Friday, December 30, 2016

The Illusion of Knowledge

Yesterday Scott Adams (Dilbert) posted an awesome comment about how both sides of the climate science debates look 100% convincing to the under-informed. Here's his post:

Although he was writing about the climate debate, it's an interesting parallel to the Book of Mormon geography debate. Look at what he says here and see how it compares:

"So how did the public respond to my claim that BOTH sides of the debate look convincing? They berated me for not sufficiently researching materials from ONE side of the debate that happens to be their side. Many people suggested that I could simply do some homework, on my own, and get to the bottom of climate science.

"That is a massive public illusion."

The parallel to the Book of Mormon geography issue should be obvious. People from both sides of the issue think their own side is right because they have SO MUCH EVIDENCE!

As long as Book of Mormon geography remains an academic debate, there is no limit to the number of alternatives that can be dreamed up.

Adams explains this very well:

"You can’t change my mind by telling me exactly what I just told YOU. We both agree with you that your argument is 100% convincing. Just like the argument that says you are totally wrong. Both excellent.
"And so we have an odd situation in which both sides of the debate are in deep illusion, even if one side is right and the other is wrong. The illusion is that one side is obviously correct – and the belief that you could see that too, if only you would spend a little energy looking into it on your own. If you hold that belief, no matter which side you are on, you can be sure you are experiencing an illusion."
Because of my long involvement with climate issues, I think Adams makes an excellent point here. Both sides are convinced they have overwhelming evidence to support their positions. Both sides think they are being objective and scientific.

He goes on to point out that this is simple psychology.

Non-scientists don’t have the tools to form a useful opinion on climate science. What we usually do instead is look at one side of the debate, ignore the other side, and use confirmation bias to harden our illusion of certainty. That’s how normal brains work. So if you are both normal and you have a strong opinion about climate science, I can say with confidence that you are hallucinating about your certainty.

Adams' point here applies to many, and maybe most, aspects of our lives. If we have a strong opinion on politics, this explanation definitely applies. If we have a strong opinion about relative brands (Apple vs. Samsung), best places to live, or sports teams, we're probably confirming our biases. (Okay, those might be more emotional and subjective preferences, but anything purporting to be even quasi-scientific or objective fits within Adams' explanation pretty well.)

Now, think about where you stand on Book of Mormon geography and see if that fits. In many cases, it does. It has become a purely academic debate. That's why the difference of opinion persists.
But is the Book of Mormon geography question really a purely academic one?

I don't think so.

Remember, when I say "both sides" I'm not ignoring the complexity of the issue, with all the varieties of proposed geographies. To me, there are only two sides of the geography debate:

Cumorah in New York vs. Cumorah not in New York

If you think Cumorah is not in New York, it makes no difference to me where it is because you have just labeled Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as confused speculators who misled the Church. Plus, you've labeled their successors as people who have perpetuated a false theory, including in General Conference.

I simply don't see a way around this. Take President Marion G. Romney's address in the 1975 General Conference. If you think Cumorah is not in New York, how do you deal with what he said? Do you say he's just a man giving his opinion, and he's wrong because you disagree with him? Seriously?

The difference between the climate debate and the Book of Mormon geography debate is that no scientists are relying on prophets and apostles for guidance on this issue. But the Book of Mormon issues are inherently religious, and Joseph and Oliver--the President and Assistant President of the Church, on whose joint testimony the reality of the restoration of the Priesthood and all the keys relies--were explicitly clear about the issue of Cumorah.

I realize some LDS scholars and educators reject Letter VII because they think in requires a hemispheric model, which they can't reconcile with the text. I'm sympathetic to that view as far as it goes, but there's a major disconnect here: Joseph and Oliver didn't explicitly and repeatedly claim the hemispheric model was a fact.

Others reject Letter VII because they think Joseph and Oliver were speculating, and they think that has no bearing on everything else they said.

But consider this.

The first account we have of John the Baptist conferring the Aaronic priesthood was in Oliver's letters.

Critics of the Church say Oliver and Joseph invented the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood years after the fact, and that's why it doesn't appear until Oliver's letter was published. IOW, critics undermine that foundational story on the ground that Joseph and Oliver were making stuff up.

If you reject Letter VII on the same grounds--that Joseph and Oliver were making stuff up--then you're making the same argument as the critics who say John the Baptist never appeared to them and never conferred the Priesthood on them.

The difference between the climate scenario that Adams discusses in his blog and the Book of Mormon geography question is that our prophets and apostles have taken a position on Cumorah being in New York.

It's not a question of whether a horse is a tapir or a tower is a pyramid. Those are academic debates, and those arguments never end even among the academics. Non-academics have no way to determine which side is right on the basis of academics alone.

But we don't have to be scholars to understand what the prophets and apostles have said.

And yes, I'm fully aware that a few of them have said, in various settings, that the Lord has not revealed the geography. But that's a different question from the long-resolved question of where Cumorah is. With Cumorah in New York where Joseph and Oliver said it was, the rest of the geography is wide open. You can believe it took place from Tierra de Fuego to Hudson Bay, or you can believe it all took place in western New York, or anywhere in between.

The extent of Book of Mormon geography beyond the New York Cumorah is, for now, a legitimate academic question. I have my opinions, and others have theirs, and it can be a fruitful discussion, along the lines Adams' points out in this piece.

But the New York Cumorah, IMO, is long-settled by the prophets and apostles. That the New York location is so well corroborated is simply a bonus.

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