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, January 18, 2017

Science and history

I'm working on a project that involves science, but I see a lot of parallels with theories that circulate about Book of Mormon geography and Church history. In science and in history, theories are always subject to change with new information. Scientists and historians create models that help explain events and predict future events and discoveries.

For example, Newton's theories explained the observable world pretty well, but left some things unexplained. Einstein's theories explained things better, but still left some gaps. New theories will offer even better explanations.

In Church history, I've encountered several theories that didn't explain the evidence. One that I've written about was the theory that Joseph Smith wrote (or edited) anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons. I proposed a different theory in my first Church-related book, The Lost City of Zarahemla; i.e., Benjamin Winchester was writing articles and sending them to Nauvoo for publication. My theory predicted I'd find additional corroborating evidence, and I did. First, critics pointed out some facts I hadn't considered, which bolstered the theory and led me to write a second edition. Then more evidence came forward, so I wrote a second book about it (Brought to Light). Later, completely unknown to me, the Church history department released a letter from Winchester to the First Presidency, dated exactly when my theory predicted such correspondence would be going on. It's included in a third book almost ready for publication. So for me, the Winchester explanation is more useful than the long-held theory that Joseph Smith wrote (or edited) the anonymous articles. (That long-held theory is so pervasive that when you read the manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, you're reading extracts from articles Joseph never wrote and probably never even saw until after they were published. I listed these in Brought to Light.)

I have another theory of Church history that is even more useful. I've been speaking about it and will discuss it more next week here.

On the issue of Book of Mormon geography, there are also competing theories. I divide them into two main groups: New York Cumorah and non-New York Cumorah (the two-Cumorahs group).

Which theory offers the best explanations and the best predictions? And could an expert change your opinion?

Scott Adams has a great blog post today about a similar problem with the climate change debate. He poses this thought experiment:

"Let’s say you are new to the debate about climate change and I put you in a room with the most well-informed climate scientist in the world. The scientist spends as much time with you as you want, answering every question and making her case that climate change is a human-caused disaster in the making. Let’s say this scientists is also the best communicator in the world, unlike most scientists. So now you have the best information, from the most knowledgeable person in the world on this topic, communicated in the best possible way, and answering all of your questions. Would you be persuaded by all of that credibility and good communication?"

Many people would say yes (assuming they were really new to the debate and unbiased; otherwise, most of us would be confirming our biases regardless of what the expert said).

An application of this is the typical student in a CES context, whether in Seminary, Institute, or a BYU campus. Students in these settings think their teachers are telling them the complete truth, in a credible and clear way.

Adams explains it this way:

"The unbiased mind is likely to be totally convinced in this thought experiment. And that mind would also think it had engaged in rational behavior. After all, what could be more rational than getting the best information on a topic, from the best expert in the world, communicated in the clearest possible way?
"But your new certainty about climate change would be a fraud that you perpetrated on yourself. If you don’t yet see in my thought experiment why the best information from the best source is still unreliable, even when clearly communicated, you probably don’t understand enough about the world to participate in decision-making."

Do you see the problem here?

Based on my experience, most students in a CES context do not see the problem. Most members of the Church do not see the problem. They don't even think there could be a problem.

But there is.

"The thing that is missing is that you can’t know what the expert didn’t tell you. 
If you are not an expert in the field yourself, how could you possibly know what has been left out?
"You also don’t know if the scientist is suffering from cognitive dissonance. It would look exactly the same to you. And cognitive dissonance is common to all humans, including scientists."
How does a student know whether his/her instructor is not relating relevant information? It's impossible for that student to know about undisclosed information if he/she is relying solely on his/her instructor.

This is one reason why experts place such emphasis on credentials. They want people to think that one must have credentials to be credible; one must be trained in the ministry, so to speak. Only experts know what information is relevant; if they don't tell you about it, then it's not relevant, or credible, or reliable.

Basically, the experts think you're better off not knowing about information they don't want to tell you.

Of course, this leads to groupthink, a well-known and pervasive problem.

I'm a good example of this. I went to seminary. I went to BYU. Because I was interested in Book of Mormon geography/historicity, I read a lot of books and continued my education beyond law school by attending conferences, forums, and seminars, as well as by traveling extensively. For decades, I went along with the two-Cumorahs theory because I didn't realize that all these LDS scholars knew things they never told me (which I'll explain in a moment).

Adams makes this important point:

"If you are frustrated with the people who are on the other side of the debate, no matter which side that is, I think you should give them some slack. There is no way for this sort of information to be credibly conveyed to human beings. And the problem is not always on the receiving end." 

In the context of Book of Mormon geography and historicity, I take this to mean that there are inherent problems of communication, as well as assumptions and priorities, that make it very difficult for people to reach complete agreement. [Note: difficult, but not impossible.]

I think this difficulty in reaching a scholarly consensus is a feature, not a bug. It's a good thing.

Every LDS person has an obligation to think these things out, individually. It made a big difference for me when I did that.

I'm in favor of every theory of Book of Mormon geography that is meaningful to the people who believe it. Maybe someday the scholarly community will adopt that approach as well. (I thought they had, but apparently I was wrong.)

You can apply the adage, "trust but verify." But how can you trust someone who doesn't tell you the entire story?

That's where Letter VII comes in.

When Joseph Smith was alive, every member of the Church was familiar with Letter VII. It wasn't until the 1930s or so that LDS scholars began suppressing it. Fortunately, thousands of members of the Church read Letter VII last year, and this year, 2017, tens of thousands will. After long being suppressed by the LDS scholarly community, it is finally "out there" where people can access it and consider it.

There are people--experts--who are trying to persuade members of the Church to disbelieve Letter VII. I've discussed that on LetterVII.com and will continue to do so as the need arises.

Actually, I'm glad they're at least addressing the issue instead of not even telling students about it. The entire discussion about Book of Mormon geography and Church history will be enhanced as more and more people read and ponder Letter VII (and the many other things that go along with it).

Deferring to experts on this topic is a mistake anyway. There really are no living experts in Book of Mormon geography. There are people from many disciplines and backgrounds who claim expertise of one kind or another, but in my view, experts who reject what Joseph and Oliver said about the Hill Cumorah are missing the entire point.

The comments to Adams' blog include this:

"On a first level, I could be possibly convinced by both sides, as you wrote. What makes me favor the skeptic side is mainly a couple of facts:
1) the mainstream faction (let's call it so) refuses a public discussion, and it always did so: if it had such a stringent evidence for their theory, it shouldn't refuse the debate. Unfortunately, besides refusing any publicly exposed criticism, their proponents actually shunned in the most brutal way even respected members of the scientific community..."

The application to Book of Mormon geography should be obvious. So long as the "mainstream" LDS scholarly community refuses a public discussion, you can rest assured that their position is, let's say, questionable. I think most members of the Church, when presented with the two theories on an equal and fair basis, will choose the New York Cumorah over the non-New York Cumorah as a starting point.

But as the comment indicated, the mainstream faction doesn't want a public discussion. They don't want people to see both sides. So far as I know, my little comparison chart is still the only attempt to present both sides in an open, fair manner. Check it out here: http://bookofmormonconsensus.blogspot.com/2016/08/agree-and-agree-to-disagree-lists.html.

Until you see New York Cumorah geography theories covered fairly by [since I can't say citation cartel, I'll list them: The Interpreter, BYU Studies, Book of Mormon Central, BMAF, FairMormon, Meridian Magazine, etc.], you will have to take your own initiative to learn what these experts are not telling you.

No comments:

Post a Comment