Advice from a Nobel Prize Winner

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Much has been said in the last few days about FAIR’s publication of our concerns regarding Rod Meldrum’s scientific and theologic errors in the Book of Mormon DVD he is selling. As more material appears, doubtless more will be said.

I had the opportunity to spend several hours reviewing the material. As I did so, I found one over-riding error that is probably responsible for 95% of the other errors which I found.

Meldrum begins his presentation with an apparent promise that the information he is going to present is scientific:

One of the things I’ve learned in the scientific field is that there are three ways that you can go about learning. One of them is, when you get new information, you can look at it skeptically, you can look at it affirmatively, or you can also look at it objectively.

My hope is that you’ll look at the information that you’re going to be presented tonight in as objective a fashion as possible. [1]

In saying this, Meldrum makes a common, but very serious mistake, founded on the assumption that it is possible to “objective.” It is not. Everyone has biases and pre-conceived notions which make them prone to accept some things and reject others.[2] Scientists learned long ago that they cannot be objective—no one can. Someone who asserts that he is being objective is hiding his biases from himself, if from no one else.

Instead of trying to be “objective” (which is impossible), scientists have learned to recognize their biases and reduce their effects. Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, a member of the team that developed the atomic bomb, told a group of students something that ought to be tatooed on the forehead of every scientist, and everyone who consumes scientific information (which is all of us):

[The] first principle [of the scientific method] is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.[3]

The first way to stop fooling ourselves, and possibly fooling others, is to quit believing and asserting that one is objective.

Dr. Feynman went on to say that a scientist must have:

a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards…

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it…

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

Rather than assuming or insisting we are objective—because we cannot be—we should be skeptical. We should be skeptical of our own scientific ideas as well as those of others. To do this requires that we hear both sides of any disputed question. Of course we may argue for the side we believe to be correct—but we must give all the relevant facts to be engaged in scientific study.

“Ultimately, the best thing to do is simply to listen with an open mind,” Meldrum tells us.[4] Our minds should be open—but, we should also be testing and proving the material we let into our minds. That is what skepticism is about. It is no good having an open mind if we accept nonsense into it. As one wit observed, “Keep an open mind—but not so open your brain falls out.” Hyrum Smith cautioned the Saints in 1844:

“…it is better not to have so much faith as to have so much as to believe all the lies.”[5]

Since Meldrum has decided that skepticism is not the way he wishes to approach his material, it has fallen to others to help the reader do it for him, because of the unacceptably high consequences of not doing so.

I want to here examine a couple of his questionable claims and provide the rest of the information needed to assess his conclusions. The open-minded reader can then decide if Meldrum has made his scientific case or not.

Bias

Meldrum admits that he has a bias toward the Church being true. I share that bias, and I believe my colleagues at FAIR do too.

The most dangerous biases are, however, those that go unrecognized. Meldrum’s has a bias that goes beyond believing the truth of the gospel. He says, for example, of his ideas about the buffalo: “I just love this…I literally felt like I was being directly guided in this particular portion.”[6] When one is this confident, extra skepticism and evidence is needed. Being “guided” by the Spirit in a secular research is evidence for no one else, and may make us less skeptical about our conclusions. So it proves, sadly, in this case. There is a great deal that is wrong about his buffalo section; I will examine only one error among many here.

Another of Meldrum’s biases is his unchallenged assumption that “If [the Book of Mormon] is true, there has to be physical evidence in addition to the spiritual evidence. You can’t have an entire civilization of people come and go and leave no trace.”[7] At first glance, this statement appears both obvious and worthy. However, it is wrong.

Firstly, it is a logical fallacy. How could we possibly know if a civilization has come and gone without a trace if they don’t leave a trace? Absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. There is not a single physical trace of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, but he did it. How do we know he did it? There is no trace of it at all, unless we allow that a written record is itself a trace in which case we have traces in abundance. The city of Ebla, long known from Egyptian and Akkadian inscriptions, was not discovered until 1968. Did it cease to exist until then? When Meldrum excludes the written record from his definition of “a trace” he rules out most of the historical world.

William Hamblin has pointed out that were it not for written records, we would be unable to prove that Christians existed in the Roman Empire before A.D. 300. There is simply no genetic or archaeological evidence of them.[8] Without a written record there would be no trace of the resurrected Savior’s appearance to the disciples in the upper room, and there would be no trace of the wounds in his hands and side that Thomas felt, and thus believed—which was, we all recall, immediately followed by the Lord’s invocation of a blessing of all who believe without “a trace” of similar evidence.

In the Americas we thus far have no verified written record of the Nephite civilization except for the Book of Mormon—which is, actually, a significant and convincing trace. Should we really be so confident that we can find the Nephites if we couldn’t find Christians in a much-better-studied area of the world?

“[F]rom archaeological data alone,” notes Dr. Hamblin, “we would know almost nothing about the religion and kingdom of ancient Judah. Indeed, based on archaeological data alone we would assume the Jews were polytheists exactly like their neighbors. Judaism, as a unique religion, would simply disappear without the survival of the Bible and other Jewish written texts.”[9]

Even when we find a Nephite artefact, how will we know it for sure? Must a pot have “Made In Zarahemla” stamped on the bottom? Must we find “Coriantumr was here” scrawled on a wall? How could we tell whether a Mesoamerican atlatl or a Hopewell knife is a Nephite weapon?

In a demonstration of how biases can blind us to obvious answers, Meldrum says of the buffalo:

There were 60 million buffalo, and buffalo average about 1,600 pounds, compared to an average 200 pound human. How many buffalo do we still find out there? How much of their remains are there? See, if they’re not buried and they’re just left on the plains like these people were, according to the Book of Mormon, they just disintegrate. And they’re gone. No record.

[This is true; the buffalo left no record or records.]

OK, so only the ones that were buried are going to be the ones that you’re going to be able to find. So the idea of finding massive amounts of people at the Hill Cumorah and finding their bones and so forth is really kind of ludicrous. It’s not going to happen. If they were left out there on the plains, on the valleys, they would have just disintegrated like the big, 1,600 pound buffalo did. 60 million of them just disappeared.[10]

Meldrum has ensnared himself in his own arguments. All civilizations must leave a trace, he says. But 60,000,000 buffalo haven’t, and neither have Cumorah’s dead. Which is it: can we not believe in things that the toll of time erases, or can we depend upon a record even when there is no physical proof? I would opt for the record: the one in the Bible and the one in the Book of Mormon.

This fundamental error sets Meldrum’s audience up for a fall. If he’s correct that there must be physical evidence, what is his audience to do if they learn that the evidence he has presented does not hold water? He regrettably does not appear to understand that if the premises upon which he asks his audience to believe in the Book of Mormon prove to be false, faith in the scripture can crumble with the shaky edifice of flawed facts. The things he offers as powerful arguments for his religion can become powerful arguments against it if those arguments are based on false assumptions, and since he tells them that such evidence must exist.

Archaeological, anthropological, linguistic and other corroborative contributions to an understanding of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon are all topics of considerable interest, but they are not the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ that is the object of both books. Until qualified researchers can agree among themselves, I recommend watching and reading their work with skeptical interest. However, hundreds of thousands have obtained, and thousands upon thousands continue daily to receive, a witness by the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be. There is abundant information available to satisfy the intellectual needs of anyone with an open mind, but we should not expect that such evidence must exist, or that it will take the form we presume it must.

We must examine our biases. As Joseph Smith observed, “…if we get a good start first we can go right, but if you start wrong you may go wrong.”[11] This applies, I believe, to both spiritual and secular knowledge.

Endnotes
[1] Rod Meldrum, “Introduction,” 4:30. All references to the DVD unless otherwise indicated; time-stamp is approximate.
[2] See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” And the American Historical Profession, Ideas in Context (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
[3] Richard P. Feynman, “Cargo Cult Science [from 1974 Caltech Commencement Address],” in Engineering and Science (June 1974), 10–13, emphasis added.
[4] Meldrum, “Introduction,” 4:30–5:00.
[5] Cited in John Sorenson, Instant Book of Mormon Archaeology BYU Studies 16:3 (Spring 1976): 429.
[6] Meldrum, Section #8, “Buffalo,” 0:00–0:25.
[7] Meldrum, “Introduction,” 5:40, emphasis added.
[8] William J. Hamblin, message posted 28 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 2 BoM Challenge,” on FAIRboards.org (accessed 10 April 2005),
[9] William J. Hamblin (posting under the screen-name, “MorgbotX”), “What Would Be Proof of the Book of Mormon,” on Zion’s Lighthouse Bulletin Board (ZLMB) (29 January 2004) (accessed 10 April 2005). http://p080.ezboard.com/fpacumenispagesfrm67.showMessage?topicID=213.topic
[10] Meldrum, Section #8, “Buffalo Evidence,” 6:00–6:45.
[11] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Religious Studies Monograph Series (Provo, Utah and Salt Lake City, Utah: Religious Studies Center, distributed by Bookcraft, 1980), 323; from 7 April 1844, citing Wilford Woodruff diary.

9 thoughts on “Advice from a Nobel Prize Winner

  1. Seth R.

    “…it is better not to have so much faith as to have so much as to believe all the lies.”

    Fun quote from Hyrum. Too bad it runs a bit counter to what his brother Joseph said:

    “I never believed in a man being damned for believing too much.”

  2. Greg Smith Post author

    Fun quote from Hyrum. Too bad it runs a bit counter to what his brother Joseph said:

    Don’t be silly.

    Hyrum didn’t say you’d be damned for believing false things. He just said that it would be better, all things considered, if you didn’t believe untruths. It’s always better to have just faith in true things, and no faith in false things.

    I find it hard to believe anyone would quarrel with the idea that having faith in a false idea is not the optimum state of affairs.

  3. Aaron L. M. Goodwin

    Very well put. I’ve always been skeptical of anything purporting to prove the Book of Mormon true. As you said, the Book of Mormon is about Christ. No archeological evidence is needed to reach that end.

  4. Jack

    That’s a great post, Greg. I love the bit about one’s brain falling out. It could also be said that we should have an open mind, but not so open that people can dump their trash in it.

  5. Steven Danderson

    Feynman is also credited with solving the cause of the Challenger explosion (though Feynman himself credits USAF General Donald Kutyna) [See Feynman, Richard P., What Do You Care What Other People Think?, 1988, W W Norton].

    It seems that whenever people get so cocky that they think they know it all, things blow up on them.

  6. Linda

    If you are going to rely on written record, I would hope you would first read one of the original histories of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania where Joseph Smith spent some growing-up time. People there believed him to have been a total nut case (unusal for claims to know someone famous). He once talked to an indian trying to find treasure. The indian told him he needed a white dog, to cut its throat and swing it in a circle. Where the blood splattered he would find treasure. Joseph Smith could not find a white dog so used a chicken instead – of course not finding treasure. He used to find neighbors “lost” items from their barns, by using what he called a seeing stone. His 1st wife on their honeymoon trip he took to Palmyra and dumped her. People in Susquehanna County considered him such a fake that in later years when people would come to “see the home where Joseph Smith grew-up” (before there was a monumont erected there) pranksters would push the visitors cars into the Susquehanna River. To sum up, Joseph Smith was considered a theif, a morally lacking and unstable person by his neighbors and people who had contact with him. And yes, I know someone will be saying “the same was said about Christ”. The difference is we have no written record about Christ written during the time he lived. All we have is the accounts of a few of his friends written long after he died. The accounts of Joseph Smith were taken from his neighbors and recorded during our great-grandparents time – and yes, I am older and grew up in Susquehanna County.

  7. Greg Smith Post author

    It’s nice to see the Hurlburt-Howe affidavits resurrected from one more gasping turn around the old anti-Mormon track.

    You might want to review the extensive literature on these matters.

    For example, here and here. You’re only about 30 years out of date. 🙂

    [Edited: the links now work.]

  8. Ryan

    Does anyone know how to say “Coriantumr was here” in reformed Egyptian? I’m hoping to travel to New York and Guatemala so I can scratch it onto the walls of assorted caves there. 🙂 That would throw both camps off!

    Linda – I find it vaguely sad to observe your behavior. You must really think you’ve got something there. Unfortunately, your scattershot attempts at character assassination mean nothing to the validity and truthfulness of the church.

  9. Greg Smith

    Steve:

    I’m not sure what this has to do with Meldrum’s funny abuse and misuse of buffalo evidence, but I see you’ve also posted similar remarks to all FAIR’s blog threads on Book of Mormon geography and the Meldrum DVD. I will add here what I added there.

    ====

    In between your sarcasm, it does not seem that you have paid very close attention to the discussion up to now. Since you are coming in late, hopefully we can make some things clear.

    1) In the first place, FAIR does not hold the positions which you attribute to it.

    FAIR endorses no geographical model of the Book of Mormon. There are members of FAIR who hold a North American model, some hold a continental model, some favor a Mesoamerican model, and a sizeable chunk don’t care and have no real opinion on the matter at all.

    This is made very clear at the beginning of each section of the review listed here.

    ===

    2) In the second place, Joseph Smith made several statements about Book of Mormon geography. These statements changed over time–indicating that either he got revelation later in the process OR that he was speaking of his own best assessment of the evidence, and this changed as he learned more.

    You can see all statements made by the prophet Joseph Smith here.

    You can read about this and treatment of the evidence in our review of Rod Meldrum’s material here. You will note he both ignored evidence which did not fit his model, and distorted some which he did cite.

    3) FAIR is not making the statement that prophets do not automatically know everything, especially peripheral details. FAIR has drawn that conclusion via numerous scriptures and statements of the modern prophets and apostles.

    Joseph Smith himself said that a prophet was only a prophet “when he was acting as such.” Scripture makes it clear that even serious matters affecting the progress of the Church were not always revealed to Joseph (D&C 10:37).

    In the LDS tradition, prophets are not omniscient, nor are they infallible

    As George Q. Cannon explained:

    The Presidency of the Church have to walk just as you walk. They have to take steps just as you take steps. They have to depend upon the revelations of God as they come to them. They cannot see the end from the beginning, as the Lord does. They have their faith tested as you have your faith tested. So with the Twelve Apostles. All that we can do is to seek the mind and will of God, and when that comes to us, though it may come in contact [conflict?] with every feeling that we have previously entertained, we have no option but to take the step that God points out, and to trust to Him… [George Q. Cannon, “Enduring to the End,” 5 October 1890; reported in ”Collected Discourses: delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others”, Vol. 2, edited and compiled by Brian H. Stuy, (Woodland Hills, Utah: B. H. S. Publishing, 1988), 115–116.]

    ===
    Finally, leaders of the Church have repeatedly been clear that there is no revealed location for Book of Mormon geography.

    FAIR aims to support and defend the leaders of the Church. And our review used their words on this point.

    If you are convinced that the Church and its leaders are neglecting a revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith on Book of Mormon geography, and not teaching it, perhaps you should make your concern known by writing to:

    President Boyd K. Packer
    President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
    50 E. North Temple
    Salt Lake City, Utah 84150

    You should explain to him how he and the other prophets and apostles are ignoring a revelation to Joseph Smith. You may even with to point out how FAIR members are also guilty of “heresy” on this point, as you put it, and that many employees of the Church’s flagship university (BYU, in Provo) have published and taught the same thing for over fifty years. You should also point out that Rod Meldrum is trying to correct this matter.

    Please let us know how he replies.

    Your recent comment on this and other blog threads (making essentially the same claims) are, unfortunately, why FAIR believed it was necessary to respond to the material and claims made by Rod Meldrum which are at variance with the teachings of the living prophets and the historical record.

    I hope you will examine the evidence and refrain from charging members of the Church (including the prophets and apostles) who do not agree with you with heresy or a rejection of Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s prophetic role.

    Best wishes,

    Greg Smith

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