NEWS: A partisan political report claimed Dr. Ben Carson said that he has “no idea how gravity works” while asserting that climate change is a “hoax.” But he actually said neither of those things.
On 30 September 2015, Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson (a retired neurosurgeon) made a campaign appearance at a town hall in New Hampshire, where he spoke and fielded questions from the audience.
One of the audience members inquired as to whether it was true that Dr. Carson did not believe in climate change, and his response prompted the publication of a misleadingly headlined (but widely circulated) article on the Occupy Democrats web site titled “Ben Carson: I Have No Idea How Gravity Works, But Climate Change Is a Hoax.”
In fact, although Dr. Carson said some things during that town hall appearance that might give more scientifically-minded voters considerable pause, but he neither termed climate change a “hoax” nor proclaimed that he has “no idea how gravity works.”
As to the first issue, climate change, here is exactly what Dr. Carson was asked and how he responded:
Q: You don’t believe in evolution or climate change, I believe? And I was just wondering do you seriously not believe that climate change is happening?
A: Well, first of all, you have to hear what I actually believe, because the media distorts it enormously for their own purposes. Is there climate change? Of course there’s climate change. At any point in time, temperatures are going up or temperatures are going down. Of course that’s happening. When that stops happening, that’s when we’re in big trouble.
What is important is that we recognize that we have an obligation to take care of our environment. I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative — if you have any shred of decency in you, you want to take care of the environment because you know you have to pass it on to the next generation. There is no reason to make it into a political issue.
This was essentially the same thing Dr. Carson has said in other campaign appearances, such as at a May 2015 Bull Moose Club meeting in Des Moines:
Am I a climate change advocate? I’ll tell you what I think about climate change. The temperature’s either going up or down at any point in time, so it really is not a big deal. What is a big deal is that the environment is under our control. We do have a responsibility to pass it on to those behind us in at least as good a condition as we found it, hopefully an improved condition.
One might criticize Dr. Carson for apparently confusing short-term weather variability with long-term climate change, and his response implicitly indicated that he disclaims the notion that climate change is anthropogenic (i.e., caused by the actions of man) while at the same time stating that humans have control and responsibility for the environment. But he neither stated nor implied in the answer he gave at the New Hampshire town hall meeting that climate change was a “hoax.” (Using the word “hoax” would mean he was asserting that proponents of anthropogenic climate change theories were not just wrong, but that they were disseminating information they knew to be false in a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.)
Then Dr. Carson explicated what he believed about the subject of evolution:
As far as evolution is concerned, you know, I do believe in micro-evolution or natural selection, but I believe that God gave the creatures he made the ability to adapt to their environment because he’s very smart, and he didn’t want to start over every 50 years.
Dr. Carson did not here “deny” the scientific concept of evolution (as the title of the YouTube video embedded above states); in fact, he explicitly said that he believed in evolution. What he expressed was a form of theistic evolution, saying that he believed evolution was God-created or God-directed (i.e., that God had created animals with the ability to adapt to their environments).
The brief mention of gravity followed from his discussion of evolution:
So I say people who want to believe other than that, they’re welcome to do that. I know there are some people who say, “You know, it all just happened.” Well, where did it all come from in the first place? “I don’t know, but it’s there somewhere.” So I give them that it’s there. They say there was a big explosion and it all become perfectly organized to the point that we can predict 70 years hence when a comet is coming. Um, that requires more faith than I have. You know, that’s a complex set of things, just the way the earth rotates on its axis, how far away it is from the sun. These are all very complex things. Uh, gravity. Where did it come from? I mean, there are so many things.
So I don’t denigrate the people who say “Eh, eh, whatever, somehow it happened.” I don’t denigrate them, I just don’t have that much faith. But they are welcome to believe whatever they want to believe. I’m welcome to believe what I want to believe. They say I can’t be a scientist and yet somehow I became a neurosurgeon and did pretty well.”
Now, there is much in that statement that some voters might find worrisome, particularly its apparent suggestion that since our universe is very complex, we can’t possibly understand everything about how it came to be, and therefore any belief in that regard (whether it be the Big Bang theory or something else, and whether it be supported by scientific evidence or not) is just as valid as any other. But nowhere in that exchange was Dr. Carson asked to explain “how gravity works,” nor did he attempt to explain “how gravity works” or proclaim that he didn’t know “how gravity works,” nor did he (as Occupy Democrats asserted) “question gravity itself.” What Dr. Carson said was (to illustrate his point that the universe is too complex for us to fully understand its origins) that we don’t know where gravity comes from — that is, we might know gravity exists and what it does, but we can’t explain just what it is and why it is.
To those who might scoff and proclaim we’re just splitting hairs here, we’d point out that it took only a few seconds of online searching to find a science-based article about gravity that said the virtually the same thing that Dr. Carson did:
The average person probably doesn’t think about it on a daily basis, but yet gravity affects our every move. Because of gravity, we fall down (not up), objects crash to the floor, and we don’t go flying off into space when we jump in the air. The old adage, “everything that goes up must come down” makes perfect sense to everyone because from the day we are born, we are seemingly bound to Earth’s surface due to this all-pervasive invisible force.
But physicists think about gravity all the time. To them, gravity is one of the mysteries to be solved in order to get a complete understanding of how the Universe works.
So, what is gravity and where does it come from?
To be honest, we’re not entirely sure.
The point may be well taken that candidates who expound on scientific topics such as climate change and evolution should be able to demonstrate a thorough grounding in those subjects if they expect to be taken seriously. Our point here, however, is not to debate Dr. Carson’s bona fides or the rightness or wrongness of his positions, but to emphasize that criticism of what a candidate has to say should present the reading audience with what he actually said, not with misleading interpretations, distortions, or exaggerations of his words.