A failure to communicate

Earlier this year I set myself a task: write a Monday blogpost each week without fail. For the last three weeks I have failed utterly to post anything on a Monday, but it’s not because I didn’t try. Over the last three weeks I have drafted posts on social media bullying, the dreaded ‘New Zealand “Twitterati”‘ problem and the like, only to sigh come Monday afternoon, close my MMD editor and go on with my week feeling slightly let down by myself and the world.

But no more! By admitting to my stumbling block, I hope to move on and get back to regular blogging. Those posts will likely stay in the draft folder until such time the issues they pertain to reoccur. Instead, let’s talk about Ben Carson, you know, the neurosurgeon?

Ben Carson is running to be the Republican nominee for President of the U.S.A. Carson’s campaign has come a cropper over the last few days for two somewhat unrelated reasons. The first is that some of the details of his well-publicised life story of a murderous-thug-turned-Christian-brain-surgeon cannot be verified/might be false. The second is that Carson believes the pyramids are not royal tombs but, rather, grain silos built by Joseph (of “Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat” fame). Not just that, but Carson has position his sensible belief in triangular grain repositories in opposition to the scientific consensus that aliens built the pyramids.

Let’s just unpack that for a second. Ben Carson thinks scientists and historians and the like believe in some version of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis – the claim ancient gods were visitors from space (cue the theme to “Stargate”) – and we all know that can’t be true. As such, Carson has gone with the authoritative words of the Old Testament, which apparently tells us the true purpose of the pyramids. I mean, why not; if scientists are going to believe such weird things, you might as well turn to the gods for answers…

Except, of course – as most of you are screaming internally – scientists, historians and archaeologists believe no such thing. The history of Egypt is well attested to, at least these days.1 Just about everyone believes that the pyramids are not just royal tombs, but we’re fairly sure hoe they were built, why they were built and the like. Whilst there is still a fair amount of debate as to, say, whether there are hidden chambers within certain pyramids and the like, no one really believes they are spacecraft landing platforms, or radio telescopes…

So, where does Carson get his ideas from? Well, the fringe. Authors like Erich von Däniken, Graham Hancock and the like have all advanced radically different versions of prehistory in popular texts. Not just that, but they often present their theories as being the “real” history, and orthodox history as being the product of a conspiracy.

It’s interesting that Carson gets his ideas of the academic consensus from the fringes. It’s not surprising, however; the Republicans seem to get all their ideas of orthodoxy from the fringes. The climate is not changing; a fringe scientist proved it! We can’t really offset climate change even if it is occurring; Bjørn Lomborg wrote a book! People believe weird things about the pyramids; look at historian Erich von Däniken’s views!

Yet Carson – who thinks himself very sensible and very clever – is also getting his sensible views from the fringe, because, despite what he claims, the Old Testament makes no claims about the pyramids being grain silos. Whilst some historical figures associated the pyramids with the (probably apocryphal) story of Joseph setting up grain silos for the seven years of famine in Egypt, not even modern Christian historians believe that to be the case now. Carson is getting his views on Ancient Egypt from somewhere, but it’s not the Bible.

Where we get our information from is important; I’m of the belief that almost all knowledge is social – we very rarely learn the truth of something from solitary inspection or introspection – and so situating someone’s belief in their social context is important for an understanding of that belief. Ben Carson believes scientists think the pyramids were built by aliens. Ben Carson, then, believes weird things about science. Not just that, but Ben Carson tells people the Bible claims things it does not. Ben Carson, then, believes a bunch of fringe beliefs but seems to think these beliefs aren’t attested to be orthodox academics because of some conspiracy.

Yet, you know what’s truly disturbing about all of this? Trump doesn’t seem to be any better. Oh, his fringe beliefs are much more mainstream, but equally as unjustified.2 Either man could be the Republican nominee for President. We just have to hope that the academic consensus that neither man will garner a plurality of votes across all the important demographics in the U.S.A. isn’t the kind of belief Carson (or Trump) would endorse.

Notes

  1. Just over a century ago this was not the case. Thank the non-existent gods for the Rosetta Stone.
  2. It’s worth pointing out that their fringe beliefs are not necessarily telling factors against them as candidates. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of U.S. citizens are purported to believe in the “Ancient Astronaut” thesis. A larger number believe that the Great Flood out of Genesis actually occurred.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.