long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Peer review: Magleby on Geology and the Book of Mormon

Kirk Magleby has written a useful review of Geology of the Book of Mormon by Jerry D. Grover, Jr. The review is published at BMAF here.

Magleby concludes that Grover's book verifies the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, but a careful look shows that Grover has done exactly the opposite. Grover's analysis eliminates Mesoamerica as a possible Book of Mormon setting.

I'll repeat: Grover's book shows that Mesoamerica cannot possibly be the setting for the Book of Mormon.

Before explaining why, I will evaluate some of Magleby's statements. Here's one invoking Terryl Givens:

Terryl Givens, for example, in his foreword to Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book, says "So influential has Sorenson's work on Book of Mormon geography been that there is widespread consensus among believing scholars in support of what is now called the 'Sorenson model,' which identifies the scripture's setting with a Mesoamerican locale." Givens is correct in his assessment of Sorenson's Mesoamerican correlation. Every discipline has a mainstream and mainstream scholars who take Book of Mormon studies seriously are nearly unanimous in support of Mesoamerica as the Book of Mormon homeland. 

There are several fallacies here. First, while I enjoy Givens' works and respect his scholarship, in this excerpt, he is a little loose with his language. When he writes "believing scholars" he seems to mean "scholars who believe in Sorenson's model." In other words, he writes a tautology. And Magleby compounds this tautology by defining "mainstream" as those who support the Meosamerican theory.

Until I came across the mindset reflected by Magleby and so many others at BMAF, I thought I was a mainstream and believing scholar who takes Book of Mormon studies seriously. Actually, now that I've read the materials at BMAF, I question whether the contributors there are serious. Every article I've found so far reflects confirmation bias, not serious scholarship. I've shown this in the peer reviews I've done so far, and this piece by Magleby is just as bad, if not worse, than the others.

Here's another except:

The lack of consensus among Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists provides the fertile intellectual vacuum in which the Heartland movement thrives. 

Now think about this from a scientific and scholarly perspective. In what field of science would an actual scientist write that a lack of consensus creates a "fertile intellectual vacuum?" Besides the horrible metaphors--how can a "vacuum" be "fertile," and how can anything "thrive" in a "vacuum"--Magleby laments a lack of consensus because it allows alternative possibilities! Doesn't the lack of consensus itself suggest something is wrong? By definition, a scientist or scholar sees unanswered questions as opportunities, not as unfortunate cracks that let in a nonconforming viewpoint.

Magleby does make a surprising admission. According to him, the "Heartland movement thrives." So in my peer review, I'll eliminate his metaphor and propose this revision:

The lack of consensus among Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists is inevitable given the questions Mesoamerica cannot answer, leaving the field open to the far more persuasive Heartland movement, which thrives as a result.

Now, to the merits. Magleby writes:

Grover views himself as providing another realm of inquiry that can inform the Mesoamerican discussion and for that he deserves a great deal of credit.

This is undoubtedly true. Grover has provided a detailed explanation of how frequent earthquakes are in Mesoamerica. As Magleby notes, "Areas in white experience virtually no seismicity. In brown areas earthquakes are routine." The brown areas on the map are along the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica. There were 4,168 seismic events in Mexico in 2011 alone, centered primarily in Mesoamerica. In addition, "Guatemala has one of the densest concentrations of volcanoes (24) on the planet."

In other words, earthquakes are common in Mesoamerica. Volcanic eruptions in historic times.
"within confirmed date ranges begin to set the stage for serious comparisons with events described in the Nephite annals." Earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes cause a lot of destruction. Grover proposes that "a simultaneous earthquake along the Veracruz fault and explosive eruption of San Martin Volcano" account for the destruction in 3 Nephi.

What never seems to occur to Magleby (or Grover) is that the geology of Mesoamerica contradicts the Book of Mormon account. Even today, volcanic activity is a major concern of people living in the region, but ancient people--including in Mesoamerica--were familiar with frequent volcanic activity. Volcanoes were significant in Mayan spirituality. Beek.  In fact, the Mayans depended on volcanic ash for their agriculture. NatGeo.

And yet, the text never mentions volcanoes once. This issue has been addressed before, but it remains a major obstacle for Mesoamerica as a Book of Mormon setting.

Worse for the Mesoamerican theory, as Grover explains, earthquakes have long been a frequent occurrence in Mesoamerica. In addition to thousands of seismic events annually, the region has had numerous massive earthquakes. Yet in a thousand years of Book of Mormon history, only one major earthquake takes place (3 Nephi). The presumed quake in Alma 14:26-9 was so minor--and unusual--that the people from the intact city ran out to know the cause of the "great noise" that came from the prison. The description in the text sounds more like an explosion than an earthquake. If earthquakes were as common as Grover demonstrates they would be in Mesoamerica, why would the people be so curious about this minor one?

Magleby describes his own experience with an earthquake in Lima--a stark contrast to the response of the people in Ammonihah, as he demonstrates. It's surprising that he doesn't recognize the incongruity of his observation. His personal experience is typical of that of people who live in regions where earthquakes are common (such as Mesoamerica). The people of Ammonihah could not have lived in such a region.

The Book of Mormon describes a setting where earthquakes were rare--so much so that when even a small one occurred, people rushed to see what happened. Once in a thousand years, the area had a massive earthquake, accompanied by whirlwinds, floods, etc. The area had no volcanoes worth mentioning.

Consequently, Grover deserves a great deal of credit. He has helped eliminate Mesoamerica as a plausible setting for the Book of Mormon.


One last point. Magleby writes about the plains in the Book of Mormon:

There were multiple plains and they were clearly associated with the land northward. 

This should be obvious from the text, but other Mesoamerican advocates have oddly claimed Joseph's reference to the "plains of the Nephites" in Ohio must refer to the "hinterlands."

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