The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men's spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion. - Jonathan Edwards

Friday, December 15, 2017

Persuading by presenting facts as "consensus"

A common persuasion technique is to present "facts" as a "consensus" of experts. This is often done in scientific debates. It is especially persuasive to more educated people.

This is the same technique used by proponents of the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory. They frequently cite the "widespread consensus among believing scholars," to use Terryl Givens' phrase.

But as Mark Twain wrote, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."

The appeal to consensus is psychologically powerful. It is more effective than presenting facts. Researchers tell us that people resist evidence that challenges their worldview directly, but their perceptions are more malleable. If they perceive that a norm in science and society is changing, they "adjust their core beliefs over time to match."

In the Church, people have a core belief that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were reliable and credible witnesses. Because of that, their teaching about the New York Cumorah (Letter VII) was accepted as a fact because Joseph and Oliver said it was a fact. All of their contemporaries accepted this. All of the prophets and apostles who have spoken or written about the topic since have concurred.

This has been a problem for proponents of the Mesoamerican theory because they have concluded that New York is too far away from Mesoamerica. That's why they developed the two-Cumorahs theory; i.e., the theory that the "real" Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) is in Mexico. The hill in New York, they say, was merely the place where Joseph found the plates.

But their theory contradicts what Joseph and Oliver taught.

This creates cognitive dissonance that they resolve by teaching that Joseph and Oliver were wrong.

Basically, it works like this:

BYU/CES teachers encounter Letter VII

It's easy to see how this approach will ultimately backfire on the teachers when their students, who retain their core belief in the credibility and reliability of Joseph and Oliver, eventually learn about Letter VII.

BYU/CES students encounter Letter VII

The intellectuals seek to avoid this outcome by suppressing Letter VII and the words of the prophets and apostles, but with the Internet, that's a losing strategy.

So instead, they resort to the "consensus as fact" approach.

One analysis explains it this way:

In the murk of post-truth public debate, facts can polarise. Scientific evidence triggers reaction and spin that ends up entrenching the attitudes of opposing political tribes.

Recent research suggests this phenomenon is actually stronger among the more educated, through what psychologists call ‘motived reasoning’: where data is rejected or twisted – consciously or otherwise – to prop up a particular worldview.

However, a new study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour finds that one type of fact can bridge the chasm between conservative and liberal, and pull people’s opinions closer to the truth on one of the most polarising issues in US politics: climate change.

Previous research has broadly found US conservatives to be most sceptical of climate change. Yet by presenting a fact in the form of a consensus – “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening” – researchers have now discovered that conservatives shift their perceptions significantly towards the scientific ‘norm’.

In an experiment involving over 6,000 US citizens, psychologists found that introducing people to this consensus fact reduced polarisation between higher educated liberals and conservatives by roughly 50%, and increased conservative belief in a scientific accord on climate change by 20 percentage points.

Moreover, the latest research confirms the prior finding that climate change scepticism is indeed more deeply rooted among highly educated conservatives. Yet exposure to the simple fact of a scientific consensus neutralises the “negative interaction” between higher education and conservatism that strongly embeds these beliefs.

We can compare those members of the Church who have a core belief in the reliability and credibility of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to those who are skeptical of climate change. (We're not equating the two beliefs; we're merely showing how the psychology works).

In the climate change debate, the proponents want to change attitudes, but the facts are all over the place, so instead they resort to the "consensus" argument. [Note: I agree wit those who say the 97% consensus study is bogus, and I think anyone who digs into it agrees. But it has been repeated so often in the media that it has acquired a truth status apart from its merits.]

Likewise, the Mesoamerican proponents have to change attitudes among LDS people. They have to overcome the core belief in the reliability and credibility of Joseph and Oliver. They know the facts (geography, archaeology, anthropology, and geology) are all over the place and that they'll never persuade LDS to change their minds by citing facts. So instead, they cite the "widespread consensus among believing scholars" as Terryl Givens did in his Foreword to Mormon's Codex.

And they've been quite successful among the more educated LDS, just as the study quoted above would predict.

Then these educated LDS become the BYU/CES teachers and perpetuate the whole scheme.

Fortunately, Letter VII appears in the Joseph Smith papers, right in History, 1834-1836. Anyone can go read it here:

In a sense, Letter VII is ubiquitous again, just as it was in Joseph's day when it was published in every Church newspaper, through the Improvement Era.

It's also fortunate that the facts--archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography--corroborate what Joseph and Oliver said was a fact; i.e., that the Hill Cumorah is in New York.

I think the tide is turning on the consensus approach. Confidence in Joseph and Oliver will, eventually, outweigh confidence in the intellectuals.

At that point, we'll reach a consensus among the LDS that supports Joseph and Oliver instead of repudiates them.

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