Saturday, May 14, 2016

When All Economics Is Political

The WSJ has an excellent article today titled "When All Economics Is Political." I find a lot of analogies to the question of Book of Mormon geography.

The article is an interview Russ Roberts. I'll provide excerpts and comments.

WSJ: Economics fancies itself a science, and Mr. Roberts used to believe, as many of his peers do, that practitioners could draw dispassionate conclusions. But he has in recent years undergone something of a crisis of economic faith. “The problem is, you can’t look at the data objectively most of the time,” he says. “You have prior beliefs that are methodological or ideological about the impact of things, and that inevitably color the assumptions you make.”

ME: In similar fashion, the discussion about Book of Mormon geography and historicity is affected by ideology. As someone who has held different scholarly views over time--for decades, I accepted the citation cartel's position on Mesoamerica, but now I accept the North American setting--the power of ideology is quite apparent to me. It is the problem of seers; i.e., those wearing Mesoamerican glasses can't unsee Mesoamerica (and some wearing North American or Heartland glasses can't unsee that setting, either, although most, if not all, of them have previously worn the Mesoamerican glasses because that's what they were taught their entire lives).

I don't think it's possible to be completely objective, of course, but unless you can fully articulate the other side's position in a debate or argument, you don't understand the issues. I don't think anyone involved with this topic has bad motives or is, for lack of a better term, dumb. But the citation cartel seems determined to prevent people from knowing about the North American setting.

Overall, the major reasons why I changed my mind from Mesoamerica to North America are because the Mesoamerican arguments require us to deny (or rationalize away) basic facts of Church history, such as Letter VII, to disbelieve two of the Three Witnesses, to believe Joseph translated the book incorrectly, and to find "correspondences" between Mayan culture and the text that, in my view, are illusory at best and contradictory at worst. These objections are not the product of my prior beliefs; for decades, I actually agreed with the Mesoamerican view; i.e., I wore the Mesoamerican glasses. Instead, my change in positions is the product of removing the Mesoamerican glasses long enough to take another look at everything. And without those glasses, none of the Mesoamerican ideology holds up (which I think is one reason why it has been so utterly unpersuasive to non-Mormons and former Mormons).

WSJ: This seems obvious to an outsider, given the field’s tendency to devolve into stalemate. Each side has highly intelligent scholars, some with fancy Swedish gold medals, and yet each finds the other’s conclusions self-evidently stupid. The old saw in science is that progress comes one funeral at a time, as disciples of old theories die off. Economics doesn’t work that way. “There’s still Keynesians. There’s still monetarists. There’s still Austrians. Still arguing about it. And the worst part to me is that everybody looks at the other side and goes ‘What a moron!’ ” Mr. Roberts says. “That’s not how you debate science.”
If economists can’t even agree about the past, why are they so eager to predict the future?
ME: In the geography arena, it's not progress that comes one funeral at a time, but increased confusion. For the first 100 years of Church history, the New York setting for Cumorah was unilaterally accepted, even to the point of being included in the footnotes in the official version of the Book of Mormon itself. It wasn't until the 1920s that scholars began developing the two-Cumorah theory, and that in turn was based largely on the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. Those who had participated in the Times and Seasons were all dead, so despite warnings from Joseph Fielding Smith, the two-Cumorah theory took on a life of its own.

Now, in 2016, we're in a situation where LDS scholars can't even agree whether to give credence to Letter VII. During Joseph Smith's lifetime, Letter VII was a given. No one questioned its unequivocal explanation that the final wars of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in the valley west of what we call today the Hill Cumorah.

If LDS scholars can't even agree about the past, why are they so eager to promulgate their theories about geography?

I've long called for an agreement about basic facts of Church history, but so far, that hasn't happened.

WSJ: To a hard materialist, the world is physics all the way down. If free will is an illusion, if knowable laws govern every unfolding event, then why can’t social scientists march toward a perfect understanding?

This one is a fascinating philosophical question, but I apply it to the geography debate this way. Some people insist on "conclusive evidence" about historical events. That's akin to insisting on the laws of physics explaining everything. But there can be no "conclusive evidence" about what happened in history. First-person accounts are the best evidence we have, but they can be erroneous, self-interested, biased, or even intentionally deceptive. That's why we consider such evidence in light of extrinsic evidence that corroborates or contradicts the account, including any physical evidence, and knowledge about basic human behavior.

Insisting on "conclusive evidence" is essentially opening the door to whatever one wants to think; i.e., because there neither is nor can be "conclusive evidence" of what happened in history, one's theories are not constrained by any facts at all. This is what I see happening in the Mesoamerican arena. Their theories contradict the evidence we do have (such as Letter VII), so they disregard the evidence. This untethered approach has led to what we see today in the writings of the citation cartel.

Overall, I think members of the Church who are allowed to see all of the evidence will soundly reject the Mesoamerican theory. (Many are too indoctrinated by BYU/CES to be willing to even take a look at alternatives, but that is changing.) I think that's why the citation cartel has refused to allow their readers to see alternatives to the Mesoamerican theory.

I've been told more than once (mostly by old-timers) that those who speak or write against the Mesoamerican theory are apostates, shouldn't have temple recommends, etc. That's how serious this indoctrination has become.

In this sense, then, maybe the old saw will actually work on Book of Mormon geography after all. The old saw in science is that progress comes one funeral at a time, as disciples of old theories die off.


  1. The Book of Mormon TEXT does not support either the Mesoamerican nor any North American models. For one thing, twice is says they are on an Island of the Sea. It is clear from the TEXT that there are Seas, (not lakes) to the West, East, North and South. The only model that is in harmony with the TEXT is the South American model where the Amazon basin is underwater before the time of Christ. And a multitude of other factors also support this model. Consider what Del has to say about Letter VII --

    1. Who knows? Maybe the text does fit a South American model -- but not for the reasons you list here, which are based on entirely unwarranted assumptions.

      First, to ancient peoples, there was one ocean surrounding the earth. Any body of land separated from that central land mass by the ocean was an "island." Thus, even the legendary Atlantis is referred to as an "island," though it is also "as vast as a continent." (And South America, even with a flooded Amazonian basin, would hardly better qualify as an "island" than the rest of the Americas, to which it would still be connected.)

      Second, the Book of Mormon was translated into English; not written in English. The word "sea" in Hebrew is "YaM," and is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea (both lakes), the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea, and the Brazen Sea (a font). The word denotes a standing body of water; it does not describe the size of that body of water.

    2. Good points, Russ. YAM also refers to a great river. Isaiah and Nahum both used it to refer to the Nile River.

    3. BTW, I encourage people who are interested to read the NephiCode blog and see for themselves if it makes sense.

    4. Regarding "Yam": It's also why most Mesoamericanists can't "unsee" oceans for "sea." Rivers can make very formidable boundaries.

  2. "Conclusive evidence" was never used to choose the Mesoamerican theory, and yet it has to be used to "unchoose" it?! (That goes on a lot, I am finding - my same frustrations on the false "diet-heart hypothesis" - sorry to change the subject!) :S

  3. That's an excellent point. The Mesoamerican advocates don't apply the same standard of proof to their own theories. That's why they reject Letter VII, written by Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, while they embrace the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons that refer to Central America. Worse, they know the Times and Seasons articles are factually wrong--the Stevens ruins post-date Book of Mormon time frames--while Letter VII is consistent with the archaeological evidence in New York.

    That's why I say the Mesoamerican theory is an ideology, not a fact-based, objective analysis of the text, Church history, and relevant sciences.