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.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Fun with Dr. John L. Lund

Before I start, let me reiterate what I say about all the individuals who engage in the discussion on this topic: I like Dr. Lund, I think he's a good guy, and I'm not criticizing him as a person or making fun of him in any way. I'm focusing solely on the written words, as I do when I review everyone else's material and edit my own writing. When I say I'm having fun, I mean it in a sense of collegiality. There is nothing I would like more than to collaborate with Brother Lund on a research project on this topic, if he's willing.

That said, the canon of Mesaomerican literature includes a wide variety of material, and for this post, I'm taking a look at Brother Lund's book, Joseph Smith and the Geography of the Book of Mormon. You can get a copy here.

Brother Lund is a staunch advocate of the Mesoamerican theory. He has taken hundreds--perhaps thousands--of people on "Book of Mormon Land" tours to Central America. I've heard from many of them. Some of them accept the Mesoamerican setting because they've never heard anything different, from Primary through BYU and beyond. Others tell me the visit to Mesoamerica left them with more questions, which in turn led them to do more research, which inevitably brings them to the North American setting.

As expected, the book is an attempt to justify Brother Lund's position on geography.

The web page summarizes the book this way: "Drawing upon his expertise in author identification, Dr. Lund researched editorials ascribed to Joseph Smith in an early LDS Church newspaper called the Times and Seasons. A Comprehensive Author Identification Study revealed that Joseph Smith did indeed author the editorials which identified Guatemala as the Book of Mormon land of Zarahemla and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the “small or narrow” neck of land spoken of in the Book of Mormon."

In the arena of historical analysis, there are few tools more delightful than stylometry (aka, wordprint analysis or "Author Identification Studies"). When used objectively to figure out who wrote an unattributed piece, it can be effective and useful. However, when used to prove or disprove a particular theory, the technique is pretty much worthless because of the many variables that can be tweaked to get a desired result.

The best way to use stylometry is to publish your results without sharing your database, your manipulation of the data, your assumptions, or even your software. That way no one can replicate your results--or challenge them. Of course, you might have a problem with people believing such results, but those who already agree with your predetermined outcome will be delighted by this confirmation of their bias. In fact, if you follow this procedure, you can undoubtedly get your results published in the Interpreter, so long as your results confirm the biases of those editors.

For some time, people have been using stylometry to prove or disprove that Joseph Smith and/or his associates wrote the Book of Mormon. You can pick any result that suits your preferred bias. For a good summary of the problems, look on wikipedia here.

Brother Lund's book is a collection of Mesoamerican greatest hits. The second heading in the Introduction is classic: "Regarding Central America and Guatemala as the Place for the Volcanic Events Recorded in the Book of Mormon." It's fun to add Guatemala to Central America, but I'm left wondering what definition of Central America excludes Guatemala? Brother Lund is also using the "volcano translation." You know, the one in which volcanic events are recorded in the text! If anyone can get a copy of that translation, please send me one too. (Sometimes I wonder if the Spanish translation of the text uses the term volcán.)

There's an excellent, if puzzlingly ironic, passage on p. 6: "Separating one's bias from the research is difficult. There is a tendency for researchers to sometimes ignore, minimize, or set aside information that is counter to their bias. Ignoring facts that disagree with one's opinion may be a great debate technique, but it is poor scholarship and an enemy to the truth."

As predicted by that passage, you can read Brother Lund's entire book and find not one mention of Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII, Joseph's letter to Emma referring to the plains of the Nephites, etc.

How does he justify ignoring facts that disagree with his self-admitted bias that Mesoamerica is the primary land of the Book of Mormon? He explains this way, immediately after pointing out the problem of bias.

This is an actual quotation from page 6: "This bias [for Mesoamerica] results from two "Supreme Sources." One "Supreme Source" is the actual and verifiable words of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The other "Supreme Source" is the Book of Mormon itself."

It's brilliant. The best part of Brother Lund's approach is, anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons are the "actual and verifiable words of the Prophet Joseph Smith." IOW, whoever wrote those anonymous articles didn't want his/her name attached, but now Brother Lund insists those are the only words that Joseph Smith intended for us to rely on. And because these are the "actual and verifiable words of the Prophet," you can ignore things he merely wrote to his wife, or had copied into his journal, or explicitly endorsed--because they contradict Brother Lund's bias.

Because Brother Lund's bias is the good bias.

And other biases, along with open minds, are ungood.*

The entire book is an effort to paste Joseph's name onto these anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. Nowhere does Brother Lund observe that if Joseph Smith wanted his name attached to these articles, the way he attached his name to such items as the Wentworth letter and the letters that were canonized as D&C 127 and 128, he could have done so. It's a very strange--one might say Orwellian--exercise to attach the Prophet's name and influence to articles he specifically did not want attached to his name and influence (and that's assuming he had any actual involvement with the Times and Seasons in the first place, an assumption which is not supported by historical evidence either).

Brother Lund's rationale relies primarily on the boilerplate at the end of each issue of the Times and Seasons from Feb 15-Oct 15 1842. The boilerplate was altered beginning with the July 1 issue, but the main idea didn't change.

The Times and Seasons is edited, printed and published about the first and fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by Joseph Smith

Brother Lund refers to this boilerplate as "Joseph's signature" and a "signature block." Of course, the whole point of boilerplate is that it avoids having to reset the type for material that is the same in every issue. It's used for headings and recurring advertisements. Brother Lund thinks it means Joseph personally edited and approved everything in every issue that featured this boilerplate, an assertion Joseph himself rejected in the March 1 issue.

Worse, Brother Lund's position leads to absurd results. The boilerplate claims not only that Joseph edited and published each issue, but that he printed it. Does anyone believe Joseph spent his time at the Print shop, setting type, spreading ink, and manipulating the printing press hundreds of times a day to strike off each issue of the Times and Seasons? Brother Lund doesn't address this, but I suspect his bias, as strong as it is, would not lead him to insist Joseph actually printed each issue. But if he didn't print each issue, why should we conclude from the same boilerplate that he edited each issue?

At one point, Brother Lund claims "Joseph Smith instantly recognized the architecture, the Maya temples, the stone monuments, and the ruins of Catherwood's detailed drawings, because Joseph had seen them in vision... Joseph identified the ruins of Palenque and the ruins of Quirigua and other Mesoamerican ruins as cities formerly occupied by the people of the Book of Mormon." (p. 77). Stephens himself recognized that these ruins were more recent than Book of Mormon times, a fact modern archaeology has confirmed. Brother Lund is basically arguing that Joseph Smith saw in vision something that wasn't true. Does he really want to pursue that line of argument to its logical conclusion?

I won't belabor these points. You can read the book yourself to see how often these arguments are repeated. I think you've gotten the sense of what's going on here. The entire book is explained by the passage about bias from page 6 I quoted above.

That said, Brother Lund makes some good points about author identifiers, using eleven discriminators. The first is "Words Exclusive to One Author." I think this discriminator makes sense. However, Brother Lund makes two big mistakes. First, he only assessed three people: Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, and John Taylor. There were a dozen or more people working in the printing shop; William Smith was editing the Wasp, which was edited, published and printed in the same shop on the same press; and there is no evidence that Joseph wrote anything for the Times and Seasons that he didn't also specifically sign. Joseph isn't even a viable candidate to consider, while there are many viable candidates that Lund ignores.

The second mistake is that Brother Lund does not share his database. He claims he has "over 300,000 words from each candidate," taken from the 2005 LDS Collector's Library. The news that we have "over 300,000 words" written by Joseph Smith is significant. Sadly, Brother Lund doesn't reveal where these words were published. Presumably they are compiled from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith or an equivalent source, which means Brother Lund is using circular reasoning. TPJS includes several of the anonymous Times and Seasons editorials.

I like this book because it gathers the Mesoamerican arguments into one place where they can be fully enjoyed. The only drawback to the book is that readers uneducated in Church history, basic logic, and the text of the Book of Mormon itself, may simply read the conclusions and think that, because the book is over 200 pages long, the conclusions flow from the facts and rational argument.

Of course, that's far from the case.

* Bad. One of the rules of newspeak is that any word can be turned into its antonym by adding the prefix "un-". This allowed the removal of repetitive words such as horrible, terrible, great, fantastic, and fabulous from the language. Definition from this useful dictionary of terms.

This reference to Newspeak is from George Orwell's 1984. In my college classes over the years, I've found that the rising generation has never read 1984. It stopped being taught in the high schools about 10 years ago, apparently. Consequently, the students are unable to detect Newspeak when they see it.

Which itself is an Orwellian outcome.

Anyone who hasn't read 1984 needs to stop whatever you're doing and read it now. 


  1. I found it interesting that one of the books that Dr. John Lund has written is entitled, Without Offense: The Art of Giving and Receiving Criticism. I wonder how well Dr. Lund receives criticism of his pet stylometry analysis and other methodologies he uses to promote Mesoamerica theory?

  2. He's been very nice, actually. He's a great guy, which is why I wanted to emphasis this at the beginning of the post. Most of the Mesoamerican proponents are nice people. They just can't take off their Mesoamerican lenses. It's a common human characteristic, which is why we have cultures that are difficult to break out of. Orwell's 1984 is a brilliant examination of this problem.

    In this case, LDS people have been indoctrinated in Mesoamerican ideology from Primary through college and beyond. Sometime in May I'm going to post on an observation about my experience in Russia vs the Soviet Union as an analogy.

  3. I find myself wondering if an author like this, with so much vested in the Mesoamerican stuff, if they would really stop.
    How would they recover? What would they say? For many of them, it's their job to spread Book of Mormon in Guatemala. I know a lot of PhD's and have worked with them. It's not easy for them to admit when they are wrong, or that there's a better way than their way.

    It would take courage to admit it, to give it up.

  4. I have a lot of confidence in many of these scholars, including Dr. Lund. I think they value seeking the truth over preserving their Mesoamerican legacies, not that it's easy. I also don't see it as admitting they were wrong; it's just a question of how one responds to new data.

    Most of the Mesoamerican proponents sincerely believed they were vindicating what they thought Joseph Smith said about Central America in the anonymous Times and Seasons articles. In that sense, they did good work and I respect them for their efforts. Now we'll see whether they will accept new information.

    Certainly, some of them are dogmatic Mesoamerican seers who will refuse to take off the glasses even for an instant. As I've written before, they're like the Japanese soldiers on the remote islands who didn't believe the war was over. It's all part of the fun of discovery and adaptation.