Kevin Drum

Ben Carson's Psychology Test Story Gets Even Weirder

| Sun Nov. 8, 2015 2:42 PM EST

More Ben Carson news today! You remember Doc Carson's story about the psychology test hoax that proved he was the most honest man at Yale? Well, Carson says it really happened, and the proof is on the right. It's a piece from the Yale Daily News about a parody issue of the News published by the Yale Record. Apparently the parody issue announced that some psychology exams had been destroyed and a retest would be held in the evening. Hilarious!

This makes the whole story even more fascinating. It's clear that Carson's account is substantially different from the parody. He says the class was Perceptions 301. He says 150 students showed up. He says everyone eventually walked out. He says the professor showed up at the beginning, and then again at the end. He says the professor gave him ten dollars. None of that seems to have happened.

And yet—it certainly seems likely that this is where Carson got the idea for his story. He remembered the hoax, and then embellished it considerably to turn it into a testimony to the power of God. This even makes sense. It seemed like a strange story for Carson to invent, and it turns out he didn't. He took a story he recalled from his Yale days and then added a bunch of bells and whistles to make it into a proper testimonial.

I have a feeling that posting this news clip won't do Carson any favors. Before, he could just insist that it happened and call the media a bunch of liars. Now, he has to defend the obvious differences between the actual hoax and what he wrote in his book. That's not likely to turn out well. His supporters will believe him utterly (just take a look at the comments to his Facebook post), but no one else will.

Then again, maybe all this stuff did happen. Maybe the hoaxsters got the professor to cooperate. Maybe 150 students showed up, not just "several." Maybe a fake photographer really took his picture. Maybe the professor gave him ten dollars. The kids who printed the parody issue are probably all still alive and should be able to clear this up. Let's go ask them.

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Let Us Now Praise Baby Boomers. And Berate Them Too.

| Sun Nov. 8, 2015 1:00 PM EST

Over at the Washington Post, it's time for some intergenerational griping. Jim Tankersley kicks things off with a piece blaming boomers for our economic woes. Really? Here's an economic history of the past 70 years: The US economy boomed for about three decades after the end of World War II, but ever since the mid-70s productivity growth has slowed down. That's pretty much it. It's not the fault of any particular generation. (Also: Tankersley should replace about half of his references to "boomers" with "Republicans." This would improve the accuracy of his piece considerably.)

Heather Havrilesky picks up the ball by blaming boomers for forcing our nostalgia on all the rest of you. Sure. I guess. I'm not quite sure how this makes boomers different from any other generation, but whatevs.

Finally, Sally Abrahms gamely tries to fight back, arguing that boomers aren't really all that rich, or healthy, or selfish, or technophobic, or sterile.

(Technophobic? Where does that come from? We're the generation of the IBM PC, the Apple II, the internet, and the Palm Pilot.1 Please.)

I guess this is all good fun, but you know what? Every generation has its highs and lows. The generation that freed the slaves also brought us Jim Crow. The generation that brought us the gilded age also invented the telephone. The generation that invented relativity and quantum mechanics brought us World War I.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at the highs and lows of the baby boomers. Then I'll apologize:

  • President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush. Plus a half claim to president Barack Obama.
  • Endless ads for pharmaceuticals on TV. The Sopranos.
  • Gay rights. Angry white men.
  • Star Wars. Star Wars prequels.
  • The rise of evangelical Christians. The rise of atheism.
  • Protesting the Vietnam War. Starting the Iraq War.
  • Sex. Drugs. Rock and roll.
  • John McEnroe. Dorothy Hamill.
  • Windows. The Macintosh.
  • Rolling Stones. Abba.
  • Feminist movement. Men's rights movement.
  • Collapse of labor unions. Obamacare (half credit).
  • Doting on our kids. Complaining about coddled kids these days.
  • Giving a shit. Selling out.

Seems like a draw. Just like with every other generation. That goes for all you Greatest Generation folks too, who won World War II and then elected Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. We all have some stuff to answer for. So on behalf of boomers everywhere, I apologize for disco. Are you happy now?

1I was in a Microsoft store recently, and as long as I was there I asked about a problem I'd been having. The guy who helped me seemed knowledgeable enough, but was unable to diagnose my problem and rather blithely suggested I just blow everything away and reinstall Windows. I wasn't too excited about this, and he gave me a look as if I were some pathetic oldster who just didn't understand how easy it was. I felt like telling him that I bought my first Windows upgrade before he was born. (Windows 3.1. TrueType fonts!) Like military force, reinstalling Windows is a last resort, not a first option.

A day later I fixed the problem myself by deleting a directory and letting OneDrive start its initial sync from scratch.

Pick Out Kevin's Lunch Today

| Sat Nov. 7, 2015 1:50 PM EST

A few days ago, for no special reason, I began to wonder how many different fast food places I had eaten at during my life. So naturally I hopped over to Quick Serve Restaurant and took a look at the latest QSR 50, their ranking of the 50 biggest fast food joints. Then I went to lunch at Chick-fil-A, which was my 28th out of 50. Only 22 to go!

It's getting close to lunchtime. Which fine dining establishment should I cross off my list today?

Ben Carson and the Tale of Redemption

| Sat Nov. 7, 2015 12:28 PM EST

For those of you who may have missed it, the Wall Street Journal decided to check out another Ben Carson story yesterday. Here's the story as recounted in Gifted Hands, about Carson's time as a student at Yale:

  • Ben is broke. Finds ten-dollar bill on sidewalk. Thank you, Lord!
  • A year later, Ben is broke again. Looks for ten-dollar bill, doesn't find one.
  • Ben gets notice that all the final exams in Perceptions 301 were accidentally lit on fire. He goes in for the retest.
  • The new test is really, really hard. A girl near Ben tells her classmate they should leave. "We can say we didn't read the notice."
  • Everyone starts leaving. Ben is conflicted. "I was tempted to walk out, but I had read the notice, and I couldn't lie and say I hadn't."
  • Eventually Ben is the only one left. The professor comes back in with a Yale Daily News photographer. The whole thing was a hoax, she said. "We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class. And that's you."
  • Ben concludes the story: "The professor then did something even better. She handed me a ten-dollar bill."
  • End scene.

And now for a couple of comments that I've seen this morning. First, Atrios remarks that the story is simply not believable. And that's true. I assume that's why the Journal decided to check it out. It sounded completely phony, and they concluded that it was, in fact, phony.

Second, Adam Serwer tweets that most of Carson's deceptions and embellishments are unnecessary. His personal story is great without them. And generally speaking, that's true. But in this case it's not.

Here's the thing: the beating heart of Carson's personal story is about his redemption by God. So he says he had a violent temper as a kid, and then became a new man after praying in a bathroom one day. In fact, God turned him around so thoroughly that West Point offered him a full scholarship. He went to Yale instead, where the Lord took care of his finances when he was in desperate straits. And as a bonus, it was because of his Christian inability to tell a lie.

Are these embellishments unnecessary? Sure. But Carson knows his audience. Serious evangelicals really, really want to hear a story about sin and redemption. That requires two things. First, Carson needs to have been a bad kid. Second, redemption needs to have truly turned his life around. He was already a student smart enough to get into Yale, so he needs more.

That's where these stories come in. He needs to exaggerate how violent he was when he was young. And after he finds God, he needs to exaggerate how great everything turned out. This culminates in the absurd story about his psychology class. No one who's not an evangelical Christian would believe it for a second. But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time. They expect testimonies like this, and the more improbable the better. So Carson gives them one. It's clumsy because he's not very good at inventing this kind of thing, but that doesn't matter much.

Not all of Carson's deceptions follow this pattern. But several of them do. And they were far from unnecessary. Carson needed to sell his story to evangelicals, and that required a narrative arc as formulaic as any supermarket romance novel. So he gave them one.

It's Not Just Middle-Aged Men Who Are Dying Younger

| Sat Nov. 7, 2015 10:56 AM EST

That paper by Angus Deaton and Anne Case about middle-aged white men dying at higher rates seems to be having a second life, so I want to highlight something that I might have buried in my initial post about it: it's not just middle-aged men. This is right in the paper, with a colorful chart and everything. Every single white age group, from 30 to 65, has seen a big spike in deaths from alcohol, suicide, and drug overdoses:

And it's white women too:

The change in all-cause mortality for white non-Hispanics 45–54 is largely accounted for by an increasing death rate from external causes, mostly increases in drug and alcohol poisonings and in suicide. (Patterns are similar for men and women when analyzed separately.)

So why is everyone focusing solely on middle-aged men? Because that's what the paper focuses on. However, the authors make it very clear that every age group is affected:

The focus of this paper is on changes in mortality and morbidity for those aged 45–54. However, as Fig. 4 makes clear, all 5-y age groups between 30–34 and 60–64 have witnessed marked and similar increases in mortality from the sum of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis over the period 1999–2013; the midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality.

In other words, the phenomenon they describe applies to all white men and women between the ages of 30-65. The only difference among midlife white men is that declining overall mortality has turned into increasing overall mortality. Among other groups, declining mortality presumably turns flat, or perhaps declines less rapidly—though the authors don't say.

In other words, midlife men make for a more dramatic chart because the line actually changes direction. But there's nothing magic about zero. If you go from a slope of -5 to -1, that's still a lot even if the line hasn't changed direction. What's more, whatever it is that makes the change in overall mortality bigger for midlife men, it's not the suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses that the authors focus on. The chart above makes that clear. In fact, the midlife group appears to have seen a smaller growth in those things than both the younger group and the older groups. This would be clearer if the chart were drawn differently, but since the authors don't include a table with raw data, I can't do that.

Bottom line: There's been a sharp increase in death by suicide/alcohol/drugs among all whites of all age groups from 30-65. Whatever the reason, it's not something that applies solely to middle-aged white men.

Ben Carson Seems to Have a Serious Personal Honesty Problem

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 7:00 PM EST

We all know that Ben Carson has some wacky ideas. We also know that he has some pretty strange views of history. And that a lot of his policy proposals make no sense at all. But he's long had a pretty good reputation for being truthful. Crazy but honest, that's Ben. Except that it's now starting to look like he has some real problems with being honest in his personal life. For example:

West Point

Then: A guy named Bill asked Carson if "it's true that I was offered a slot at West Point after high school." Carson replied, "Bill, that is true. I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point."

Now: He never got an offer from West Point. Apparently some people told him he could probably get in with his ROTC record, but he never even applied.


Then: "Three years ago I had an endowed chair bestowed upon me....I’m proud to say that part of that $2.5 million came from Mannatech."

Now: He now denies that any of the money for the endowed chair actually came from Mannatech. "He simply got things mixed up," a campaign spokesman said. That seems a little unlikely since Carson made this claim in a prepared speech given at a Mannatech sales conference.


Then: "Several sections of potential Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson’s 2012 book America the Beautiful were plagiarized from various sources, BuzzFeed News has found....In one instance, Carson cites wholesale from an old website that has been online since at least 2002,"

Now: "I attempted to appropriately cite and acknowledge all sources in America the Beautiful, but inadvertently missed some." This is such a common excuse among plagiarists that it's practically become a joke.

Violent Past

Then: "There was a time when I was, you know, very volatile....As a teenager. I would go after people with rocks, and bricks, and baseball bats, and hammers. And, of course, many people know the story when I was 14 and I tried to stab someone."

Now: CNN interviewed nine of Carson's childhood friends. None of them could recall any violent incidents. Carson's response: "This is a bunch of lies, that is what it is."

Drones on the Border

Then: "I'm suggesting we do what we need to do to secure the border whatever that is....You look at some of these caves and things out there one drone strike, boom, and they'd gone."

Now: "It was quite clear what I was talking about. That drones are excellent for surveillance."

The Psychology Test at Yale

Then: "The day before I'd been informed that the final examination papers in a psychology class, Perceptions 301, 'were inadvertently burned'....So I, with about 150 other students, went to the designated auditorium for the repeat exam....[The questions] were incredibly difficult....Soon half the class was gone, and the exodus continued. Not one person turned in the examination before leaving.

"....Suddenly the door of the classroom opened....The professor came toward me. With her was a photographer for the Yale Daily News who paused and snapped my picture. 'What's going on?' I asked. 'A hoax,' the teacher said. 'We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class.' She smiled again. 'And that's you.' "

Now: The Wall Street Journal reports that "no photo identifying Mr. Carson as a student ever ran, according to the Yale Daily News archives, and no stories from that era mention a class called Perceptions 301. Yale Librarian Claryn Spies said Friday there was no psychology course by that name or class number during any of Mr. Carson’s years at Yale."

These aren't policy issues. They're examples of Carson saying things that he later denies or that turn out to be untrue. If he does it as often as this list suggests, he's probably done it a few more times as well. We just don't know it yet. Now that the press is onto this, however, I'll bet we're going to come across a few more before long. Anyone who continues to support Carson had better be prepared for the worst.

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Are Conservatives Really Going All-In on Ben Carson?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 5:36 PM EST

Wow. I gather that conservatives are making a big U-turn on Ben Carson. This morning most of them were wringing their hands over Carson's deception about being accepted at West Point. Now they're defending him and blaming the whole thing on Politico and its typical liberal media hatred of conservatives. Their basic defense seems to be that Carson never said he "applied" to West Point, or even that he was "accepted" at West Point. All he said is that he was offered a scholarship to go there.

Well, here's what he said in August:

I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do.

Come on, folks. "An offer from West Point" is the same as "being accepted at West Point." It's obvious what he was saying here, and it's equally obvious it isn't true. Here is Carson's defense:

In an interview with The New York Times on Friday, Mr. Carson said: “I don’t remember all the specific details. Because I had done so extraordinarily well you know I was told that someone like me — they could get a scholarship to West Point. But I made it clear I was going to pursue a career in medicine.”

“It was, you know, an informal ‘with a record like yours we could easily get you a scholarship to West Point.'”

That might have happened—though no one would have used the word "scholarship" since West Point is free to begin with. But for the past two decades it's not what Carson has said. It's not even close. There's a world of difference between (a) someone telling you that you could probably get into West Point and (b) actually getting into West Point.

Carson is a nutcase, a policy buffoon, and at the very least, a serial personal embellisher. With a guy like that, you just know more stuff is going to come out. Conservatives should quit while they're behind and dump the guy. If they stick with him, eventually he's going to make them all look like dopes.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 2:55 PM EST

When I came home from the hospital last year, we (i.e., Marian) scurried around for a few days moving furniture. In the end, one of our sofas ended up getting shoehorned into my study, where it was out of our sight and all too vulnerable to feline claws. So a few months ago we bought a cheap slip cover, basically designed to give the cats something to claw at other than expensive upholstery. It's mostly worked, but there were unforeseen consequences.

You see, the slip cover has an elastic band around the bottom to keep it in place. When the cats discovered this, they decided it made a great cat hammock. Over on the right, you can see what it looks like from the outside. Basically, it's just a bulge. I think you can guess what happened next after I took this picture. (Insert Battle of the Bulge jokes here.)

Luckily, I also took some pictures before Hopper showed up, something I've been doing for weeks. But as you can imagine, it's really hard to get a decent photo from underneath the sofa. However, thanks to my persistence, along with my camera's articulating LCD screen, I eventually got one. Below, you can finally see Hilbert in the the cat hammock close up. It's pretty obvious what the attraction is. In fact, you'd practically think it had been designed as a cat domicile: dim, cozy, and shaped like a cat. Who knows? Maybe it was, and we just got tricked into buying it.

Keystone Pipeline Finally Put Out of Its Misery

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 2:17 PM EST

President Obama has finally killed off the Keystone XL pipeline for good—or until a Republican occupies the White House, anyway. His reasoning was so typically Obamian I almost laughed:

For years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I frankly consider an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.

That's Obama for you. He just can't stand the tiresome political preoccupation with shiny toys rather than stuff that actually matters. And he's not afraid to scold us about this every once in a while.

Want to know more? Tim McDonnell has the whole story here.

Congratulations on a Great Century, Gravity

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 1:41 PM EST

Science News has a big package in the current issue about Gravity's Century. I'd just like to add a personal note of congratulations to this. I think gravity has had a great century. It has kept me from floating into space for 57 years. It's kept our atmosphere intact so we can all breathe. It's remained weak enough that Earth hasn't spiraled into the sun. It's helped produce thousands of adorable kitten videos. And black holes! Those are just awesome.

All in all, terrific job, gravity. You deserve all the kudos you're getting. What's more, I hope this makes up for our inexcusable neglect of your first big century in 1787. We're really sorry about that. You deserved better. I guess we were busy with the whole Constitution thing and it slipped our minds. It won't happen again, I promise.

On the constructive criticism side, though, what's with all the fancy math? It makes you seem a little elitist. A little KISS could go a long way. Just a thought.