The Unbearable Rightness of Being

I’d been working up a theory about why you don’t want Ben Carson as President because brain surgeons make terrible polymaths when the whole pyramids-as-granaries thing broke.[1] The theory is pretty simple. Becoming an amazing brain surgeon doesn’t reward any activity that isn’t devoted to becoming an amazing brain surgeon. Every waking hour that isn’t dedicated to the singular task of becoming an amazing brain surgeon is, in a way, a wasted hour. As such, you can be an amazingly brilliant brain surgeon and know absolutely nothing about the mechanics of tying your own shoe and that will be fine. Your practice will find someone to tie your shoes for you.

A brain surgeon, then, probably hasn’t spent a lot of time studying the geopolitical realities of a post-Cold War world. A brain surgeon probably hasn’t spent a lot of time studying Russian history from the Bolshevik Revolution forward. A brain surgeon probably hasn’t written a lot of treatises on the effects of gunboat diplomacy on the subjects of European or American colonialism. There’s also a pretty good chance that a brain surgeon hasn’t studied the long-term social effects of slavery or looked at the impact of the Union movement or checked to see if Reaganomics are actually a valid economic theory.

This isn’t to say that every president has done such things. A brain surgeon, however, isn’t required to deal with any of those things outside of possibly taking a few blow-off gen-ed courses during college. A lawyer has to deal with at least some aspects of the Constitution and the history behind case law. A lifetime government civil servant has to have some knowledge of the population they’re working with. Someone who came from the State Department or, theoretically, Senate has had to deal with some aspect of international politics. They might not necessarily be brilliant, single-minded people, but in most situations a broad, shallow pool of knowledge combined with curiosity is far more useful than a single, deep hole combined with drive and focus.

This isn’t something that the general population understands, of course. We shorthand “rocket science” and “brain surgery” as “really, really smart shit done by really, really smart people.” The weird thing is, though, that we’ve largely demystified the idea of the “rocket scientist” as the all-around brainy guy. In movies and whatnot he’s usually the one with glasses slightly askew, a tendency to not pay attention to what other people are saying, and an obvious unfamiliarity with the basics of fashion and comb usage. The “rocket scientist,” then, is smart but not aware. The brain surgeon, however, is a doctor. And we all know that doctors are suave and sexy and smart and sleep with all the nurses and shit. This is because the “rocket scientist” is a nerd and the brain surgeon is not. Nerds aren’t cool.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I said my piece on Carson’s stupidity in re: pyramids and walked away. Something didn’t sit right with me, though. His pyramid thing was stupid, yes, but it’s a particular variety of stupidity that I recognize all too well. Then Fred Clark cleared it all up for me. That was nice of him.

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I cut most of my ties with the Christianity of my youth in the months and years following my departure but a few remain to this day, mostly in the form of the few friends who I still love and respect and who still love and respect me. It makes for some interesting blasts from the past, however. Like, this morning when I was introduced to the thoughts of an old pastor of mine attempting to engage the internet with a bit of the ol’ Socratic Method.

He pointed out that the world thinks Ben Carson is crazy because of the whole pyramid thing, but then asked why we don’t think Hillary Clinton is similarly crazy because of her belief that people came from amoebas by way of bats and monkeys and whatnot. He then linked to an article in the New York Times and I clicked it because I wanted to see what kookiness Hillary applies to evolution.[2]

The article happened to be about what Hillary Clinton would do as President for public policy about science. It was, on the whole, some pretty amazing stuff about how she’d lower the restrictions on the use of stem cells for research and stiffen the government’s defense of the teaching of evolution in schools. It made me like Hillary just a little bit more.[3] And it became quite obvious that the monkeys and bats and amoebas were just poetic license on the part of the pastor.

This, then, is the problem with Ben Carson’s odd belief in the true purpose of the pyramids. I grew up in the church. I grew up with the pastor in question as one of my pastors for at least half a decade. The first time I can recall ever hearing the pyramid theory espoused by Ben Carson was when I was reading an article about what Ben Carson thinks the pyramids are for. This is not something that was ever, to the best of my recollection, taught to me in church. But it’s something that’s being used to call into question a different candidate’s belief in evolution. Because Carson comes from a place of Truth while Clinton doesn’t. It doesn’t actually matter that most Christians also probably believe Carson is completely and totally, provably, wrong.

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I left the church and religion of my youth because of moments like this. I was a bright, inquisitive kid who asked a lot of questions. A lot of the time those questions were answered with cobbled-together answers similar to Carson’s theory of the pyramids. These just-so stories filled to answer the immediate question but created greater and greater problems down the road.

The farther I got down that road the scarier each successive step got. I couldn’t avoid learning. It was just something that I did. I couldn’t avoid using each lesson as a jump to some further point of learning. And, from time to time, those just-so stories came into sharp focus.

In the book of Genesis, for one, we’re told that Adam and Eve had sons named Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel. Cain then lied about it and was marked by god so that others wouldn’t harm him and ended up going somewhere else, getting married, and starting a city. Wait, what? Where did these others who wanted to harm Cain come from? Where did his wife come from? How do two people found a city?

Actually, come to think of it, I never got a good just-so story to explain that one. Inconsistencies and impossibilities like that vexed me. The fact that I couldn’t ever truly explore the end result of such inconsistencies bothered me a lot more.

I learned about evolution in biology class and more-or-less accepted it as a thing. That was the first place where I got myself into trouble. Studying history in college was what split everything open. All of those questions I had avoided asking, all of those just-so stories I had avoided examining too closely all fell apart.

Believing that the pyramids were used to store grain is relatively harmless. I mean, it’s utterly wrong and might cause Peter Weller to cry himself to sleep at night, but in the grand scheme of things it’s no more or less harmful than believing that ancient aliens landed spaceships on the Great Pyramid at Giza.[4]

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One of the great dangers of being bright and inquisitive is that you learn too much about too many topics to allow the bullshit to hold sway for long. For instance, I love history, but I’m not particularly interested in Egyptian history. Still, it’s an important enough subject that while I don’t know enough to argue with a true Egyptologist I do know enough to tell Ben Carson exactly why and how he’s wrong about his theories of pyramids as grain storage and explain to the ancient aliens people exactly why they’re wrong about their theories of pyramids as power plants. I also love science fiction, which has caused me to learn enough about real science to both know why it’s laughable to think that the universe is 6,000 years old and why JJ Abrams is a freaking moron.

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The Christianity in which I grew up offers many rewards to someone like Ben Carson. It pours praise on someone who wants to single-mindedly pursue a path to knowledge that doesn’t challenge Christianity itself. It then praises him as a “man of science” who still manages to believe in that Christianity.

The Christianity in which I grew up also gives people who know nothing of real science a platform to take potshots at people who actually do understand it and its importance in the modern world. It rewards them, too, because there are so many people who are afraid to try to reconcile that Christianity with what they read in textbooks. It doesn’t hurt anyone’s faith to point out that we actually do know what pyramids were used for and we know what Egyptian granaries looked like because they can simply say, “Oh, so there was still a place to save seven years’ worth of surplus? Neat.” They can’t do that with knowledge that the planet is 4.5 billion years old and an occupant of a 13 billion year old universe when their pastor tells them that the planet popped into being some few thousand years ago and all the animals and humans popped up in the space of a week.[5]

The Christianity in which I grew up has no place for people like me. Ben Carson illustrates that bit of truth. My former pastor illustrates it far more effectively.

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[1]For anyone who has managed to avoid the internet for the last few days, here’s a shorthand: someone unearthed a video of a Ben Carson speech back in college where he claimed that the pyramids were built to store grain in Bible times because of the part in the book of Genesis where Joseph predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh then ordered food from the first seven years stored to make it through the second seven years. Hilariously he also used that as a chance to attack the people who thought that pyramids powered alien starships. So Ben Carson was taking potshots at Erich von Danniken before it was cool.

Either way, Carson was asked if he still believed in his theory. He said yes. The internet exploded. So meme. Very fun.

[2]Evolution is a weird thing that a lot of people get really wrong in the details while getting correct in the overall sense, so I am always interested when I see someone explaining evolutionary lineages. The most common one, of course, is that humans evolved from monkeys. This is convenient shorthand, but it’s wrong. The great apes and the various are our closest relatives, but we did not evolve from them.

Think about it like a family tree. I have a niece. After her own parents I am one of her closest relatives. She is younger than me. That does not mean that she descended from me. We do, however, have a common ancestor in my parents. Humans and chimpanzees are like that. Somewhere deep in the dark mists of time there was some lemur-looking thing that had a family that branched off in two directions because of different evolutionary pressures put onto its various descendants.

[3]Politically speaking right now I am full-on feeling the Bern. I voted for Obama back in ’08. I will vote for Hillary and won’t consider it a clothespin vote or anything. She’s a little too war-mongery for my tastes and tends towards that whole political triangulation thing that Bill perfected back in the ’90s, but I think she’s more liberal than we’ve been lead to believe, since she seems to be perfectly comfortable shifting her positions leftward to compensate for Bernie’s popularity. If anything, I think that the two of them have been setting up for Hillary/Bernie ’16 for a while. I can always be proved wrong by this, but I said right after the pair started their campaigns that I would love to see that ticket and couldn’t imagine the Republicans coming close.

The political reality is that Hillary will get the Democratic nomination. Bernie is too much of an outsider and while he definitely has the grassroots that won’t do anything come Convention time. This isn’t 2008 when Obama stole a march by firing up the base, since Obama was already an insider. He brought down the house in 2004, after all, and people were talking about him as a future Democratic Party Presidential candidate. They were just talking about 2016 or 2020 and he accelerated the schedule.

That said, Bernie still has the grassroots support. Hillary is the presumptive candidate, but who is she going to tap for her Veep? Martin O’Malley and that guy who hid under the podium are out. Jim Webb is probably in a shack in Montana right now. There’s always a Julian Castro-type pick for the “let’s appeal to people who can be visually picked out from a freshly primed wall” politicking, of course. Julian Castro is the current Julian Castro-type guy getting all the VP buzz at the moment. I’ve got nothing against Castro. I like him, in fact. San Antonio is a great city and he’s had a lot of experience in local and federal government. But Bernie brings a ground game.

Of course given that Hillary and Bernie have run their respective campaigns with such mutual respect so far it could easily go that Hillary picks Castro, Bernie endorses Hillary, and then goes back to being the Senate’s lovable old Commie curmudgeon. And, yes, I know that Bernie isn’t a Communist. But Socialist doesn’t alliterate well with curmudgeon.

Either way, either scenario might be overpowering enough to force the Republicans to take a Hail Mary with something like Trump/Nugent and just completely blow the whole party to kingdom come.

[4]Or whatever. I’m getting Chariots of the Gods confused with Stargate again. Like, I know that the ancient aliens people believe that pyramids were power sources and connected with the space people, but I don’t know if they actually believe them to be landing pads.

[5]Although one of my favorites came recently with someone arguing that the age of the universe keeps changing according to science. The thing is that ever since the advent of modern telescopes the number has changed, but most of the numbers are somewhere close to 13 billion years and while the numbers “change” it’s not because they’re wildly swinging around from one place to another, but because they’re becoming more precise. This is an important nuance. It’s not like some scientist is going to show up tomorrow and announce they’ve definitively aged the universe to 27 trillion years. It recently moved from 13.73 billion years to 13.82. On one level that’s a 100 billion year swing, which is pretty huge. On the other that’s a tiny fraction of 1% in terms of difference and it’s actually within the margin of error given on the previous best guess.

Also, the math for figuring out this sort of thing is massively, stupidly complicated. Here, I’ll let Phil Plait explain it all to you.

One thought on “The Unbearable Rightness of Being

  1. Here’s a counterargument: the brain surgeon has shown the capacity to learn a complicated thing, i.e. brain surgery. At least some part of being a good president is a complicated thing, more complicated than being a state governor or whatnot. Therefore someone with a proven capacity for learning complicated things should be preferred.

    Of course most people stop learning complicated things around age 25, so it’s not a good counterargument.

    Is there a term for that sort of morality where act X is good because it was done by person A, who is a Good Person, whereas person B is a Bad Person and therefore the same act done by him would be bad? One sees it in RTCs and in soap-opera fans.

    If I were an ancient alien building a spaceship to land on primitive planets, I wouldn’t require as a landing pad a structure I was unlikely to find on those planets. Even if I can mentally enslave the populace to build it for me (or have my servitor robots do it), isn’t it just easier to build a better ship?

    ObSFpedant: “they are more highly evolved than us”. NO NO IT DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT.

    I’m hoping for Trump/Fiorina, because I was a techie when she destroyed HP. “Let it all burn” is such a tempting campaign slogan.

    I think that one of the many things RTCs don’t get – assuming they’re arguing honestly – is that it is better to be sure you don’t know something than to be sure you do know it but wrong.

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