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, December 1, 2021

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement

Some people wonder why I often annotate M2C and SITH articles in the form of a peer review. (I have an important new one on the origins of M2C that I'm going to post tomorrow.)

People also wonder why I often emphasize that I respect and personally like the scholars whose work I review, even when I disagree with their conclusions. There's a big difference between accumulating facts and making them accessible, on one hand, and deriving conclusions on the other hand. There's no reason to be angry or upset with people because of their conclusions and beliefs. We should all be happy to recognize multiple working hypotheses (MWH) based on established facts. MWH enables people to make informed decisions for themselves. 

My approach has to do with Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement.

In 2008, Paul Graham suggested a framework for understanding disagreement. He pointed out that the Internet makes disagreement easier and ubiquitous. 

"If we're all going to be disagreeing more, we should be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well? Most readers can tell the difference between mere name-calling and a carefully reasoned refutation, but I think it would help to put names on the intermediate stages."

People can be persuaded at any level of the pyramid, so long as it confirms their bias. We see this in political debates all the time. Name-calling is one of the most popular tactics. We almost never see a politician, pundit, or media source actually refute a central point. Their economic model requires them to be as divisive and misleading as possible to attract viewers and votes. Consensus and agreement is boring and unprofitable (but productive and beneficial for society).

Graham's essay is worth reading as a useful way to categorize disagreements. Whenever you watch a video or read an article, blog post, book, etc., consider Graham's hierarchy of disagreement.

A key point: "The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It's also the rarest, because it's the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find."

His hierarchy has been portrayed graphically with the pyramid he suggested. 

(click to enlarge)
adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Graham%27s_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement.svg

The easiest and most common form of disagreement is name-calling, while the most difficult and rarest is refuting the central point.

A criticism of Graham's hierarchy is the absence of humor, but humor is merely a means of applying one of the levels.

Graham observes that "To refute someone you probably have to quote them.... The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point.... Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is."

This is why I annotate or peer-review the actual words of the M2C and SITH advocates.


With respect to Book of Mormon historicity and geography, the central point is the location of Cumorah, because Cumorah is the only known connection between the modern world and the world of the Book of Mormon. 

That's why I focus on Cumorah, and why our M2C friends try to avoid the topic.

When people debate various interpretations of the text and the extrinsic evidence (geography, geology, archaeology, anthropology, etc.) they are dealing with lower levels of the pyramid. Interpretations are inherently subjective and outcome-driven, while the extrinsic evidence can be explained to justify any interpretation one wants. People with different views often talk past one another, use word thinking (as if redefining a term is a legitimate argument), appeal to credentials, etc.

The core facts about the central point are not in dispute. 

Everyone can read Letter VII and the other original sources. We can all see that Oliver wrote that it is a fact that the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York, that Joseph assisted Oliver in writing the essays, had them copied into his own journal, and encouraged/directed them to be republished widely during his lifetime. 

We can all see that Lucy Mack Smith explained it was Moroni himself who identified the hill as Cumorah the first time he met Joseph, that Joseph referred to the hill as Cumorah before he even got the plates, that David Whitmer learned the name Cumorah from the messenger who was taking the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah, and so on. 

We can all see that every prophet/apostle who has ever publicly addressed the topic has reaffirmed the New York Cumorah, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference.

And we can all see that our M2C scholars expressly repudiate these teachings.

It's very simple and clear. And that's fine; people can believe whatever they want. 

We can all see that the M2C rationale is driven by their own interpretation of the text. The M2C proponents insist the prophets were wrong because the M2C interpretation of the text puts the events in Mesoamerica, which they then say is too far from New York, so Cumorah cannot be in New York. They claim that the hill in New York was either named "Cumorah" in honor of the real Cumorah in Mexico, or was named "Cumorah" through a false tradition started by one of Joseph's contemporaries, a false tradition that Joseph simply adopted.

When the M2C scholars, their followers and donors, discuss their interpretations of the text, the correspondences with Mayan culture and geography, etc., they are well down the pyramid.    

Only when the M2C proponents specifically declare that the prophets were wrong--that the prophets were merely ignorant speculators who misled the Church with their erroneous personal opinions--are the M2C advocates addressing the central point.

And when they make their argument clear, Latter-day Saints can make an informed decisions about what they choose to believe. 

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