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 “The Book of Mormon does not supplant the Bible. It expands, extends, clarifies, and amplifies our knowledge of the Savior. Surely, this second witness should be cause for great rejoicing by all Christians.” - Joseph B. Wirthlin

Sunday, June 23, 2019

You can change your opinion

From twitter:

You're allowed to change your opinion on something. People act like because you thought it 10 years ago--with less knowledge and experience--you're a hypocrite for now thinking differently. They want to nail you to your old thoughts because they haven't grown themselves.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Conformity: The Power of Social Influences

New book explains the M2C citation cartel.
Our urge to obey authority is powerful. But our drive to conform is greater.
Cass Sunstein’s new book, ConformityThe Power of Social Influences, delivers a brisk and accessible overview of research from social psychology, economics, and political science on how people behave in groups. Sunstein, a Harvard professor and alumnus of the Obama Administration, discusses the dangers of conformity and ideological groupthink in structuring a society and its various institutions. Sunstein, moreover, examines how viewpoint diversity can serve as a bulwark against group polarization and institutional rot. Indeed, any organization, system, or society which does not incentivize freedom of expression and public dissent is one that is doomed to fail....
For many people, conformity sparks mental images of sheep doing what they’re told. But in fact, at the outset, Sunstein notes that conformity has its advantages. We lack information about science, health, politics, and so on. Not only that, but we simply don’t have the time to assess every option presented before us. Oftentimes, the most rational course of action is to follow the choices of those we trust. We are natural conformers because, more often than not, it keeps us alive and in good standing with our peers. But sometimes it can lead us to disaster.
Consider group polarization, the topic of one of the chapters. In short, social psychologists have found that when individuals hold certain beliefs, those beliefs are magnified when they interact with others who hold similar beliefs. In a study on jury behavior, researchers gave jurors an 8-point scale to measure how severely they wanted to punish a law-breaker. They found that when individual jurists preferred high punishment, the overall verdict ended up higher than that recommended by the median juror. Put differently, when individual jurors preferred a severe punishment, deliberation with other jurors sharing this view raised the overall severity of the punishment. One juror might say they want to impose a fine of $10,000 while another might say that anything less than $12,000 is unacceptable. By the end, the fine might increase to an amount far beyond anyone’s initial starting point. On the flip side, Sunstein reports that groups comprised of lenient jurors produced even more lenient verdicts than the one recommended by the median juror in the group. When group members drift in a certain direction, individual members will double down on that perspective to show their commitment. This drives the group towards extremism despite individual members not being extremists themselves....
The Conformity Paradox
Then there are what Sunstein calls “affective ties.” Plainly, dissent can disrupt social harmony, which is not always the best course of action when interacting with our peers. As the book puts it, “Some forms of dissent might correct mistakes while also weakening social bonds.” This can be risky. The choice we face is a difficult one. Do we share our views, introducing information that could improve group decision-making, or do we go along to get along, preserving our social relationships in the process? When we are bonded by affective ties, the latter option is often more appealing. But for Sunstein, the first option offers indisputable long-term benefits.
The problem with conformity is that it deprives a society of the information it desperately needs. Sunstein rightly asserts that conformists are often viewed as protectors of the social interest while dissenters are seen as selfish individualists, calling attention to themselves and disrupting the status quo. This is not always the case. The dissenter challenges the status quo, introducing new ideas that may aid his group by improving an ailing system. The conformist is reticent, choosing to live in comfort as his group blunders.

truth vs consensus

"Individuals search for truth, groups search for consensus."

And inspiring leaders build consensus around the discovered truth.
Management is telling other people what to do. Leadership is making them want to do it.
I thought, wait but scientific groups like lab groups & collaboration teams & scientific societies & fields search for truth. But then I remembered, oh no, they also search for consensus...

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The apologetics of M2C

From time to time I repost articles here from my other blogs. I've renamed this one.

The apologetics of M2C

I've been reluctant to post this material but I think it's time. As we've seen recently, faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is declining in the Church, not only among the younger generations but among BYU faculty. That trend will undoubtedly accelerate. And IMO, the reason is M2C.

This is not a question about what past Church leaders have said about Cumorah. It's not a question of interpreting the text and other semantic considerations.

The issue is the core belief of M2C that makes it attractive to so many Church members.

People often ask why M2C advocates get angry when their theory is questioned.  A good answer appeared on twitter recently:

"Do you know why your feelings are hurt by criticism of your beliefs? Because you believe for emotional reasons instead of factual ones."

M2C believers are emotionally attached to their theory because they say it is the only plausible explanation of the Book of Mormon. For them, it is M2C or bust.

They actually think the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon depends on its Mesoamerican setting.

The M2C advocates think they are protecting and defending the Book of Mormon when they promote M2C. They think that alternative interpretations, including the New York Cumorah, are false. That's why they censor information about those alternatives, including the teachings of the prophets.

But the core belief of M2C has nothing to do with the teachings of the prophets.

Brother John Sorenson summarized the basic idea on p. 144 of his book, Mormon's Codex. Other M2C intellectuals make the same argument, but Sorenson's book is still the "high-water mark of scholarship" among M2C believers.

One of the most common explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon holds that Joseph Smith created the book on the basis of his local knowledge environment. In that case, one would have expected him to establish a more modest historical account than what he published. That is, lightly and almost entirely at second hand, he would have described Indians like the tribes known in his rural New York home where he grew up in the 1820s. Instead, in the book he published we read of full-fledged civilizations located in tropical America.
The idea that there was any ancient “civilization” in the Western Hemisphere was contrary to notions commonly held in Smith’s area in his day, and for that matter, it was contrary to the views of the entire Western world of the time. That there had existed ancient civilizations far to the south of the United States did not dawn on even sophisticated scholars or readers until the 1840s.

Do you see what's happening here?

M2C advocates think that Joseph could not have known about ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica, so the Mesoamerican setting proves Joseph couldn't have written the Book of Mormon. 

By contrast, they claim a setting in North America, with the Hill Cumorah in New York, supports the arguments of critics who say Joseph wrote the book.

In my view, they have it exactly backwards.

As we're about to see, if Joseph Smith had composed the Book of Mormon, he would have set it in Central and South America.

As I discuss in more depth in my upcoming book, there are three possible origins for the Book of Mormon.

1. Composition. This is the claim that Joseph (and/or co-conspirators) composed the Book of Mormon based on his experience and the information available to him.

2. Transcription. This is the claim that Joseph merely read words that appeared on a stone he placed into a hat (the "stone-in-a-hat" theory that is popular among today's LDS historians and M2C proponents).

3. Translation. This is Joseph's claim that he translated the engravings on ancient metal plates that related one thousand years of history of the ancient inhabitants "of this country."

We won't discuss transcription or translation in this post. Instead, we'll focus on the composition claim by examining what Brother Sorenson wrote. Original in blue, my comments in red.

One of the most common explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon holds that Joseph Smith created the book on the basis of his local knowledge environment. 

This is always the first assumption for any new book; i.e., that the author wrote it. What did Joseph's "local knowledge environment" consist of? Let's see what Brother Sorenson thinks. 

In that case, one would have expected him to establish a more modest historical account than what he published. That is, lightly and almost entirely at second hand, he would have described Indians like the tribes known in his rural New York home where he grew up in the 1820s. 

The "would have" argument is really no argument at all. It's pure mind reading (and usually it's projection). M2C scholars have embraced this mind reading uncritically because it confirms their bias, but we all know authors can invent all kinds of settings beyond the limits of their personal lives. 
Nevertheless, it's a good point in the sense that the Book of Mormon does notdescribe Indian tribes such as those known in western New York in the the 1820s. Of course, that says nothing about what the book does describe.  

Instead, in the book he published we read of full-fledged civilizations located in tropical America.

Here we have the flip side of mind reading. Instead of reading Joseph's mind, now Brother Sorenson is reading his own mind. The word "tropical" never appears in the text. Every indicia of "tropical America" is concocted by Brother Sorenson and his like-minded M2C believers. For example, the actual text omits the big three Js: jade, jaguars, and jungles. When Brother Sorenson sees the term "horses" in the text, he reads it as "tapirs." One well-known M2C scholar has explained that he "can't unsee" Mesoamerica when he reads the text. While that's undoubtedly true, it's because he wants to see Mesoamerica there, not because the words of the text describe Mesoamerica.   

The idea that there was any ancient “civilization” in the Western Hemisphere was contrary to notions commonly held in Smith’s area in his day, and for that matter, it was contrary to the views of the entire Western world of the time. 

This may have reflected the views of some people in Joseph's day, but not the views of Alexander von Humboldt, whose books were available in English in the early 1800s. Humboldt's 1811 book "Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain" was on sale in Palmyra in 1818 at the printing shop Joseph visited weekly to get the newspaper for his father.
Three times in that book, Humboldt referred to the isthmus of Panama as a "neck of land," which may explain why so many early Church writers inferred Panama was the "neck of land" mentioned in the Book of Mormon. 
Humboldt wrote about the "ancient pyramid of Cholula," "the ruins called las Casas grandes" that was "the site of an ancient cultivation of the human species," "the valley of Tenochititlan... the site of an ancient civilization of American people... more ancient monuments, the pyramids of Teotihuacan, dedicated to the sun and the moon," and more. He discussed the "aborigines" of Mexico, "these Indians, degraded by the despotism of the ancient Aztec sovereigns." He claimed that tribes of the "savages" "possess even languages of which the mechanism proves an ancient civilization." 
In one passage, he noted that past civilizations were greater than those built by the Spanish. "The enormous magnitude of the market-place of Tlatelolco, of which the boundaries are still discernible, proves the great population of the ancient city."
He also mentioned the "ancient grandeur of the empire of Cusco" and other ancient civilizations in South America. "These ruins appeared to him demonstrative of an immense population in Peru at a remote period."
Humboldt wrote about carved stones, statues covered with hieroglyphics, the entire destruction of a city, intermittent fevers, a city governed by a king independent of the larger nation, and more. 
Compare this passage from Humboldt to terms and concepts found in the Book of Mormon:
"In every village we find eight or ten old Indians who live at the expense of the rest, in the most complete idleness, whose authority is founded either on a pretended elevation of birth, or on a cunning policy transmitted from father to son. These chiefs... have the greatest interest in maintaining their fellow-citizens in the most profound ignorance; and they contribute the most to perpetuate prejudices, ignorance, and the ancient barbarity of manners." 

Recall, all of this is in an 1811 book on sale in Palmyra in 1819.

That there had existed ancient civilizations far to the south of the United States did not dawn on even sophisticated scholars or readers until the 1840s.

Humboldt's 1811 book stated the exact opposite of Sorenson's claim. Humboldt discussed the origins of the ancient people in Central America when, after observing that the "Toultecs" built cities, made roads, and constructed those great pyramids, he asked, "where is the source of that cultivation? where is the country from which the Toultecs and Mexicans issued?... There are no remains at this day of any ancient civilization of the human species to the north of the Rio Gila, or in the northern regions travelled through by Hearne, Fiedler, and Mackenzie."

In 1841 explorer John Lloyd Stephens published the first American edition of his sensational account of the discovery of ruined cities in Central America (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan). 

The Stephens book was the first account of his discoveries, but it was far from the first account of the ancient civilizations in Mexico and Central America.
Before he knew about Stephens' book, Benjamin Winchester referred to Humboldt in his 1841 Gospel ReflectorHe wrote "if any one should wish to learn farther concerning the antiquities of America, we recommend him to A. Davis' "Discovery of America by the North-men." J. Priests's "American Antiquities," Mr. Hill's Do.; and Baron Humboldt's "Travels in South America."
The Third Edition of Davis' book was published in 1839. Davis had sold out two previous editions in less than three months and had lectured widely. He sold 5,000 copies before publishing the Fifth Edition. 
Winchester quoted a passage from Davis' book about Palenque, but he did not quote the Third Edition (1839) or the Fifth Edition (1840). 
Davis wrote, "That America was peopled by those in advance of the savage state long before any authentic accounts are given of settlements, is manifest from nameless monuments of antiquity found in various parts. The ruins of a city in Central America are among the most striking of such. This city, called Palenque, lies two hundred and forty miles from Tabasco."

As Stephens’s biographer explained, “The acceptance of an ‘Indian civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when Stephens’s book came out in London], an entire reorientation, for to him an Indian was one of those barbaric, half-naked te-pee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged [on the American frontier]. . . . Nor did one ever think of calling the other indigenous inhabitants of the continent ‘civilized.’ In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts—savages.”1

The sensational aspect of Stephens' book was the illustrations of exotic ruins, not the idea that there had been ancient civilizations in Central and South America. Stephens was born in 1805, after Humboldt had already returned from his travels and met with President Thomas Jefferson. 
Long before Stephens traveled to Mesoamerica, the existence of ruined cities there was well known. In fact, Stephens read about the ancient civilization, including cities in Mesoamerica, in Humboldt's books.

Smith and his cohorts were just as surprised by what Stephens brought to light as was the contemporary public. Apparently, early believing readers of the Book of Mormon—including even Joseph Smith—had not paid enough attention to the book’s descriptions of the setting where Nephite history was played out to fully realize the implied level of civilization that now seems obvious when we read the text. The book relates that the people it tells about dwelled in “cities,” and even “great cities.” They practiced intensive agriculture to support the large populations implied. 

If "Joseph and his cohorts" were surprised by Stephens' books, they weren't paying attention to books being sold in Palmyra, let alone what Benjamin Winchester and others were writing.
In the 1814 English translation of his book titled Researches concerning the institutions and Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America, Humboldt wrote about Quetzalcoatl, explaining the tradition and how the Spaniards were taken by Montezuma as being the descendants of Quetzalcoatl. "The reign of Quetzalcoatl was the golden age of the people of Anahuac. At that period, all animals, and even men, lived in peace; the earth brought forth, without culture, the most fruitful harvests; and the air was filled with a multitude of birds, which were admired for their song, and the beauty of their plumage. But this reign, like that of Saturn, and the happiness of the world, were not of long duration."
Humboldt described the Mayan numbering system. 
He included illustrations of ruins and "hieoglyphicals." 
He wrote about cement in Peru: "it is a true mortar, of which I detached considerable portions with a knife, by digging into the interstices which were left between the parallel courses of the stones. This fact deserves some attention; because the travellers who preceded us have all asserted, that the Peruvians were unacquainted with the use of mortar; but the supposition, that the Peruvians were as ignorant in this point as the ancient inhabitants of Egypt, is erroneous." 


I could go on with this, but I suspect you see the point by now.

Its easy to see why some of the early LDS leaders and authors (but never Joseph Smith) claimed the Book of Mormon explained the civilizations described by Humboldt, Stephens and others. Contrary to what our M2C intellectuals have been telling us, people in Joseph's day knew all about ancient civilizations in Central and South America. To them, a hemispheric model made sense, especially because Humboldt himself had described Panama as a "neck of land."

Move forward to the late 1800s, when Joseph F. Smith was reaffirming the New York Cumorah and sought to purchase the hill. His opponents in the RLDS church declared that the hill in New York was not the real Cumorah, after all. They claimed that the "real Cumorah" was in Mexico.

Hence, M2C.

Soon enough, certain LDS scholars adopted their theory, partly because of the apologetic benefit. They began promoting the idea that Joseph could not have known about ancient civilizations in Central America before he translated the Book of Mormon; therefore, M2C actually proved the Book of Mormon was true.

And some of them still think that.

But, as we've seen in this post, it's a fundamentally flawed premise.

If Joseph (and/or his co-conspirators) composed the Book of Mormon as a record of a lost civilization, the most natural setting would be ancient America in Central and South America, precisely as described by Humboldt and others before the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

This is why I think M2C is exactly the wrong theory to promote the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. 

This is why I think M2C is going to continue to leave people confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon, just as Joseph Fielding Smith warned all those decades ago.

Brother Sorenson did make a good point: Joseph could have composed a book based on his experiences with Indians in and around New York, but he didn't.

Joseph could just have easily composed a book set in ancient Central and/or South America. But he didn't.

So what is the Book of Mormon?

I won't get into all the semantic arguments about geography, or the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah in New York, or Joseph Smith's statements in the Wentworth letter, on Zion's Camp, etc.

For now, just consider this.

Brother Sorenson made another good point: a powerful evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon would be its description of a civilization unknown and unknowable before Joseph translated the plates.

The ancient civilizations in Central and South America simply don't qualify because they were described in books sold right in Palmyra before Joseph even met Moroni.

What does qualify?

The Hopewell and Adena civilizations of North America.

These civilizations were not even named until around 1900. The extent and sophistication of these civilizations is still being discovered today.

They fit the time frames from the text and the locations Joseph identified. They align with the New York Cumorah. They match up with other important events that have taken place, and will take place, in North America.

Long-time readers know that I accepted M2C for decades. Like the fine young scholars employed by the M2C citation cartel today, I was convinced by my CES and BYU teachers that the prophets were wrong and that the scholars were right.

That was my mistake, and I hope that more members of the Church, as well as non-members, can come to see M2C for the mistake it is. I'm not trying to persuade anyone; I simply encourage people to make informed decisions.

In recent years I have come to realize the prophets were right about Book of Mormon geography all along. They have always emphasized two main points:

1. The Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York.

2. We don't know the location of the other events.

These are the only two positions I hold.

Point #2 is important because it's not a lack of evidence but an overabundance of evidence that we confront. It's impossible to choose among dozens or hundreds of sites in North America that could match up with the text.

That said, I don't reject a Mesoamerican setting per se (although I think it's relatively implausible). I don't categorically exclude any theory of geography that has Cumorah in New York.

As more and more people return to accepting what the prophets have taught all along, we will discover more and more evidence that supports their teachings.

It's an exciting time to be a member of the Church.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Guide to avoid contention

I hear from a lot of people involved with missionary and activation work. In an effort to help avoid contention, this post is a guide to discussing the question of Cumorah with your friends.

Those of us who accept the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah are happy and confident. We see the consistency between what the prophets have taught, the descriptions in the text of the Book of Mormon, and relevant anthropology, archaeology, geology, etc. The more we learn, the more we see that the prophets were right all along.

We understand the text better because it all makes sense in this setting. We don't have to rely on experts who tell us Joseph didn't translate it correctly, or didn't translate it at all, that he was an ignorant speculator, etc. We're puzzled by BYU professors who don't believe the Book of Mormon is a real history and by BYU professors who teach the Book of Mormon by using a fantasy map.

We see how the two-sets-of-plates explains what were once discrepancies in accounts in Church history. We see how Joseph was consistent throughout his lifetime and did not change his mind because of a popular 1841 travel book.

Everything is awesome, and it gets better all the time.

We want to share all of this, but we get a lot of pushback from our M2C friends.

The key point: contention is pointless. It never changes anyone's mind.  All you can do is provide information. Let your friends make up their own minds and accept their decisions. Don't expect anyone else to believe something just because you do. If you try to change someone else's opinion, you will become frustrated or even angry. Just look at how the M2C employees are acting on the Internet.

One approach, of course, is to avoid the question. Never tell anyone what you've learned or what you think. If you're involved with missionary or reactivation work, just respond to the inevitable question about historicity by saying "We don't know where any of the events took place, where the people lived, etc."

We all know how well that goes over.

The other approach is to say you believe the Hill Cumorah is in New York, as the prophets have taught, but we don't know for sure the location of other events (as the prophets have also taught) because there are so many plausible locations throughout the Americas. You have ideas that seem to work, but you're not claiming any prophetic or Church support.

That's a solid answer. It's the same answer people give about the Bible; i.e., we know where Jerusalem is, and some of the other locations, but we don't know where all the events took place.

If you take the second approach, you will probably get pushback from M2C intellectuals, their employees, and their followers.

Here is a question to ask when we discuss the Hill Cumorah with our M2C friends:

How many times do the prophets have to reaffirm the New York Cumorah before you will accept what they teach?

For most M2C intellectuals and their employees, the answer in their mind is this: "I'll never accept that. The prophets don't know. Our experts have interpreted the Book of Mormon for us and they say Cumorah can only be in Mesoamerica."

But they won't say that. Instead, they'll get angry and refuse to talk about it.

We reply, "Fine. We'll have to agree to disagree." No contention. Zero. Just move on.

For others, the answer is "Just one more time. Then I'll accept it."

We reply, "Seriously?"

For many M2C believers who have followed the M2C citation cartel carefully, the answer is, "I didn't know the prophets ever taught or reaffirmed that Cumorah is in New York."

We say, "Here's what they have taught."

They say, "Wow, I had no idea. I believe what the prophets have taught. They don't have to reiterate it again. I'll accept what they have taught."

As always, we emphasize that the New York Cumorah does not determine the locations of the rest of the events in the Book of Mormon. You can accept the New York Cumorah and still believe the other events took place in Mesoamerica, Panama, Chile, Baja--wherever you want.

IMO, so long as our leading intellectuals in the Church claim (and teach) that we need the modern prophets to reaffirm the New York Cumorah "one more time" before they'll accept it, there is no reason for the prophets to teach it yet again.

These intellectuals (and their followers) have rejected the teachings of all the prior prophets and apostles on this topic. We have no reason to believe they would accept the New York Cumorah even if President Nelson taught it tomorrow.

As they Savior said in John 5,

46 For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.
47 But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

If you discuss Book of Mormon geography, especially the New York Cumorah, with an M2C brother or sister, you will observe a series of reactions.

Usually, as we saw above, they get angry and refuse to discuss the issue. This follows the example of the M2C intellectuals they follow.

If they are not as deeply emotional as Dan Peterson and his peers, they might engage in a discussion of the merits.

If they don't know much, the conversation will go something like this:

You: "I think Cumorah is in New York."

Them: "The experts (and their followers and employees) all say you're wrong."

You: "Do you sustain those experts as prophets, seers and revelators?"

Them: "Well, no, but their employees say they are hired by the prophets to guide the Church."

You: "And you believe that?"

Them: Silence.

You: "The intellectuals in the M2C citation cartel censor information that contradicts their theories. Why don't we discuss the facts so you can make an informed decision for yourself?"

Them: "Sounds good."

If all your friends know about Cumorah is what they've learned from BYU, CES, FairMormon, the Interpreter, BYU Studies, Book of Mormon Central, etc., they're ignorant. They have no idea what the prophets have taught. Once they learn the truth, they may change their minds immediately. This is rare because few people have open minds.

If they are knowledgeable about the facts, and still believe in M2C, your M2C friends will respond with a series of "yes, but" statements, again following the lead of the M2C intellectuals.

The conversation will go like this:

You: Joseph knew the hill was named Cumorah even before he got the plates, as he related to his mother.

M2C: Yes, but maybe his mother misheard or misremembered.

You: She included this in her revision, which indicates it was specific and intentional.

M2C: Yes, but maybe she was relating the false tradition about Cumorah.

You: During their mission to the Lamanites in 1830, Parley and Oliver taught people that Moroni said the hill was named Cumorah anciently.

M2C: Yes, but maybe they were the ones who started the false tradition.

You: Shortly after he joined the Church, Heber C. Kimball visited the Hill Cumorah in New York and observed the embankment still around the hill.

M2C: Yes, but maybe he was mistaken.

You: Part of that embankment still exists.

M2C: Yes, but maybe it's a coincidence, or some farmer created it.

You: In Letter VII, Oliver said it was a fact that the mile-wide valley west of the Hill Cumorah was the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites.

M2C: Yes, but maybe he was only stating his opinion.

You: But he said it was a fact.

M2C: Yes, but maybe he was speculating.

You: He was the ordained Assistant President of the Church, designated as spokesman.

M2C: Yes, but maybe he was speculating.

You: He and Joseph had been inside the Nephite depository of records inside the Hill Cumorah.

M2C: Yes, but maybe that was a vision of a hill in Mexico.

You: They went multiple times.

M2C: Yes, but maybe it was still a vision.

You: Joseph had his scribes copy Letter VII into his personal history as part of his life story.

M2C: Yes, but maybe he accepted the false tradition because he speculated, too.

You: Subsequent prophets and apostles have reaffirmed Letter VII. [Going through the list of Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, George Albert Smith, President Ivins, President Romney, etc.]

M2C: Yes, but maybe they were speculating, too. In fact, they were definitely speculating, because our experts have interpreted the Book of Mormon for us and they say Cumorah is in Mesoamerica.

[This is where you get back to the beginning.]

You: How many times do the prophets have to reaffirm the New York Cumorah before you will accept what they teach?

M2C: Just one more time. Then I'll believe.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Neurochemistry and bias confirmation

The neurochemistry of bias confirmation

This post is one of the most important I've made because it addresses a fundamental issue that affects all of us throughout our lives. It's a cross-post from another blog.

As it relates to the Book of Mormon, neurochemistry largely explains why the teachings of the prophets about the Hill Cumorah are being systematically censored and removed from the historical record.

The most critical statement in the latest version of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography is this:

All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters.

(Note: as if this posting, the essay's url is invalid. We can infer it is being revised yet again, but the statement applies in general terms to every gospel discussion.)
When people are contending over something such as M2C, they usually think they are using facts and logic, but they are actually just responding to biochemistry.

When our brains detect an unpleasant conflict between data and what we want to believe, they use biochemistry and faulty reasoning to reduce distress. This is a biological description of bias confirmation.

I used to see this all the time when I practiced law. Clients are naturally emotional, convinced they are right, etc. One of the most difficult tasks for a lawyer is conveying objective (or even quasi-objective) reality to their own clients.

I'll discuss this topic more in my updated, expanded edition of Mesomania, coming this fall, but in the meantime, let's take a quick look at what's going on.

Researchers have conducted neurological experiments to understand how political partisans respond to information. The findings (excerpted below) help explain what happens when partisans on all sides of the Book of Mormon wars respond to information.

Today I'll focus on M2C because people tell me that employees of Book of Mormon Central are still arguing about M2C stuff on their blogs and other social media. There's a lot of anger, emotions, etc.

No one is to blame for that reaction. It's merely a result of biochemistry.

People believe they are thinking rationally, based on facts, but their brains are simply engaged in self-defense. Their brains perceive confirmation of the M2C bias as pleasurable, while criticism of M2C is painful.

The study explained it this way: "The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities."

The fascinating thing is that the better educated, more motivated, and "smarter" a person is, the more their brain chemistry will "develop complex rationalizations for dismissing data they don't want to believe."

Every human brain does this; it's basic biology. That's why bias confirmation is difficult to overcome.

Having believed M2C for decades, but now realizing it's a hoax, it's easier for me to recognize the biochemistry involved than it is for those still within the M2C bubble. It's also why none of this is personal or upsetting to me. I really don't care what anyone else believes, and I'm not trying to persuade anyone. I just want people to make informed decisions, and understanding neurochemistry is part of that.

For everyone interested in Book of Mormon historicity and geography, brain chemistry is activated by the mere term Cumorah.

M2C advocates, by definition, dismiss data regarding the New York Cumorah.

Every time an M2C follower sees a map of Mesoamerica with Cumorah in southern Mexico, his/her brain generates a positive response.

Every time an M2C follower sees a map of Cumorah in New York, his/her brain generates a negative response.

The psychological problem for M2C followers is that their brain normally generates positive responses to the teachings of the prophets. For example, they accept almost everything President Oliver Cowdery taught. Same with the other prophets who have reaffirmed the New York Cumorah.

But they can't accept what President Cowdery and the other prophets have said about the New York Cumorah. 

Consequently, when they read Letter VII, the psychological conflict causes greater pain that requires a stronger response. This is why you see them act so aggressively in word and deed.

We see the exact opposite brain chemistry among those Church members who still believe the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. They get positive rewards when they read those teachings, just as they get positive rewards from reading all the teachings of the prophets. They get a similar positive reward from seeing proposed geographies that affirm the New York Cumorah.

They get negative rewards when they see material that repudiates the teachings of the prophets.

Neurochemistry explains the "Book of Mormon Wars." 

It also explains why the M2C citation cartel continues to censor material that contradicts M2C. It's not so much that they want to keep members of the Church ignorant. It's more that they want to avoid giving their readers the psychological pain they feel whenever they see something that contradicts M2C or supports the New York Cumorah.

This also explain why the Gospel Topics Essay doesn't want anyone talking about this at Church. Because there is such a stark difference of opinion, no matter which side is represented, someone will feel pain while someone else will feel happiness.

That's why it is essential that the Gospel Topics Essay be actually implemented, starting by getting rid of the M2C materials in the curriculum and media.

As astute readers, you've already recognized that there's a problem with the censorship approach. We'll discuss it another time, but basically, as Andrew Yang recently tweeted"Trying to suppress ideas often doesn’t truly make them disappear - it just pushes them into the shadows where they sometimes gain strength and currency. Being open to ideas is itself a sign of confidence in your own."

Neurochemistry helps explain how biases are formed in the first place. 

Let's say you're a kid. Your parents give you a book such as Kelli Coughanour's "The Book of Mormon for Young Readers.

You're going to develop all kinds of positive emotions about this book. It's a gift from your parents. They read it with you. They encourage you to have faith in it.

The book teaches M2C overtly. I've discussed this in more detail here:

Your brain will give you reward signals whenever you see the infamous painting of Christ at Chichen Itza, or Mayan pyramids, or maps of Mesoamerica.

You progress through Seminary, Sunday School, and the youth programs. Your parents and Church leaders encourage you to read books by M2C scholars. At every step, your M2C bias is reinforced by people you've been taught to believe and admire.

M2C generates positive brain chemistry.

Maybe you visit the North Visitors Center on Temple Square and see Mormon depicted in a Mexican cave, surrounded by Mayan glyphs as he abridges the records. Off in the distance, all by himself, Moroni is depositing the plates in "a hill in New York."

Positive brain chemistry.

BYU fantasy map
Let's say you go to BYU and walk into Brother Tyler Griffin's awesome first-year Book of Mormon class. He explains the Book of Mormon with his fantasy map.

More positive brain chemistry.

You go on a mission and get more M2C reinforcement at the MTC because you don't realize (and no one is going to tell you) that the Church leaders for whom the buildings are named actually taught that Cumorah is in New York.

Maybe somewhere along the line, maybe several times, you come across one of the teachings by Church leaders about the New York Cumorah, such as Letter VII or a map of a proposed geography, that supports those teachings.

You brain registers an immediate negative response. Your neurochemistry quickly responds by invoking the M2C images and arguments you are comfortable with.

You hurry to FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, or another member of the M2C citation cartel because you know they will safely confirm your bias and give you positive feedback.

Sure enough, you read a Kno-Why and your bias is confirmed. Your neurochemistry keeps you happy.

It happens on all sides of the issue, and that's why this issue never gets resolved.

In upcoming posts, we'll see how and why this problem is getting more serious all the time.

Excerpts from the article about the study:
when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to convince themselves (unconsciously) — or “reason” — to emotionally biased conclusions, but scientists can trace their neural footprints as they do it.
When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. Whether this distress is conscious, unconscious, or some combination of the two, we don’t know.
The brain registers conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidates’ words and deeds.
As Westen points out, chemicals in the brain are like drugs, positive emotions are related to dopamine (a neurotransmitter found in rewards circuits in the brain) and inhibition and avoidance are associated with norepinephrine (a close cousin of the hormone adrenalin, which can produce fear and anxiety.) The brain function of partisans sought good chemicals and avoided bad ones.
Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly – as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the neural circuits normally involved in reasoning.
But the political brain also did something the researchers didn’t predict.
Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased “reasoning.” These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix,” giving new meaning to the term political junkie.
Westen shows that the brain “gravitates toward solutions designed to match not only data but desire,” by firing up activation to networks that lead to conclusions associated with positive emotions and inhibiting networks that would lead to negative emotions. This neurological-level process is so powerful that positive and negative feelings influence which arguments even reach our consciousness in the first place, as well as the amount of time we might spend thinking about different arguments, and the extent to which we either readily accept or critically search for “holes” in arguments or evidence that is emotionally reinforcing or threatening. On an unconscious level, the chemicals in our brains help us decide which news outlets we seek out and the company we keep. In short, as suggested by the neuroimaging study with which Westen begins his book, “our brains have a remarkable capacity to find their way toward convenient truths—even if they’re not all that true.”
This is especially true for those of us who are politically-engaged and informed. Political junkies, that’s you! Westen shows that partisans are most affected by chemically-altered reinforcement of our own worldviews:
For years, political scientists tended (or perhaps wanted) to believe that emotion-driven thinking is more characteristic of less sophisticated or less knowledgeable voters. However, the more sophisticated people are politically (e.g., the more they know about an issue), the more able they are to develop complex rationalizations for dismissing data they don’t want to believe. Politically knowledgeable citizens also tend to be partisans, which gives them the strongest reasons for distorted reasoning.
Here's a trigger warning for any M2C readers.

Don't read the next paragraphs.

The arguments M2C intellectuals put forth through the cartel (FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, the InterpreterBYU Studies, etc.) rely on sophistry and logical fallacies that appeal only to those who share the biases they are confirming. To the rest of us, the fallacies are transparent.

This is a recent comment by Attorney General Barr that has obvious comparisons with the way the M2C intellectuals operate.

Mr. Barr: “In my mind, they are, sure. I mean, republics have fallen because of Praetorian Guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state. And, you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.”

Sunday, June 2, 2019

General Authorities and Book of Mormon geography

I'm writing this to address questions people are asking about how the Gospel Topics Essay is being implemented. Everyone agrees that Book of Mormon geography is not a core issue for living the Gospel, but heeding the teachings of the prophets is.

And this question involves whether we accept or reject the clear, consistent teachings of the prophets.

This is a perennial issue, one that President Benson addressed years ago at BYU, as I discussed here:

The current version (2 June 2019) of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography states the following:

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. 

When this essay was released, many Church members welcomed it as a step toward correcting course; i.e., for too long, intellectuals in the Church have been teaching that the prophets are wrong, leaving members "confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon" as President Joseph Fielding Smith warned.

This essay, we thought, "leveled the playing field" so that every member of the Church could study the issue according to their own interests, enabling them to make informed decisions without feeling as though the Church was endorsing the theories of the intellectuals.

However, we still see Church leaders advocating and supporting the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory (M2C), thereby implying Church support for that theory.

This is troubling to members of the Church who still believe what the prophets have taught about Cumorah.

One example is a recent essay published by Book of Mormon Central that explicitly teaches M2C.

At the conclusion of the essay, we see this statement:

This KnoWhy was made possible by the generous contributions of Elder Lynn G. Robbins.

Whether Elder Robbins believes in M2C is irrelevant because he, like every member of the Church, is entitled to his own opinions. However, Book of Mormon Central uses this statement to convey Church endorsement of their theory.

Is that not a direct violation of the Gospel Topics Essay?

Another example is the web page of BMAF, the corporate owner of Book of Mormon Central. For years, they've featured General Authorities on their Advisory Board to imply Church endorsement of their M2C theory.

You can see it here:

Elder Ted E. Brewerton, Emeritus General Authority
Elder Robert E. Wells, Emeritus General Authority
Elder Merrill C. Oaks, Former General Authority
Elder Clate W. Mask, Former General Authority

I have other specific examples I won't take the time to mention here, and so long as the Church's Visitors Centers, CES and BYU curriculum, and Church media continue to promote M2C, I suppose the Gospel Topics Essay is not being enforced anyway.

Well, actually, I know of specific cases in which it is being enforced--but only to suppress the teachings of the prophets to accommodate the M2C intellectuals.

Which, I suspect and hope, is the opposite of what was intended by whomever wrote the essay.

To understand the essay in context, we should look at a little history.

Until the 1980s, when intellectuals in the Church managed to insert their ideas of Book of Mormon geography into the curriculum at BYU and CES, Church leaders consistently taught two things:

1. The Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York, the same hill from which Joseph obtained the plates; and

2. We don't know for sure where the rest of the events of the Book of Mormon took place.

(I've documented many of these statements here:

In the 1980s, the illustrations in the missionary edition of the Book of Mormon were changed to accommodate the new ideas of the intellectuals; i.e., that the "real" Hill Cumorah is in Mexico and that the hill in New York was named Cumorah as the result of a false tradition that Joseph passively adopted. This is the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory.

I discussed these changes here:

CES and BYU developed curriculum that set the Book of Mormon squarely in Central America, with the Hill Cumorah featured in southern Mexico.

The teachings of the prophets were censored completely from Church curriculum. Even Joseph Smith's Wentworth letter was edited to remove statements that contradicted M2C, as I discussed here.

Fortunately, the Church keeps good records.

The teachings of the prophets cannot be completely erased. 

Anyone can read the General Conference reports to see that members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have consistently and persistently taught that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York.

President Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII, which declares it is a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place at the Hill Cumorah in New York, is included in Joseph Smith's personal history, which everyone can read in the Joseph Smith Papers. It was originally published in the Messenger and Advocate and republished in the Gospel Reflector, the Times and Seasons, the Prophet, the Millennial Star, and the Improvement Era

It's easy for intellectuals to use sophistry to persuade members of the Church to ignore or reject the teachings of the prophets. Recall what President Benson said in the link above:

"The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them, otherwise the prophet is just giving his opinion—speaking as a man."

Those of us who still believe the teachings of the prophets should remain optimistic that eventually the Gospel Topics Essay will be implemented.

I recognize that many people are frustrated that the M2C intellectuals control CES and BYU, that they continue to censor, belittle, and repudiate the teachings of the prophets, and that so many members of the Church have formed their opinions about Book of Mormon geography in ignorance.

We look forward to the day when all the relevant information is readily available to every member of the Church so that we can each make informed decisions.