Thursday, February 12, 2015

Peer reviewing FARMS and the Maxwell Institute

I’m undertaking a peer review of selected FARMS Review articles, focusing on those related to the Book of Mormon. As a former trial lawyer and prosecutor, I seek to follow the evidence wherever it leads. I’m not employed by anyone, so I don’t have to tailor my conclusions to anyone else’s agenda.
I’m focusing on the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship because the Institute took over for FARMS and seems intent on presenting only one point of view; i.e., the Maxwell Institute seeks to establish and defend the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography, particularly the version offered by John L. Sorenson.
FAIR once published an article titled "Misguided Zeal and Defense of the Church," republished by here:
That article included three steps, including these quotations from Hugh Nibley which I will apply to my own work as well as that of FARMS, FAIR, BMAF, the Maxwell Institute, or anyone else.
Step 1: Understand the problem. "We must know what we are doing, understand the problem, live with it, lay a proper foundation--how many a Latter-day Saint has told me that he can understand the scriptures by pure revelation and does not need to toil at Greek or Hebrew as the Prophet and the Brethren did in the School of the Prophets at Kirtland and Nauvoo?"Hugh Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless: Classic Essays of Hugh Nibley (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 269-270.
I have been involved with Book of Mormon issues since I took a class from John Sorenson as a freshman at BYU and later, after I graduated from law school, participated in a peer-review of his book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. I've read most of his work, along with that of FARMS and the other organizations. I've visited many of the proposed sites in Central America, etc. Overall, I have to say that my impression of Sorenson, Clark, Gardner, et al. is that they engage in confirmation bias; they research enough to confirm their biases and then stop. I'll explain when I do my peer reviews of their work.
Step 2: Test Conclusions.   "Not infrequently, Latter-day Saints tell me that they have translated a text or interpreted an artifact, or been led to an archaeological discovery as a direct answer to prayer, and that for me to question or test the results is to question the reality of revelation; and often I am asked to approve a theory or "discovery" which I find unconvincing, because it has been the means of bringing people to the Church. Such practitioners are asking me to take their zeal as an adequate substitute for knowledge, but...refuse to have their knowledge tested. Nibley, Timely and Timeless, 269-270
What Nibley describes here is exactly what Benjamin Winchester was doing: seeking approval of the Mesoamerican setting because he thought it was the means of bringing people to the Church. Ironically, in my experience, the Mesoamerican theory might attract interest short term, but both investigators and members who pursue the matter come to realize the Mesoamerican theory doesn't fit the Nephites at all. The cardinal directions don't work, so the Mesoamerican supporters have to claim Joseph mistranslated those directions. The animals don't work, so Joseph mistranslated the animals, etc. There is no evidence of Book of Mormon people in Mesoamerica; at best, there are similarities or analogies, not much different from any other culture anywhere in the world. But I'm still open to more knowledge about the matter, and I hope the Mesoamerican supporters are too.
I encourage anyone to read my work and comment. I welcome scholarly dialogue and I've sought input from scholars.
We'll see if the scholars welcome my input.
Step 3: Don't Distort Others' Claims. A common rhetorical tactic is to rephrase someone else's argument to make it easier to attack. I see this all the time in litigation and appellate arguments. For that reason, I plan to do peer reviews in the form of editing and commenting on the body of the paper as a whole. In some cases, that's not necessary, as when most of a given paper is fine or irrelevant to my critique. But I never want to take anything out of context or distort what someone else writes or claims. Straw-man arguments are a wast of everyone's time.
Watch for my peer reviews in upcoming posts.

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