Specifically, “idiot savant.”
I’ve no idea whether the term “idiot savant” retains any currency – it might be considered too pejorative to be acceptable. But it is the term I originally learned, and so I will continue to use it here. (I originally encountered the concept over four decades ago, in a science fiction short story, that I’ve since failed to track down, titled “Idiot Solvent.”) An idiot savant is generally someone who scores very poorly on ordinary measures of intelligence, but is then exceptionally gifted in one particular performative area. Often times, this area is music. Other areas of performance are evidently possible, whether or not we’ve documented them. There might be a great deal of overlap between what is (or, at least used to be) called “idiot savant” and certain types of intense Asperger’s syndrome. (Perhaps it is more than an overlap, but something closer to an identity?)
Regardless, while I am clearly unqualified to offer anything that might be viewed as even remotely “diagnostic,” I continue to struggle to find what seem to be workable analogies for the very public delamination of Ben Carson and his constructed story of self. At the very least, Carson does appear to be a profligate confabulator – in point of fact, Carson is a consummate bullshitter (which might, indeed, be something of a synonym for “profligate confabulator”) – as well as someone with an astoundingly ill-formed grasp of basic history and science. Carson is supposed to be a “brilliant” man; however, I will argue here that that is precisely what he is not. Rather, I wish to use Carson to exemplify how right-wing authoritarians (RWA) and their habits of compartmentalization, completely undermine anything that might genuinely qualify as intelligence. My characterization of intelligence, however, is not the one you’ll find in the dictionary.
At this point, Carson’s profligate confabulation has been sufficiently well publicized that I need not explore it any further here. My interest here is not with Carson’s integrity, but with his intelligence. The distinction I wish to draw, using Carson as my exemplar, is between what might be called “technical” or “puzzle solving” intelligence, and what I will be characterizing as genuine intelligence. I submit that Carson gives little real evidence of the latter.
Carson has repeatedly made statements that demonstrate a complete failure to understand history, and even basic biology. Thus, Carson has claimed that the pyramids were used to store grain; that none of the signers of the Declaration had previously occupied elected office; that if the Jews had had guns, there’d have been no holocaust; he’s embraced form of anti-vaccine propaganda; and he not only rejects evolution and contemporary cosmology, he likens them to fairy tales and satanic conspiracies. (There are arguments that can be made, especially about cosmology. But those arguments must be made within science, not religion.) The preceding is hardly a comprehensive list.
We are often asked – nay, demanded – to recognize Carson as a “brilliant” surgeon which, in turn, we are required to accept as irrefutable evidence of Carson’s intelligence. But do we really need to accede to this demand? Evidently Carson is a skilled surgeon (although, given his proclivity to bullshit, there are presumably objective records to establish this claim.) But does such skill have any real connection to intelligence? What, after all is intelligence? My characterization is this:
- INTELLIGENCE: The broadly ranging multi-modal capacity for, and interest in, variegated forms of inquiry and experience.
Notice that nothing in the above prioritizes high-scores on standardized “IQ” tests. Persons who aren’t necessarily the types to achieve high verbal or analytical scores on standardized tests – visual artists, say, or musicians – can nevertheless be possessed of an abundance of those qualities which I am calling intelligence. Meanwhile, persons who can perform “well” with the useless, narrow puzzle-solving skills that comprise IQ tests can, by the above standard, still be quite painfully stupid. Observe that in the above characterization (I resist the term “definition” for reasons I’ll not go into here) part of the emphasis is on the “capacity for … variegated forms of inquiry …” That capacity will require both analytical and synthetic abilities, to resolve situations into their salient, constitutive facts, and then reassemble those facts into a comprehensive, global picture. Because the emphasis is on “forms of inquiry and experience,” it will require that one not merely sit contended with some image of how things “are,” but to push the boundaries of matters as they stand, ask more and better questions, and pursue deeper and more comprehensive patterns of growth.
Notice also that the kind of skills needed to gain entry into medical school have little enough to do with the above characterization. Rather, what is needed is the ability to perform well on standardized tests such as the MCAT, which has many points in common with other standardized IQ tests, such as the Stanford-Binet. Now, again, doing well on these tests certainly requires significant cognitive abilities. But given how readily those abilities can be compartmentalized and pushed off to the side – often without even a first, much less a second thought – are such trivial puzzle-solving skills really what deserve to be valorized as intelligence?
Which brings us back to Dr. Ben Carson. His publicly stated positions betray a shockingly complete disconnect from basic science, history, and even personal narrative, that seems nigh-on inexplicable. His “brilliance” as a surgeon is a technical skill that bears no obvious connection to the above characterization of intelligence. Certainly it seems that his skills as a neurosurgeon are of a virtuoso, perhaps even a groundbreaking quality. There is artistry here, without question: much as one might find in a world-class master of the violin or piano.
Much like you might find in an idiot savant.
Now, I would wager money that Carson falls far short of the technical criteria of an idiot savant. What motivates my mentioning it here is its force as an analogy. Because while I’m sure Carson is far short of a genuine idiot savant, I am also sure that he is even further short of what I characterize as genuine intelligence. Just as with a savant, Carson has this one, spectacular skill, which he employs with astonishing effect. But that skill is tightly sealed in a box, shut off from the rest of the world so that whatever cognitive capacities might be employed within that box, they never see the tiniest scintilla of a light beam from the outside world, where a “broadly ranging multi-modal capacity for, and interest in, variegated forms of inquiry and experience” might otherwise express itself as real intelligence.
That box, of course – so aggressively constructed, and ruthlessly sealed shut – is the compartmentalization that is so typical of RWA people. The difference in Carson’s case (insofar as there is a difference) seems to be that the box is especially tightly closed.
(By the bye, while the analogy with an idiot savant is “original to me,” I have since discovered that I am hardly the first person to think of it.)
(One final note: I am ambivalent about this post. As a rule, I try to avoid naming specific people, especially in a context where I am going to be sharply critical of them. On the other hand, to coyly “speculate” about a “Dr. X”, given the current news and headlines, would be such a transparently obvious rhetorical stunt, that persons might legitimately conclude I was engaging in calculated mockery. That is not my intent. So, since Dr. Ben Carson has gone to such painful lengths to be a public example of the issues I discuss here, I named him explicitly.)