BAD SCIENCE

08.14.15 5:00 AM ET

How Dr. Ben Carson Ruined His Legacy

Why Ben Carson the politician is an embarrassment to Ben Carson the neurosurgeon.

As a doctor, it’s hard to imagine a career more accomplished and admirable than that of Dr. Ben Carson. His achievements as a physician so vastly exceed my own as to render any comparison laughable, a fact that I will happily concede.

In fact, so great are his successes as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins that they comprise the sole basis for his run for president of the United States. Which is why it is astonishing to me as a fellow medical professional to watch as he takes a blowtorch to his own credibility in service to his political ambitions.

The most recent example of Dr. Carson the candidate saying something Dr. Carson the medical scientist knows to be incorrect was his response to the ongoing controversy about Planned Parenthood and the use of fetal tissue obtained from abortions performed there. According to Dr. Carson, “there’s nothing that can’t be done without fetal tissue” when it comes to medical research.

As it turns out, Dr. Carson has himself participated in research on fetal tissue obtained through abortion. First reported by obstetrician (and The Daily Beast contributor) Dr. Jennifer Gunter, Dr. Carson was an author on a 1992 paper that studied tissue from two different fetuses, one aborted at 17 weeks.

In response to Dr. Gunter’s blog post, Dr. Carson has said, “My primary responsibility in that research was when I operated on people and obtained the tissue. This has everything to do with how it’s acquired. If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it.”

This equivocating non-answer adds to the pernicious narrative surrounding abortions and Planned Parenthood that suggests some kind of ghoulishly nefarious end to use of fetal tissue following abortions, or that babies are being aborted specifically for the purposes of harvesting that tissue. Of course this is not the case, and the decisions women make when they seek abortions are not informed by the research that may be done afterward. Those conducting that research are no more implicated in the process by which the samples were obtained than Dr. Carson was.

Furthermore, as Dr. Gunter’s post goes on to discuss, there is a great deal of very meaningful research that does rely on fetal tissue. Which leads to the problem inherent in Dr. Carson’s initial response to the controversy, even if it turned out he’d never worked with such tissue himself—no matter how accomplished a researcher and surgeon he may be, it doesn’t mean he has plenary knowledge about all medical research everywhere. Any appropriately humble scientist will concede the limits of his or her expertise when it comes to fields that do not overlap their own.

Simply put, there’s really no way Dr. Carson can speak with authority when it comes to the use of fetal tissue in research for immunology, hematology, or any of a host of other areas that do not intersect with neurosurgery or neurology.

This leads to the salient question of whether being a neurosurgeon is in any way a relevant qualification to seek the highest elected office in the nation. As a pediatrician, I will gladly talk to you with confidence about the safety, mechanism of action, and efficacy of vaccines, but would rather flee the room than pretend to understand the nuances of monetary policy. Is there a plausible basis to expect that the skills that make one a master in the operating room will transfer in any way to working with a recalcitrant Congress or shepherding multilateral arms negotiations? After all, in the OR everyone is bent toward the single purpose of the patient’s well-being under the guidance of a sole authority, which can’t be said when you’re dealing with China or the Senate majority leader of the opposing political party.

Unfortunately, Dr. Carson’s latest comments are not the first time he’s spoken in a manner out of keeping with a scientific mind. On the topic of homosexuality, earlier this year he stated “[A] lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight—and when they come out, they’re gay.”

He later walked that statement back, while gesturing toward his own credentials: “I’m a doctor trained in multiple fields of medicine, who was blessed to work at perhaps the finest institution of medical knowledge in the world. Some of our brightest minds have looked at this debate, and up until this point there have been no definitive studies that people are born into a specific sexuality.”

A doctor trained in multiple fields of medicine who chooses to pontificate on the lack of “definitive studies” should know full well that vague anecdotes about gay ex-felons are the weakest kind of evidence. Even if one accepts that a significant number of formerly heterosexual men emerge from prison embracing a new gay identity (which I do not), observational data like that are among the worst, least reliable kind for drawing broad conclusions. Dr. Carson the scientist would laugh someone off the stage at a conference if they presented such sloppy thinking for review.

However, most egregious to me were his comments during the first GOP debate about the use of torture on terrorism suspects. When asked about whether as president he would allow waterboarding, he refused to condemn it and blithely dismissed fighting “politically correct wars.” Coming from a man who has presumably taken the Hippocratic oath, I found this jaw dropping. It made me wonder what other parts of that oath he’d be willing to elide in service to political expediency.

Dr. Carson is hardly the first accomplished physician to leverage his prestige for fame and fortune, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. But if he has no record to justify his claim to the Oval Office beyond his career as a neurosurgeon, shooting his scientific credibility to hell undermines any reason to consider voting for him. He’s all but swift boating himself when he flagrantly jettisons the sound judgment he’s touting as a reason to pick him instead of the other candidates.

The sad reality is that the party that gave America Todd Akin and has a bloviating vaccine truther as its front-runner sorely needs the voice Dr. Carson could be lending to its dialogue. A willingness to speak in an honest and informed manner about health-care issues, including but not limited to women’s reproductive health, would be a welcome addition to the conversation up on the GOP debate stage. But it seems like Dr. Carson lacks that willingness, and prefers to peddle the same claptrap as his far less educated and expert rivals. It’s a woeful diminution for a man who clearly has so much more he could be offering.