Monday, May 9, 2022

Real vs Rumor, part 4: Loyalty to groupthink

The book Real vs. Rumor contains lots of excellent insights into methods of historical analysis, along with cautions about common logical and conceptual fallacies. The book is commendable for that content.

But the book also inexplicably contradicts its own guidance over and over.  As we'll see, Real vs. Rumor would be a far more effective book if the author had applied his own sniff tests to his own writing.


In part 3, we looked at one example of how Brother Erekson disregards (contradicts) his own rules to accommodate the M2C groupthink idea that Oliver and Joseph misled the Church about the Hill Cumorah in New York. 

The M2C obsession among LDS scholars at Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, FAIRLDS, and the rest of the M2C citation cartel has seeped into the Church History Department as well. 

Perhaps this is attributable to the revolving doors between BYU, the M2C citation cartel, and the Church History Department; i.e., the historians seek to accommodate their peers' obsession with M2C and interpret Church history accordingly.

We've already seen how they've changed Church history to accommodate M2C in the Saints book, volume 1, as well as in lesson manuals (such as Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith). We've seen how the editorial content in the Joseph Smith Papers consistently accommodates M2C. Today we'll look at another example from Real vs. Rumor.

First, though, consider this observation by Andy Kessler of the Wall St. Journal (emphasis added):

In her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” Elizabeth Warren describes advice she received from Lawrence Summers when he was Harvard’s president: “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”

Want to see this in action? In his 2021 book, “A Plague Upon Our House,” about his time as an adviser to the Trump administration on Covid-19, the Hoover Institution’s Scott Atlas describes “a functioning troika of ‘medical experts’ composed of Drs. Birx, Fauci, and Redfield.” He “noticed that there was virtually no disagreement among them. It was an amazing consistency, as though there were an agreed-upon complicity—even though some of their statements were so patently simplistic or erroneous.” Loyalty! But was that for the best? After two years of Covid restrictions, obviously not.

Loyalty is overrated.

"The Biden Loyalty Machine: Administration insiders play by one rule: Never criticize other insiders." 

From my perspective as an "outsider" studying and writing about LDS Church history, loyalty is not only overrated, it's destructive. 

Not only does changing Church history confuse the Latter-day Saints, not only does it undermine the credibility and reliability of Joseph, Oliver, their contemporaries and their successors, but it supports the claims of the critics of the Church. After all, if the leading LDS intellectuals teach that the prophets were wrong, what are ordinary members supposed to think? 


The book Real vs. Rumor promotes both the SITH and M2C narratives. 

For example, here's how the book handles Book of Mormon geography, starting on page 187. The author relies on implicit, unstated assumptions to reach his conclusions.

Reading and seeking are required to make sense of most topics that generate rumors and myths. Consider the question of where events in the Book of Mormon occurred—this topic has generated a very long conversation that has produced few “best books” and much that fails the sniff tests.

As we'll see, this analysis itself fails the sniff tests. The "sniff tests" are summarized in Appendix C, pages 252-3, under these headings: Survey the Situation, Analyze the Contents, Connect to Contexts, and Evaluate Significances.  

When analyzing the author's arguments, the most apparent finding is an absence of evidence. Nothing within the Book of Mormon points directly to a place in the Americas recognizable in modern terms. 

Nothing within the Book of Mormon points directly to a place in the Americas, period. Yet the author assumes the setting must be in the Americas without stating the basis for that assumption. That's one of his own "sniff tests." 

Presumably, the assumption about "the Americas" (a vague modern term that never appears in early Church historical documents) depends on what Joseph said Moroni told him, as well as other revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants (such as D&C 28, 30 and 32 which identify the Lamanites as the Indian tribes in New York and Ohio). When explaining the plates to Joseph, Moroni "gave a history of the aborigenes of this country" and "said this history was written and deposited not far from that place" [i.e., Joseph's home near Palmyra]. 

The Wentworth letter provides another reason for assuming the events took place in America. "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came... The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country." 
Unfortunately, many Latter-day Saints today are unfamiliar with what Joseph wrote there because his statement was edited out of the lesson manual, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, to accommodate M2C. 

And no archeological discovery in the Americas has yet uncovered a clear reference to a place in the book.

This is a deliberate revision of Church history. As we saw in part 3, Joseph, Oliver and others visited the repository of Nephite records in the Hill Cumorah in New York. Oliver expressly declared it was a fact that this hill was the very Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 as the site of the repository and the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites.  

During his lifetime, Joseph Smith accepted evidence for connections to both the North American Midwest and Central America.

The book portrays this ambivalence as a statement of fact, but it's only a fact with regard to the North American Midwest, about which Joseph personally wrote a letter to Emma and related his vision of Zelph. References to Central America cannot be directly attributed to Joseph Smith. At best, they can be linked by inference, such as by the inference that, as nominal editor of the Times and Seasons, Joseph wrote or approved of all the anonymous editorials it contained. 

Claiming inferences as fact is another failure of the sniff tests. 

In 2019, a Church statement declared that "the Church's only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.”10 After nearly two hundred years of searching, no interpretation has assembled enough evidence to be fully persuasive.

This loose, misleading statement doesn't pass the sniff tests. The dozens of interpretations are fully persuasive to those who accept them. Those who accept the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah are persuaded by those teachings; those who reject or repudiate those teachings are unpersuaded. All proponents have assembled enough evidence to persuade their respective adherents.   

Lacking both direct and contextual evidence, interpreters must make an analogy (see chapter 8) through parallels or “correspondences” to frame a modern landscape with information found in the text.

Oliver Cowdery cited both direct and contextual evidence when he declared it was a fact that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York. Framing Oliver as an "interpreter" is a common tactic used by M2C advocates and those who seek to accommodate M2C. Beyond Cumorah, however, the setting does remain a matter of interpretation.  

For example, the Book of Mormon refers to minerals, such as copper, and land features, such as rivers, a “small” or “narrow neck of land” (Alma 22:32; Ether 10:20), and a hill called “Ramala or “Cumorah," where both the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations ended (Ether 15:11; Morm. 6:6). With that information, interpreters reconstruct a generic map of the relationships between places, but the result is very much like the map at the heart of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—an exciting mystery with no starting place.

The obvious fallacy here (the sniff test) is that the prophets gave us a very specific starting place--the New York Cumorah. Brother Erekson simply omits critical context, a blatant violation of one of his key sniff tests.  

The earliest assumptions placed events in the entirety of North and South America (a “hemispheric” view). 11 [Note 11. See works by George Q. Cannon, George Reynolds, Janne M. Sjodahl, and Joel Ricks.]

Here, he refers to "assumptions," as though Oliver and Joseph never spelled out the facts of Cumorah and the plains of the Nephites. Consequently, his statement about "the earliest assumptions" may be technically true, but it is misleading (doesn't pass the sniff tests) because he simply omits the statements of fact. The note is not useful at any rate because it gives the reader no idea of what "works" to consult. 

In the twentieth century, a more limited approach focused on Central America (a “Mesoamerican” view),12 [Note 12. See works by B. H. Roberts, Jesse A. and Jesse N. Washburn, Thomas Ferguson, Fletcher Hammond, and Sidney B. Sperry.]

This is another misleading reference that fails the sniff tests. It omits the work of RLDS scholars Stebbins and Hills, who first developed the limited geography based in Central America, and doesn't give the reader any "works" to consult. 

with a consensus emerging that the small or narrow neck of land corresponded with the Mexican isthmus of Tehuantepec. 13 [Note 13. See works by John L. Sorenson, Brant A. Gardner, and John L. Lund.]

Now we read about "a consensus emerging" as if this is a settled issue, which doesn't pass the sniff test by the author's own claim that there is a divergence of views on the topic. The "consensus" to which he refers consists of a handful of M2C scholars who have dominated the discussion because of their status at and connections with BYU (and the Church History Department).  

This view only works if there were two hills named Cumorah-one in the text of the book where the final battles were fought and a second in New York where the plates were buried, named after the original; this interpretation requires Moroni to have walked from Mexico to New York. 14 [Note 14. A hand-drawn map of Moroni's wanderings if often cited, though a note on the back of the map states that the unnamed mapmaker got the information thirdhand. "Diagram Showing Moroni's Travels, undated," Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

Here, the author recognizes the "Two Cumorahs" element of M2C, but he still does not mention (let alone cite) the direct historical teachings about Cumorah found right in the Joseph Smith Papers. It's inexplicable why a book about how to analyze historical sources would omit the relevant historical sources in favor of modern commentaries. This is another failure of the sniff tests.

The idea of a more "limited geography” prompted other theories that place the Nephite experience exclusively in South America, 15 nestled between the Great Lakes, 16 on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, 17 on the Malay Peninsula in southeast Asia, 18 or in Africa.19

These notes also vaguely refer to the respective authors, no to any specific titles.   

Some populist theories make appeals to plain-sense reasoning, American patriotism, and distrust of “experts.”

Note the shift to pejorative rhetoric here. "Populist" invokes a political theory: "A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite." What the author means by "plain-sense reasoning" is anyone's guess, but from the context he seems to contrast it to the convoluted reasoning of the previous theories. "American patriotism" is another inscrutable term that we'll discuss below. "Distrust of 'experts'" is decidedly pejorative, as if the previous authors he cited were all "experts" in Book of Mormon geography, when in reality the only "expertise" they share is their distrust of the prophets who taught the New York Cumorah.  

The “heartland” theory, for instance, begins with the assumption that the Book of Mormon promises of liberty and prosperity can really apply only to the United States (and certainly not (Mexico)--Lehi landed in Florida, the Nephites moved inland to Missouri and Iowa, and then the civilization ended in New York, all under the banner of the stars and stripes (which, incidentally, appears frequently in materials promoting the heartland theory).20 [Note 10. See works by Bruce H. Porter, Rod L. Meldrum, and Jonathan Neville.]

This long sentence requires a bit of unpacking because it fails the sniff tests on multiple levels.

First, it directly misrepresents the "Heartland" model, which begins with the assumption that Cumorah is in New York. 

As with Erekson's previous vague notes, he cites three authors but none of their specific works, forcing the reader to guess to which works he is referring. To my knowledge, Bruce H. Porter's only "work" on Book of Mormon geography is the book Prophecies and Promises that he co-authored with Rod L. Meldrum, which was published in 2009.  

That book was published long before I got involved with this topic, and I don't recall ever having quoted or cited it. I haven't read it in a long time, but I don't recall it beginning with the assumption Erekson claims it does; Erekson's portrayal looks more like it came from a review of the book by M2C advocates instead of an actual reading of the book. But I find it highly unlikely that the book claims the Nephites moved "under the banner of the stars and stripes."

At any rate, anyone who has actually read my work knows that I don't subscribe to the idea that the promises of liberty and prosperity apply only to the United States. I consider those promises universal, applicable throughout the world. 

For Erekson to lump me in with a viewpoint that I don't subscribe to not only doesn't pass the sniff test, but he directly misinforms his readers. 

Furthermore, my entire approach to the topic of Book of Mormon geography has focused on corroborating the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. In doing so, I have relied on a variety of experts in various relevant fields. To frame me as distrusting "experts" is simply a lie.

That said, I don't defer to self-appointed "experts" on the Book of Mormon because I don't think expertise in Mayan civilization has any relevance whatsoever to the Book of Mormon. 

This landscape of conjecture produces many sniff tests. Lacking direct evidence, interpreters selectively emphasize and omit evidence, promoting one of Joseph Smith's statements while downplaying another or singling out only some Book of Mormon passages.

While I agree that the "landscape of conjecture produces many sniff tests," on this topic there is no lack of direct evidence: we have the specific words from Joseph, Oliver, and their contemporaries and successors. Erekson himself is the one who downplays Joseph's own statements in favor of statements that can, at best, be attributed to him only by inference.

Maybe it's true that some of the models single out only some Book of Mormon passages, but all the models I'm familiar with deal with all the passages. Erekson's vague claim strikes me as uninformed at best but more likely deliberately misleading. 

Single-sided treatments offer praise for the interpreter's “brilliance” or “inspiration" and the book's “definitive” treatment. Some interpreters resort to piling up long lists and addenda. You'll find much competitive contention and sniping. There are even conspiracy theories that the Smithsonian uses the Book of Mormon to guide its archeological fieldwork,21 that the Church is secretly hiding or endorsing an interpretation, and that Moroni intentionally peppered his abridgment with dozens of secret clues about the land because he wanted us to find the place.

If these conspiracy claims actually exist, I'd love to see a citation to them. Erekson's failure to provide such citations fails his own sniff tests. 

The “best books” will respect the text of the Book of Mormon, carefully scrutinize evidence from nineteenth-century figures, be written by authors with relevant expertise, and be published by reputable presses.

This statement is another example of how Erekson doesn't live up to his own standards. A few sentences earlier, he accused me of distrusting "experts," yet my work fulfills all his criteria here. To my knowledge, no other author in this arena has scrutinized evidence from the 1800s more carefully than I have, for example. 

Perhaps the best advice was published by the Church in January 2019: “Individuals may have their own opinions regarding Book of Mormon geography and other such matters about which the Lord has not spoken. However, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urge leaders and members not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories. All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters."

The statement published in January 2019 is not the statement currently on the Church's website. The original statement contained obvious errors. A few weeks after I pointed out those errors on my blog, the statement was modified to address some, but not all, of the errors. 

The statement on Book of Mormon Geography, like the Gospel Topics Essays, is both anonymous and subject to change. Everyone agrees that people should strive to avoid contention on these matters. 

However, misleading explanations such as Erekson's here engender contention. The best way to avoid contention is to discuss the issues honestly, not by making false claims and mischaracterizations. Ideally, everyone should agree on the facts in the historical record. From there, multiple working hypotheses can be derived for everyone to consider. We're all free to believe whatever we want, but the better informed our decisions are, the stronger we'll all be.

Thus, any answer to the question of Book of Mormon geography currently resides somewhere in the neighborhood of insufficient evidence--"we don't know (and that's okay).” Regardless, true discipleship is built on a testimony of the book's message, not its geography.

It's one thing if the evidence is not sufficient to lead everyone to agree. That's the multiple working hypotheses model that everyone should be able to accept.

But Erekson, by omitting key evidence and instead simply adopting a prevailing narrative without doing his own research and without helping his readers to do their own research, has amplified the problem.  

Real vs. Rumor would be a far more effective book if the author had applied his own sniff tests to his own writing.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Oliver Cowdery and the translation

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery published his famous account of the trsanslation: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a...