Dr. Ben Carson; a true or pseudoneuroscientist?

One neurosurgeon’s opinion of another.

Dr. Vivekanand Palavali, MD

“I want to return to the really important issue of the struggle against pseudoscience…….. It can only be solved if all scientists and educated lay people are uncompromising toward obscurantism and fight against it.” – Vitaly L. Ginzberg, Russian Nobel Laureate Physicist

As a neurosurgeon, who has been in practice for almost 20 years, I was astonished and disturbed to hear some of the claims from the very mouth of Dr. Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon and Republican Presidential candidate. A few years ago, while operating to separate the heads of conjoined twins in Africa he was faced with uncontrollable bleeding. Not enough donor blood was available to replace the blood loss through transfusion. Frustrated and helpless, the desperate Dr. Carson resorted to a measure that was never mentioned in any neurosurgical textbook; he prayed to God. He claims that the bleeding stopped “miraculously” and he didn’t even lose as much blood as expected. Of course, he gave credit to the glory of God. Wow, really? I could not believe what I was hearing.

Recently, when I watched the video clip on YouTube of his claim of divine surgical intervention, as a member of the neurosurgical community I felt a professional obligation to respond to his unscientific claim.

Although I have never separated the heads of conjoined twins I have indeed performed, while training to be a brain surgeon at University of Chicago and later during my years of surgical practice, many long, complicated surgeries to remove deep brain tumors, blood clots, abnormal cluster of blood vessels and clipped dangerous brain aneurysms. I have also repaired shattered skulls and brains from gunshot wounds as well as severe head trauma from many automobile accidents. There were many instances when I was faced with uncontrollable bleeding. In spite of those difficult circumstances, many who were about to die were rescued from the clutches of death and brought back to have a second chance at life, but others simply could not be saved. The ones who were saved were not a result of prayer, and the lost ones were not a consequence of not praying.

The neurosurgical principles that I learned during training and years of experience taking care of patients in private practice are the same however critical the situation and universal. I applied these principles consistently no matter how easy or difficult the case at hand was. There are simply many factors that influence the outcome of a surgery; scientific knowledge, surgical skill, experience, physical and mental fortitude and of course the severity of the pathology being managed. None of the neurosurgical textbooks, journals, scientific research papers presented, or lectures given during neurosurgical conferences in this country or around the world mention that prayer stops bleeding. Not a single one of them recommend to abandon surgical principles and resort to prayer to control bleeding. Hence, my astonishment when I heard Dr. Carson’s claims about the effect of prayer to control bleeding.

I often wonder about why Dr. Carson said what he said or even felt like he had to say it in the first place. But then the audience he was speaking to were not fellow physicians or scientists. They were faith loving, God fearing good Christians who respect and trust Dr. Carson as a reputable neurosurgeon. I am not sure if they were interested in being skeptical or even expecting him to speak as a true neuroscientist. By a true neuroscientist I mean someone who applies scientific principles, if not every aspect of his life, at least to his professional field of neurosurgery which, by the way, is based on sciences of biology and related disciplines. It is understandable if he was preaching to the choir and simply said what he thought the audience would want to hear – a personal surgical story of divine intervention. Even if that is the case, to imply that his prayer was responsible for stopping the bleeding is unscientific, unverified and profoundly irresponsible. Such a claim is an insult to science as a whole. These scientists toil through out their lives, adhering to scientific method, to come up with reproducible and verifiable scientific observations that result in medical practices and interventions. The hope of such interventions is to improve or save lives of patients around the world. This begs one question; what is the motive behind Dr. Carson’s claims of divine intervention rather than widely accepted scientific surgical principles?

To be fair, I did give him the benefit of doubt and thought that maybe he prays because that is how he summons mental strength to persevere in hard times. I even thought that he might have been sincere in his talk as an invited speaker but a doubt was cast on his sincerity when I heard about one of his paid speeches. The speech in question was given to the sales agents of the glyconutrient supplements manufacturing company, Mannatech.

It is a well known fact that Dr. Carson was associated, albeit loosely, with Mannatech for more than a decade. Mannatech, founded by Samuel L. Caster, has a checkered past. Ambrotose, one of Mannatech’s glyconutrient products, was marketed as a cure for cancers and neurodegenerative disorders in addition to improving immunity. The company was found guilty of false advertisement and marketing and paid a substantial financial settlement. Yet, Dr. Carson exalted the virtues of Ambrotose. He claims that he used to be sick often until he started taking this product. He also said he took it to cure his prostate cancer but also underwent surgery as part of treatment for that cancer. There has never been adequate research supporting the ability of glyconutrients to cure cancer, treat neurodegenerative disorders or maintain brain health.  Yet, Dr. Carson gave a paid speech, for $40,000, to the sales agents of Mannatech about the beneficial effects of Ambrotose to him personally and of brain health overall. His name was on the company’s promotional website for years, but he “was not aware of it” and did not attempt to have his likeness removed from the website. He was also part of the PBS special promoting Ambrotose. Ironically, a brain surgeon’s claim that Ambrotose enhances brain health is unproven, if not outright false. I have a feeling that Dr. Carson is aware of this fact and is still refusing to acknowledge it. I wondered what his motives might be for the unfounded claims in his personal and professional life whether it is regarding the products of  Mannatech or cessation of bleeding during surgery from divine intervention.

A few possible reasons come to my mind.

Dr. Carson may have gifted hands as far as neurosurgical technique is concerned, but he does not seem to either understand or care about profound fundamental principles of medicine and surgery. Alternatively, he understands the scientific principles of medicine but is not capable of objectively facing a difficult surgical problem and has to rely on subjective faith to proceed. His emotional predicament of fear and need for hope to perform surgery without complications, morbidity or mortality may trump adherence to rational scientific principles. He was quick to praise God instead of exhausting all natural explanations before claiming a supernatural and divine explanation, one that is not part of principles of surgery.

There is a possibility that Dr. Carson was preaching to a choir of an evangelical audience who has no interest in the scientific medical principles but wanted to hear a personal feel good story that credits his success to inexplicable and unverifiable, imaginary divine intervention. Finally, the fact that he was a paid speaker addressing a group of Christians and sales agents should be taken into consideration. He probably realized that attributing the success of his surgery to a divine intervention may encourage a repeat invitation for another paid speech to other faith-based gatherings as will pronouncing the benefits of Ambrotose in Mannatech marketing conferences, even if scientifically unfounded.

I can not be sure if Dr. Carson is a true and faithful believer of the power of God and the glyconutrients or just a savvy paid speaker who knows his audience and is more interested in personal financial gain than adherence to strict scientific principles.

One thing I am sure though; Dr. Carson will not and should not be considered a true neuroscientist, but a pseudoneuroscientist!

“It is our duty to combat pseudoscience that perpetuates ignorance and consequent misery and massacres and murder, until global ignorance is insignificant in magnitude. Once we reach that stage, humans may live a liberated, rich and fulfilling life.

We are not there yet.” – Vitaly L. Ginzberg, Russian Nobel Laureate Physicist

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