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.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Getting real about Cumorah - Part 5c, where bias originates

Yesterday I pointed out that anyone who actually thinks he/she has taken a position on the location of Cumorah based on "the evidence" or on "the text" is living in a delusion.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that information and logic cannot overcome our biases in most cases. Studies have shown that when new information is presented to people who have opposite opinions about a topic, it does not bring the people closer to consensus; instead, it deepens the disagreement because each individual's confirmation bias filter interprets the information to reinforce his/her original bias. I gave an example of this the other day, here.

If we want to understand the Cumorah controversy, we need to understand how our biases originate in the first place.

Regarding the location of Cumorah, everyone has the same faith and testimony, the same access to facts, evidence, the text, and the teachings of the prophets*. We reach different conclusions because our confirmation bias filter determines what evidence and interpretation we accept.

This means that your view on the location of Cumorah depends on which bias you are confirming, and your bias depends entirely on which expert you choose to follow: (i) the prophets or (ii) the intellectuals.

The reason we must choose an expert: there is "evidence" to support every viewpoint, as well as corresponding interpretations of the "text" that we think ratify our choice of expert.

Everyone thinks his/her interpretation is "the best one" or even "the correct one" based on the "evidence." Whenever you see someone make such a claim, you are seeing confirmation bias at work.

Many people don't recognize that confirmation bias has chosen which evidence and interpretation their minds have accepted and why that has happened.

BYU fantasy map
A prime example is the fantasy map currently being taught at BYU/CES, which BYU explains in these terms: "our design team has chosen to develop an internal map that shows relational directions and approximate distances that match the approximately 550 geography descriptions in the text as closely as possible." This statement is one of the best examples of confirmation bias I know of, and betrays a pathologically deep lack of self-awareness.

As the BYU statement demonstrates, confirmation bias blinds people to the reality that people with opposing views all think the their own views are the "best" (or "closest to the text"). No one chooses a belief they know is "wrong" (or "worse" than an alternative), although it may seem that way from the perspective of those who have chosen a different belief.

You might think you are an exception. You have made your decision based on your own study of the facts, your own research, your own interpretation of the text, or even your own prayer and spiritual impressions. Good for you. But if you really think this way, you are merely choosing expert (ii), with yourself as the intellectual.

In my experience, those who accept the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah openly admit their bias. Their confirmation bias rejects evidence and interpretations that contradict the prophets. I have declared that this is my bias, and I have explained how my bias shifted (tomorrow's topic).

The bias that accepts the prophets leaves plenty of room for study, analysis, debate and prayer, which is why there are many proposed geographies that all put Cumorah in New York. Way back in 1890, President George Q. Cannon observed in the Juvenile Instructor that the First Presidency has never published or approved of a map of Book of Mormon geography because there are so many uncertainties.

From 1880 to his death in 1901, President Cannon served as First Counselor to Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, so he was well qualified to express the views of the First Presidency. He served with Joseph F. Smith, who was Second Counselor from 1880 until he became President of the Church in 1901. Joseph F. Smith was editor of the Improvement Era during this time.

In 1899, nine years after President Cannon published his comment about Book of Mormon geography, President Joseph F. Smith published Letter VII in the Improvement Era. This demonstrates that, from the perspective of the First Presidency, teaching that Cumorah is in New York is consistent with neutrality on the rest of Book of Mormon geography. That position has also been explained by other prophets.

Those who accept the prophets recognize that the Lord has not definitively revealed any geography beyond the New York Cumorah. But that reality is not a justification for rejecting the consistent and persistent teaching that Cumorah is in New York.

What about the bias of those who reject the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah? (Here I focus on the M2C intellectuals  and their followers (M2C = Mesoamerican/Two-Cumorahs theory) because they have the most publications and the most influence on Church members, especially the youth.)

Their situation is more complex.

It seems incredible to many Mormons that confirmation bias can be so powerful psychologically that it causes otherwise faithful, dedicated LDS people to persuade themselves to disbelieve the prophets about the New York Cumorah. But we have to realize that the M2C intellectuals and their followers don't see it that way.

For a long time, the M2C proponents tried to claim that the prophets have been confused about this topic and have therefore taught contradictory ideas about Cumorah. They characterize Letter VII as the product of ignorant speculation on the part of Joseph and Oliver which established a false tradition that misled the Church until around 1980, when the intellectuals discovered Cumorah could not be in New York. (More on that below). They also cite examples such as President Cannon's statement above.

But at no time has any prophet ever taught that Cumorah is anywhere other than in New York. The prophets have taught that Cumorah is in New York consistently and repeatedly from at least 1835 through 1990, without exception.

Faced with these facts, the M2C intellectuals and their followers have adopted an alternative rationale. Because they are faithful members of the Church, they accept the teachings of the prophets on everything--except in this one case, they claim the prophets were merely expressing their private opinions that happened to be wrong. Consequently, they believe that deference to the prophets about the New York Cumorah is unnecessary.

This "mere opinion" justification allows them to avoid the cognitive dissonance they would otherwise experience; i.e., they consider their position perfectly consistent with their faith in the prophets on other topics.

However, at some level, the M2C intellectuals and their followers realize that their justification is problematic. They know their "mere opinion" justification is the same argument made by other members who disbelieve the prophets on other topics. Some Mormons think modern science shows a little wine or coffee is good for the body, so there's no need to follow the prophets' "opinion" regarding the Word of Wisdom. Some disregard the prophets' "opinions" on issues such as sexual morality because modern psychology teaches that pre-marital sex is healthy. And so on.

This is why I have labeled the M2C theory a "gateway drug" for disregarding the prophets on other issues--especially when it is actively taught at BYU/CES and by the Church History Department.

Recognizing this disastrous result, the M2C proponents have developed a slight variation. This is the idea that past prophets were not really expressing their opinions, but they spoke from (and bore testimony of) their "best understanding" of the facts at the time. Now, according to this theory, we have more knowledge, so we can see that their teachings, however honorable and sincere, were mistaken.

You undoubtedly realize this is really no different from the "opinion" justification--anyone can cite "facts" that were "unknown" to prior prophets and thereby ignore what the prophets have taught--but this framing is gaining currency, especially at the Church History Department.

Because the bias of those who choose expert (i) (i.e., the prophets) is so clear and straightforward, I don't see a need to examine it further.

But because the bias of those who choose expert (ii) (i.e., the intellectuals) is so complex, I'll spend the rest of this post examining this question:

What created the anti-New York Cumorah bias that has caused so many LDS intellectuals at BYU/CES and staff at Church headquarters to reject what the prophets have so consistently and explicitly taught about this topic?

I don't have to explain why rejecting the prophets is problematic, even with the rationalization that they were merely expressing their opinions or were speaking from their "best understanding at the time." By definition, believing members believe what the prophets teach.

For otherwise faithful members to reject the prophets must require some overwhelming, indisputable evidence that the prophets were wrong.** Their error can then be attributed to personal opinions, to the best of their knowledge at the time, or, ideally, to superseding revelation.

So far, no prophet has announced a superseding revelation.

The "personal opinion" exception swallows the rule that we should follow the prophets; i.e., there is no principled basis (other than one's own confirmation bias) for choosing which of the prophets' consistent teachings are "true" vs "opinion."

That leaves us with the "best understanding at the time" exception.

The origin of M2C is a series of anonymous articles in the September and October 1842 Times and Seasons. These articles don't discuss Cumorah, but they make the claim that the Nephites lived in Central America and that Zarahemla itself was in Guatemala.

I've written three detailed books on this topic and written plenty of blog posts that engage the M2C intellectuals about it. My interest was sparked by an article about what I consider to be a phony stylometry analysis that purported to prove Joseph Smith wrote or edited these anonymous articles. If you're interested in the details, you can read the books or the blogs, such as here:

The bottom line: I don't think Joseph Smith had anything to do with these articles, either as author or editor. Instead, in my opinion (confirming my bias) they were written by Benjamin Winchester and edited and published by William Smith, probably with the assistance of W.W. Phelps. IOW, the foundation of the M2C theory is a mistaken attribution of anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons.

If you don't know who Benjamin Winchester was, you can read my books (starting with The Lost City of Zarahemla). I can summarize the whole scenario by noting that Joseph Smith said Winchester was rotten at heart and would injure the Church as much as he could.

Think: what could injure the Church more than having BYU/CES teach the youth of the Church that the best explanation for the Book of Mormon is it took place in a fantasy world? And yet, that is exactly what is happening because of these anonymous articles.

Since I published the books and blogs, some of the M2C intellectuals have claimed their theory has nothing to do with those anonymous articles. Naturally, their confirmation bias would lead them to make that claim because even they recognize the evidence leads to Winchester/William Smith and away from Joseph Smith. But the historical record refutes their revisionism.

Although the anonymous articles said nothing about Cumorah, they do place the Nephites in Central America (Mesoamerica). Because they assumed Joseph Smith wrote, edited, or approved of these articles, the M2C intellectuals began to vindicate what they thought Joseph had taught.

They sought and found "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and the text. Then they began interpreting the text to make a better fit with the "correspondences." Plus, they cited the expressly speculative statements of the Pratt brothers and other early Church leaders, all of whom also expressly taught the New York Cumorah as a fact.

The M2C intellectuals eventually concluded that New York is too far from Mesoamerica to fit their interpretation of the text. But with all their intellectual investment in finding Mesoamerican correspondences, they confirmed their bias by rejecting the New York Cumorah.

Thus began the rationalizations for rejecting the prophets.

This is how faithful LDS acquire a bias to choose (ii) (the intellectuals) over (i) (the prophets).

I realize that explanation is unsatisfactory to believing members of the Church who accept the prophets. They still can't understand how the M2C intellectuals rationalize their rejection of the prophets.

Here's a key element I didn't mention yet.

The M2C intellectuals not only thought Joseph Smith wrote the anonymous editorials, but they interpret those same editorials as Joseph's deference to scholars to solve the problem of Book of Mormon geography and historicity.

IOW, they persuaded themselves that Joseph himself had decided that only intellectuals can discover the truth, so they rationalized that Joseph himself rejected the New York Cumorah (or would have, had he thought about it as much as they have).

To anyone who does not share the M2C bias, this reasoning appears circular and self-serving. What can be more self-serving than taking the position that the prophets themselves rely on the intellectuals to discover the truth?

And yet, that is exactly what the M2C intellectuals and their followers believe. I've actually had some of them tell me I should believe them instead of the prophets because whenever the Brethren have a question, they call the intellectuals for the answers.

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that is the case. 

But certainly, as I've shown, the staff at Church headquarters are following the lead of the BYU/CES intellectuals because they embrace M2C and reject the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. 

Fortunately, a course correction is always possible. Maybe some day, instead of showing these abstract maps with Cumorah in a fantasy land, they'll show Cumorah in New York.

Tomorrow we'll consider whether it is possible to change one's bias and how it can be done.

I'll supplement this post with details about the foundation of M2C. I'd put it here but this post is already too long.



*In this post, I use the term "prophet" to include LDS Apostles, who are sustained as prophets, seers and revelators.

**The New York Cumorah is not a one-time "fallibility" argument  like the "Adam-God" theory, the priesthood ban, or even polygamy. We have 170 years of explicit, continuous, repeated teaching that Cumorah is in New York. These are not isolated statements by one or two prophets in the distant past. The New York Cumorah originated with President Cowdery of the First Presidency with Joseph Smith's assistance and approval. It was unambiguously spelled out and declared as a fact. It was repeatedly republished in official Church publications and consistently taught for 170 years by many prophets including in General Conference.

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