Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Harper vs Vogel on historians' biases

Steven Harper, currently editor of BYU Studies, had a significant interview with Gospel Tangents in which he discussed the way a historian's worldview affects his/her interpretation of the evidence.

Here's a portion of the transcript from the website:

The conversation involved the way different people interpret the identical facts differently. Original in blue, my comments in red.

GT: So, that’s your biggest issue: you’re a believer. They’re not. We’re going to look at facts differently, just based on our point of view. Is that right?

Steven: Yeah. I wouldn’t call it an issue. That’s just the way it is. 

I infer he means it's not an issue (i.e., an important topic or problem for debate or discussion) because the differences cannot be resolved. People rarely change their points of view. Our mental filters determine the way we perceive the truth, and it's very difficult to change filters. We can and should recognize the different points of view, but there's nothing to debate in the sense of seeking agreement.

The question might be asked, “Well, why do to people who know the same facts and study the same historical records come to such dramatically different conclusions? It’s because historians aren’t endowed with some godlike capability of knowing. They only know the same facts that anyone else can know. Then, they just interpret the facts. 

Here, Harper seems to assume an objective reality about facts, but there is a subjective element to history that goes beyond just interpretation. Whether everyone can know the same facts is not the same as everyone agreeing on what the facts are. The adage that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence always comes into play, as it does here.   

Their interpretations are necessarily dependent on their biases and prejudices and choices, faith commitments, or lack thereof. Some people are under the impression that it’s the facts of the matter that turn the tide. No, it isn’t. 

Here, Harper recognizes the subjective nature of facts. We all see facts through our mental filters.

The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers are believers. They know all the facts. Dan Vogel, Sandra Tanner, they know the facts. Everybody invested in this knows the facts. [We are all] reading the same documents and the same evidence. I’ve had really wonderful exchanges with Ann Taves, who knows the facts well. She studies them really carefully and arrives at different interpretations than I do. 

It’s not that one of us knows the evidence better than the other. It’s that we just make different choices about what the evidence means.

If everyone agreed to all the evidence as a starting point, there would still be different choices about what the evidence means. But as the brief exchange in this comment thread shows, even if Vogel and Harper know the identical facts, they talk past one another. 

In the interview, Harper emphasized that we can't know there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820, only that we have no known record of it. 

Vogel says, "I recognize that Walters was right about the revival." The term "recognize" connotes acknowledging an objective truth, like the speed of light, but that's not the type of fact we're dealing with here. At most, Vogel can only choose to agree with Walters' interpretation of the known facts, but he frames it as "recognizing" to confer a sense of objectivity to his subjective interpretation.  


This brief example illustrates why faith is simply a choice.

27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

4 Behold, here is wisdom, and let every man choose for himself until I come. Even so. Amen.

(Doctrine and Covenants 37:4)

2 And as for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it. Judge ye for yourselves. God knoweth all these things, whether it be good or bad.
(Doctrine and Covenants 127:2)

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
(Moses 3:17)

33 Say unto this people: Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you.
(Moses 6:33)

33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;
(Moses 7:33)

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