax.

We need to abandon the idea that some people are too needy and pitiful to be required to make contributions.
Furthermore, if everyone is included in the tax base, it forces the government to be more frugal with the taxpayers' money.

It seems as if Carson thinks that right now, a sizable enough proportion of the population to worry about doesn't contribute to the tax base. Why else would he talk about people not "required to make contributions" or make a statement like "if everyone is included in the tax base"? This is no more true than when Romney made a similar claim back in 2012. Although not everyone contributes to federal income taxes, there are many more taxes out there. The Center for Tax Justice has a page on Who Pays Taxes in America in 2014?. They combined all taxes people paid, not just federal income tax, and then plotted it by income. Here's how it comes out:

Share of Total Taxes Paid by Each Income Group, 2014, Source: Center for Tax Justice

Just to be clear, here are total effective tax rates broken down by income group:

Share of Total Taxes Paid by Each Income Group, 2014, Source: Center for Tax Justice

So, overall taxation in the U.S. is somewhat progressive, but not a huge amount. If you look at the breakdowns on that page, state and local taxes tend to be regressive, putting more burden on the lowest income groups. To compensate, federal income taxes are progressive, making the total tax burden more proportional, and slightly progressive. But the overall point is, most people in the U.S. do pay taxes roughly proportional to their income.

Anyway, on to his proposal:

Many alternative forms of taxation are used throughout the world, but the model that appeals most to me is based on biblical tithing. Under that system, everyone was required to pay one-tenth of their income to the designated authorities of the theocracy.

He did go on to say in that article that 10% was only an example, but in other venues (see Politico), he's said that he only thinks it need to be as high as 10-15%.

There are two things Carson could be talking about with this flat tax, neither of which is an appealing option. If he's talking only about federal income tax (or even all federal taxes), then the above discussion makes it clear that a flat tax would put much more burden on lower income groups because of the other taxes they already pay. If he's talking about replacing the entire taxation system in the U.S., from city to state to federal, then he's talking about a monumental undertaking that quite frankly is unrealistic. There would be one big pot of money that people paid taxes into, that would then be distributed out to all the various levels of government. Who would do the collecting, and who would do the deciding on how much each level of government received?

Further, the tax rate isn't even the complicated part of the tax code. As explained in an op-ed on the Houston Chronicle, Steffy: Why the flat tax is flat wrong:

"I don't think the nominal rates are what confuse people," said Andrew Gardener, a certified financial planner and president of Houston-based Tanglewood Legacy Advisors. "The part of the tax code that tells you what your rate is, is two sentences. That's fairly simple."

The complexity comes in defining income.

The article goes on to give a few examples of this difficulty in defining income, and even when income is taxable. These are the complications that have built up in the tax code that need to be revised, but a flat tax doesn't address that.

This is another of the examples where I agree with Carson (at least partly) in identifying an issue, but not in his proposed solution, which would only make things worse.

On to Part VI, Marriage Equality

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Updated 2015-09-24: Added graph of tax rates and a bit of extra wording to be more clear on the amount taxes are progressive.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part IV - Faith in Society

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry addresses Carson's stance on Faith in Society. I've covered this topic in more detail in several other blog entries, with one particularly relevant one being a Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone.

Here's how Carson started off this section on his website.

The United States of America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We can and should be proud of that fact. It served us well for almost 200 years.

The principles upon which the U.S. was founded were largely Enlightenment Ideals, not anything specifically Judeo-Christian. First, consider the founding document of our government, the U.S. Constitution. It has no religious references other than the convention of using 'Year of our Lord' for the date. Consider also a comparison of the First Amendment with the First Commandment. The Amendment is all about freedom to worship however you see fit. The Commandment is all about worshipping one god and one god only. Those are not the same values. (Other Commandments, like don't steal, or don't murder, are universal to nearly all societies, and not specific to Judaism or Christianity.) There are plenty of other examples in that blog entry linked to above.

One particularly interesting example that I've brought up before is the Treaty of Tripoli. It was signed in 1796, just 8 years after the Constitution was ratified, by Senators who could rightly be considered Founding Fathers. And even though it was only a treaty, the circumstances surrounding it illustrate the mindset of those early U.S. politicians. When it was presented to the Senate, it was read aloud in its entirety, so that all present knew the entire contents. It was then confirmed unanimously by all of the members present (23 out of 32). Not only that, but in a somewhat unusual practice, the vote was recorded. To clarify, it wasn't so unusual for a vote to be recorded (this was the 339th time), but it was very unusual for a vote to be recorded when the vote was unanimous - this was only the 3rd time. So what is it about the treaty that makes it so interesting in a discussion on religion? Article 11 (emphasis mine):

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

After the treaty was passed by the Senate, President John Adams issued a statement that he "accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof." Like I said, it was only a treaty, but the politicians of the time seemed to go out of their way to support it and make their support known. If these politicians had any objections to the statement that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion", they certainly didn't act on them.

Carson went on to write.

However, we need to reverse the recent trend of secular progressives using activist, federal judges to drive faith out of our society. Anyone who wishes to practice their faith, for example by praying privately, can and should be able to do so. Equally, the rights of someone to abstain from private prayer should also be jealously protected.

Other than the first sentence, this passage isn't too bad, but also not very provocative. How many places in the U.S. are people being stopped from praying privately? Nearly every example I can think of that the religious right gets upset about is where religious people can't force their prayers in government venues, such as city council meetings or classrooms (or the recent example of Kim Davis trying to abuse her government position and enforce her religious principles on the citizens of her county). There are only a very few isolated cases I've heard of where people really were being stopped from praying privately, and these were usually the results of people misunderstanding the law and have usually been resolved pretty quickly (examples: ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression).

The first sentence is where I disagree. First of all, 'activist' judges are not being used to drive faith out of society in general. Judges are properly interpreting the First Amendment, and using it to keep religion and government separate. The fact that Christianity has had special privilege for much of the history of this country due to the majority of citizens being Christian does not change the fact that many of these instances of special privilege were in violation of the Constitution. Now that Christianity is losing its grip on the country (between 2007 and 2014, Christians fell from 78.4% to 70.6% of the population - Pew), I expect these types of challenges will become more common. And like I said, these legal challenges are usually only where church and state are improperly entangled, not for people privately practicing religion.

Here's the last excerpt from Carson I'm going to discuss.

The First Amendment enshrines our freedom to practice whatever faith we choose from any government intrusion. Our Founding Fathers never meant for the First Amendment to be used to drive prayer out of the public square.

Here are two statements by a very prominent Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," as well as, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." There's also the very famous passage from his letter to the Danbury Baptists about "building a wall of separation between church and State." Granted, Jefferson was only one of the Founding Fathers, but he was certainly no fan of organized religion, and very clearly wanted religion kept separate from the public square. Consider also the discussion above about the country being founded on Enlightenment ideals, and it seems pretty clear that the founders did indeed intend for the government to be secular.

Outside the legal sphere, it's no secret I'm no fan of faith. I have an entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, listing examples of the harm caused by religion*. Now, I would never advocate for the government to try to suppress religion, since only totalitarian governments try to dictate beliefs, and regimes that have tried this in the past have in effect made the state a new religion. But I would like for society itself to change to the point where admitting belief in gods was no longer automatically seen as a virtue.

I've previously mentioned a study by Gregory S. Paul, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies. Here are two graphs from that study. (Click to embiggen. I modified this figure somewhat to combine these two graphs into one image, but didn't change anything about how the data was plotted.)

Graphs from Gregory S. Paul's Study

This shows a clear correlation between religion and societal dysfunction. Granted, correlation is not causation, so it's possible people turn to religion for comfort in dysfunctional societies, rather than religion causing dysfunctional societies, but it's certainly clear that less religious societies for the most part are better off than more religious ones.

A related previous entry of mine is A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle, looking at Carson's misinterpretation of the Establishment Clause, and a truly idiotic claim about religious neutrality promoting atheism.

On to Part V, Taxes

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

*To clarify, I don't think religion is universally harmful. There are many varieties of belief, even among 'one' religion like Christianity. On the balance, I think religion as currently practiced does more harm than good, but that's painting with a very broad brush, and could change in the future depending on how religion itself changes. As I wrote in another entry, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, "If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion."

To clarify further, I definitely don't think religious people are usually harmful. Most people are on the whole good, regardless of what religion they practice. Society wouldn't have survived if they weren't. But many otherwise good people do bad things because of religious influences, like continuing to fight against marriage equality, or murdering doctors who perform abortions. To quote Steven Weinberg, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Updated 2015-09-23: Added section & figures on correlation between religion & societal health. Added parenthetical note about many Commandments not being rules specific to Judaism or Christianity.

Updated 2015-09-24: Added footnote clarifying difference between religion and religious people.


Selling Out