Saturday, September 16, 2017
When to trust experts
Even on this trip across the North Atlantic, I’ve had a few occasions to discuss Church history and Book of Mormon geography.
I actually thought that by now, the Mesoamerican theory would have been relegated to a footnote in Church history, but it’s still going strong. It’s an unfortunate legacy that will endure until its main promoters set the example and renounce it.
The Mesoamerican theory is like the parable of the feathers. Once the wind blows them away, it’s nearly impossible to collect them again. A case in point is “Brother Scott,” who has lately spent a lot of money in Utah promoting his own version of the “two-Cumorahs” theory. He is not only uninformed and misinformed, but he is intransigent. He refuses to even discuss the facts. As I wrote earlier, he might as well teach the youth how to resign from the Church if he’s going to keep teaching them the things he says in his seminars.
I think it’s time for our LDS scholars who have promoted Mesoamerica for so long to take responsibility for what they’ve taught and start telling people the whole truth.
When we compare the New York Cumorah to the Mexican Cumorah, it’s not even a close call.
On one side, we have declarative, specific statements by two men who actually visited the depository in the Hill Cumorah in New York. Two men who translated the Book of Mormon, handled the plates, and received revelations. Two men who, together, actually interacted with heavenly beings, including the Savior Himself, on multiple occasions.
On the other side, we have modern LDS scholars who cast doubt on the credibility of Joseph and Oliver (and David Whitmer, Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc.) solely to defend their own Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory.
When framed this way, are there even 1% of Church members who would side with the scholars?
I know from personal experience that it’s not easy to change one’s mind. I believed the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory for decades. But one thing’s for sure. It’s a lot better to have been wrong and admit it than continue to be wrong when you know better.
So why do our LDS scholars and experts continue to promote the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory? And how should people decide whether to believe them?
Scott Adams wrote a post titled “When to Trust the Experts” that I’d like to use as a template to discuss the Book of Mormon.
The first question is, what experts are there?
Among living people, there are about a dozen experts who promote the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. I won’t name them, but you can discover who they are by looking at BYU Studies, the Interpreter, FairMormon, BMAF/Book of Mormon Central, and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. These experts have disproportionate impact because they mostly teach, or have taught, at BYU and/or CES, they are part of the citation cartel that controls LDS scholarly publications, and they dominate other LDS media such as Meridian Magazine and the Deseret News.
Every BYU student has to take two courses on the Book of Mormon, and for the last 40+ years, they have been taught the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory. As a result, it has become the quasi-official position of the Church. This is why you see the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory on display in Church media, Visitors centers, and even within the pages of the missionary and foreign language editions of the Book of Mormon itself in the choice of illustrations. The people who prepare and approve all of this material were educated by Mesoamerican promoters.
Latter-day Saints have deferred to these experts because we trusted them to tell us the truth. And for many years, their position made sense. They all assumed Joseph Smith wrote the Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons, for example. They assumed Cumorah couldn’t be in New York because there’s no archaeological evidence of millions of people living and dying in that area, an assumption they made despite what Joseph and Oliver taught. They assumed the Book of Mormon describes volcanoes, even though the text doesn’t use the term. All of these assumptions and more were designed to support their Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory, but we’ve seen on this blog that none of these assumptions were accurate.
Meanwhile, these experts ignored the statements of the modern prophets and apostles about Cumorah being in New York. Actually, it’s worse. They rejectedthese statements, deeming them private opinions that were wrong, even when stated in General Conference by members of the First Presidency.
For this reason, in my view, they have violated our trust.
These experts have known all along about Letter VII, for example, but they never told their students about it. They’ve known about Mormon’s depository in the New York Cumorah, but they never told their students about it. In fact, when someone discovers what Brigham Young taught about the depository just two months before he died—something he said he didn’t want the Church to forget—these experts dismiss his teaching as an account of a “vision” Oliver had of a hill in Mexico. They don’t tell us that Brigham Young explained Joseph and Oliver visited the depository multiple times, and that he related the account because he was from New York and knew the area well.
We trusted these experts—but we shouldn’t have.
Especially now, when they know better but continue insisting on their Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory.
Now, let’s look at what Scott Adams says about trusting experts.
So how do we know when to trust experts and when to be skeptical? Here are the red flags you should look for in order to know how much credibility to assign to the experts.
When the players have money on the line, the truth gets distorted. In climate science, money influences both sides of the debate. That’s a red flag.
Money distorts truth when there is a financial or similar incentive to distort truth, but when there is an incentive to promote and establish truth, money can be an important tool for clarifying truth. In this case, most of the promoters of the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory are financially secure faculty, or former faculty, of BYU, CES and affiliates.
People often tell me that advocates of the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory make a lot of money off of their books and tours, but I don’t think that’s the case. No one involved with the question of Book of Mormon geography, on any side, is motivated by money. The market simply isn’t big enough.
Instead, I think academic pride and reputation drives the discussion. The LDS experts have published and taught the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory for decades. Basic human nature prevents them from readily acknowledging they’ve been wrong.
People would rather live with cognitive dissonance than admit error.
Many missionaries have met/taught religious leaders who have acknowledged that they think the Church is true, but simply cannot acknowledge that they have taught falsehoods their entire lives. Money has nothing to do with it. (Okay, some paid ministers may ask “What will I do for a living?” But I don’t think this is a significant factor for those engaged in researching and teaching Book of Mormon geography issues.)
Far more important than money is the natural human aversion to admitting error. Therefore, those who have admitted they’ve been wrong about something—those who have actually changed their minds about something signficant—are more credible than those who refuse to do so.
Complexity with Assumptions
Whenever you see complexity, that is a red flag. Complexity is often used to deceive. And complexity invites human error.
Compare the difference between simply accepting what Joseph and Oliver taught—that there is one Cumorah and it is in New York—with the complex list of “requirements” designed to (i) exclude the New York Cumorah and (ii) establish Mesoamerica as the only possible location of the “real” Cumorah.
Compare the difference between simply accepting what the modern prophets and apostles have said and written about the New York Cumorah with the complexity of parsing their words and claiming they were all wrong because they were merely expressing private opinions that were naïve, based on a false tradition, etc. My favorite example of this is characterizing Brigham Young’s urgent, detailed and forceful explanation of what Oliver Cowdery related about the depository in New York as nothing but a vague “vision” of a hill in Mexico.
The Important Fact Left Out
When people have the facts on their side, they are quick to point it out. When a key fact is glaringly omitted, that’s a red flag.
What facts do supporters of the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory leave out? The mere existence of Letter VII to start with, followed by its ubiquity during Joseph’s lifetime. If you were a member of the Church when Joseph Smith was alive, you knew Cumorah was in New York. There was no question about it. Not even any room for questions.
By contrast, there are no facts about the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory that I have not addressed on this blog and in my books. If anyone knows of such a fact, I’d be happy to address it.
Conflation of Credibility
Whenever you see someone conflate a credible thing (such as the peer review system in science) with a less-credible thing (long term prediction models), that’s a red flag. If you question the accuracy of climate models, someone will mention the gold standard of peer review, even though that doesn’t address climate models that involve human assumptions. Conflation of credibility is a red flag.
One of the ways our LDS experts and scholars justify their Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory is by claiming their work is “peer reviewed.” This is classic conflation of credibility, not only for the reasons Scott Adams mentions, but because in this case, our experts don’t allow any reviews of their work by people who disagree with their theory.
IOW, our LDS scholarly publications are not really “peer reviewed.”
They’re “peer approved.”
They are screened by like-minded individuals for compliance with Groupthink ideology.
Climate Models: As soon as you hear that someone has a complicated prediction model, that’s red flag. If you hear that the model involves human assumptions and “tweaking,” that’s a double red flag. If you hear there are dozens of different models, that’s a triple red flag. If you hear that the models that don’t conform to the pack are discarded, and you don’t know why, that is a quadruple red flag. And if you see people conflating climate projections with economic models to put some credibility on the latter, you have a quintuple red flag situation.
To be fair, none of the so-called flags I mentioned means the models are wrong. But they do mean you can’t put the same credibility on them as you would the basic science.
The Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory resembles the climate models in these respects.
It is complicated. It relies on sophistry and parsing of terms to explain away the plain meaning of what Joseph Smith wrote. You have to have a PhD to understand all the nuances and interpretations of Mayan culture, and how it relates to the Book of Mormon text.
It relies on human assumptions and “tweaking.” The Sorenson model requires you to believe that “north” means “west,” that a “horse” is a “tapir,” etc. Other models require you to believe the text describes volcanoes and massive stone pyramids, along with other assumptions.
There are dozens of models based on the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory. The experts can’t even agree on the criteria for the Mexican Cumorah, let alone which mountain it must be. They don’t believe it’s a hill, even; if they did, their task would be hopeless because there are thousands of hills in southern Mexico.
By contrast, of course, Joseph and Oliver identified a single, readily identifiable hill in New York as the one real Cumorah. There’s no complication. No tweaking. No multiple versions.
True, knowing the location of Cumorah does not end the inquiry. There are many other geographical features to be worked out, and people disagree about them even with the New York Cumorah, but at least these scenarios support what Joseph and Oliver taught.
The One Sided Argument
When I see climate scientists in the media, they are never accompanied by skeptical scientists who can check their statements in real time. Likewise, articles by and about skeptics are usually presented without simultaneous debunking by the experts on the other side. Those are red flags. Any presentation of one side without the simultaneous fact-checking by the other is useless and almost certainly designed for persuasion, not truth. The problem here is that both sides of the climate debate are 100% persuasive when viewed without the other in attendance. If you think your side is the smart side, check out the other side. They look just as smart, at least to non-scientists such as me.
For years now, I’ve sought to work with advocates of the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory to produce a side-by-side comparison of the New York Cumorah with the Mexican Cumorah. Because they refused, I developed my own comparison and invited their input. Here’s my chart.
The reason the experts decline to present both sides is obvious. Most members of the Church—I think 99%, but maybe after years of conditioning about the Mesoamerica/two-Cumorahs theory, the number might be as low as 98%--would accept what Joseph and Oliver taught in Letter VII if they knew about it.
It isn’t even a close comparison, really.
I remain hopeful that our LDS scholars and educators will support and sustain what Joseph and Oliver taught about Cumorah. I’m willing and able to engage with them in any forum, in any manner, regarding any facts, reasoning or argument on this topic.
In the meantime, you can study these issues on your own and share with others.
If you are attending BYU or another CES class on Church history or the Book of Mormon, ask your instructors about Letter VII.
Eventually, and soon, we’ll get this issue resolved.