Several months ago I received a telephone call from Armand Mauss, who is a member of my Stake. He was calling on official Church business, but I couldn’t help taking the opportunity to pepper him with questions and pick his brain for about an hour. At one point in our discussion, he lamented the proliferation of Mormon blogs where, on any given day, one can find hundreds of people speculating and opining about numerous issues of which they actually know very little, and yet somehow hold unshakably strong and certain conclusions about them.
In that context, Brother Mauss related a story about John Dehlin calling and asking him to do an interview. Brother Mauss said he responded to John with a tone of half-lightheartedness, half-exasperation, by exclaiming: “Doesn’t anybody read anything in a book anymore?!” Brother Mauss’ point was that, as the author of two books and dozens of essays and articles, he’d already said everything that he has to say in print, where he can feel confident that his words were well-chosen, and more importantly, that his observations and conclusions were well-researched.
With a bit of frustration and bewilderment in his voice, Brother Mauss went on to observe that young LDS bloggers struggle to reinvent the wheel daily by speculating and debating about the same old issues that have already been carefully researched and written about over several decades in scholarly LDS-themed journals such as Dialogue. I told Brother Mauss that it seemed every new generation needed to struggle with the same fundamental questions, and that the Internet was simply the medium of choice for today’s generation because it was far more interactive than books or journals. I told him I thought today’s generation prefers the Internet because it allows for real-time discussions to occur, whereas with scholarly journals, the closest you come to a “discussion” are the letters to the editor that are published the next quarter or so.
Brother Mauss agreed that the Internet certainly allows for more discussion, but lamented that the discussions taking place are largely uninformed discussions because the blog format is simply not capable of being used to provide thorough, methodical, peer-reviewed research on any issue. Brother Mauss’ point was that although these uninformed blog discussions certainly hold an entertainment value for their participants, they cannot be considered seriously as sources of reliable information.
As I’ve observed the world of Mormon blogging since my conversation with Brother Mauss several months ago, I have to admit he makes a good point. So often we see in the Bloggernacle the same alarming trends that abound on the Internet discussion boards and in society at large. In a media-rich world awash with information and, all too often, misinformation, it’s so easy to be seriously misled without even knowing it. And with our ever-diminishing attention spans and an ever-accelerating Information Highway, it seems we just don’t have the patience to take the time to critically examine whether what we’re hearing, reading, and repeating to hundreds and thousands of others is, in fact, reliable information.
Although I certainly cannot claim to be an expert in Truth Detection, my profession as an attorney does require me to apply several time-tested rules to determine whether evidence is reliable. And I’m amazed at how often I see people quickly form passionate opinions, or readily abandon long-held beliefs, upon encountering new “information” that wouldn’t come close to being considered reliable evidence in a court of law. Everywhere we see people mentally convicting others of being liars, villains, and criminals, or adoring others as saints, heroes, and saviors, all based on “evidence” that wouldn’t even see the light of day in a court of law.
With that in mind, I’d like to set forth a few rules of thumb for sifting the informational wheat from the chaff both here in the Bloggernacle and beyond. Whenever we come across a significant assertion of fact, particularly one that we might base major life decisions upon, we’d do well to evaluate its reliability by asking the following questions:
1. Does the speaker cite any source(s) to substantiate his claim? If not, it is unreliable. For example, in a recent post on this website, an author posted a list of alleged similarities between the stories of Horus and Jesus that was copied from another website. On that list, a number of the alleged similarities were not accompanied by a citation to any source at all. Accordingly, they should be dismissed as unreliable assertions unless and until a source supporting those assertions is identified.
2. Is the cited source a primary source? A primary source is the original document, and a secondary source quotes, summarizes, interprets, or otherwise comments about the original document. In other words, a primary source is what someone said, and a secondary source is what someone says someone else said. Of course, these days there are an abundance of tertiary, quaternary, and quinary sources out there as well, where you can read something that someone says someone else said that someone else said that someone else said that someone else said. For example, Grant Palmer’s book Insider’s View of Mormon Origins purports to summarize the conclusions of a number of other writers’ research regarding the Book of Mormon, such as B.H. Roberts’ research on alleged similarities between the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews. In that situation, Insider’s View would be a tertiary source, and B.H. Robert’s Studies on the Book of Mormon would be a secondary source, and the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews would be primary sources. For obvious reasons, it’s most reliable to “get it from the horse’s mouth” by reviewing the primary sources yourself rather than relying on what someone said someone else said about what something else said.
3. Does the source contain someone’s first-hand observations or does it merely memorialize speculation or rumors? Even when we get to the primary source, we need to examine the reliability of the statements it contains because a person’s statements don’t become true merely because they’ve been written down. Whenever we read a historical document we should ask: how do we know the author knew what he was talking about when he wrote it down? For example, if Jane Doe wrote in her diary 170 years ago that Joseph Smith was a horse thief, how do we know she knew what she was talking about? In a court of law, one of the first questions to determine the reliability of a witness’ testimony is whether the witness claims to have “first-hand knowledge,” i.e., that he saw or heard something with his own eyes and ears. If the “witness” has merely written down her own speculation or is repeating rumors she’s heard from others, the evidence will be thrown out as unreliable. So even when we go to the primary sources, we need to examine whether the authors of those documents are claiming to be reporting their personal observations, as opposed to speculation and rumor.
4. How much time has passed between the time when someone purportedly observed something and the time when that person wrote about it? Even when we have a primary source where someone is claiming to have personally seen or heard something, we need to examine how much time has passed from the time that person observed the event to the time he or she wrote about it. For example, one piece of “documented historical evidence” that is used to support the idea that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from the Solomon Spaulding manuscript is the affidavit of Spaulding’s only child, who claimed that when she read the Book of Mormon, she recognized names like Nephi as having come from a manuscript her father had read to her as a child. So here we have a primary source (i.e., an affidavit by Spaulding’s daughter), and stating what the speaker claims to be something she personally heard (i.e., what her father read to her). It seems pretty convincing until you look a little more closely and realize she waited until her 70’s to finally record these “recollections,” and that she was 6 years old when her father supposedly read his manuscript to her. Although such an affidavit would be admissible in a court of law, the reliability of the speaker’s recollections would be challenged on the grounds that too much time passed (i.e., more than 64 years) between when the alleged events occurred and when they were later recorded. Moreover, the accuracy of her memory would be questioned because of her old age.
5. If the source contains statements of an alleged “expert”, what makes that person an “expert”? One day one of my college professors asked us to look around the class at our fellow students. Then he said, “Right now, you don’t feel obligated to accept your classmates’ opinions or conclusions at face value. You challenge and scrutinize them, as well you should. But a few of the students in here will decide to go on and pay for another couple years’ worth of tuition, and when they graduate some of them will obtain employment in their fields. And when that happens, they’ll be called ‘experts’ and ‘scholars.’ But I want you to remember the only difference between them and you is that they paid for a couple more years of school, and that doesn’t mean they don’t have biases, don’t do sloppy research, and don’t reach faulty conclusions. Don’t accept others’ opinions and conclusions at face value, even if they’re coming from so-called ‘experts’ and ‘scholars’.” I think my professor’s words are as wise now as they were then.
6. Is an “expert opinion” even necessary? When a party wants to introduce expert testimony in a court of law, the court will first consider whether the issue about which the expert will opine is an issue that even requires expert testimony, or is instead something that ordinary people are perfectly capable of figuring out for themselves. This rule exists because judges want to avoid the situation where jurors are “wowed” by an “expert’s” title and just adopt whatever views he espouses even though the jurors are perfectly capable of determining those issues for themselves. For example, I recently read a blog comment where someone stated that some experts at Stanford concluded that the Book of Mormon was likely copied in part from the Solomon Spaulding manuscript. I asked myself: “Is the question of whether the Book of Mormon is similar to the Spaulding manuscript really something we need ‘experts’ to tell us? Aren’t we just as capable of reading the Book of Mormon and Spaulding manuscript for ourselves and reaching our own conclusions about their similarities or lack thereof?” It’s amazing to see people abdicate their own reasoning to other people they’ve never met, merely because they’re called “scholars” or “experts.” For example, if you previously believed everything that General Authorities said without question, and you’ve now decided to rely on “scholars” and “experts” instead, you haven’t gone from being blindly obedient to thinking for yourself. You’ve just changed the group of people you’ve selected to do your thinking for you.
7. Are you certain you’ve heard the whole story? Even when we find a reliable statement in a primary souce from someone with first-hand knowledge, we still need to recognize that person’s perspective is just one of possibly dozens of others, and that we’ve therefore only heard a fragment of the whole story. In my profession, I’m frequently exposed to half-stories that sound completely convincing when standing alone. A plaintiff can take the witness stand and cry out a sob story that would even melt Stalin’s heart and make your blood boil with rage at the defendant. At least, until you hear the defendant’s side of the story, at which point everything changes. And you realize that even though the plaintiff was honest and sincere in what he said, records produced by the defendant reveal that the plaintiff was simply mistaken about a crucial detail. After seeing this sort of thing play out dozens of times, I constantly have to remind myself to reserve judgment until I’m certain I’ve heard the whole story.
8. Have you given equal time to researching all sides of the issue? If you surround yourself with books by Noam Chomsky and NPR broadcasts, don’t be surprised if you tend to always think the liberals are right. Likewise, if you surround yourself with books by Sean Hannity and Fox News broadcasts, don’t be surprised if you tend to always think the conservatives are right. We should never underestimate how our reading and listening choices color the lens through which we view the world. If we aren’t careful, our lop-sided decisions to immerse ourselves almost exclusively in a particular ideology can blind us to the merits of competing ideologies, and the flaws of our own.
9. Have you genuinely striven to find the merits in your opponent’s position? In law school, the professors I admired the most were the ones who I knew were either staunchly conservative or extremely liberal, and yet were capable of arguing their ideological opponents’ position so passionately and persuasively that, for a minute, you thought they had actually changed their ideological stripes. It’s sad to peruse blog comments in which people summarily dismiss opposing viewpoints by saying they have no merit at all. Usually every viewpoint has at least some kernel of truth, so if you can’t find any merit in your opponent’s position, you probably aren’t trying hard enough to see it.
10. Do you really have enough information to draw a definite conclusion that you can feel certain is right? Perhaps the most common and egregious thought crime committed by all of us is forming strong opinions, or taking strident positions of certainty, when in reality we haven’t come close to performing the sort of exhaustive research and reliability check that such strong and certain positions require. For millenia, the world’s great thinkers have acknowledged that the more they have learned, the more they have realized they don’t know. This doesn’t mean we should all wander around opinion-free, but it does mean we should be flexible in our understandings. Rather than forming inflexible views that we refuse to question or challenge, we should form flexible “working hypotheses,” i.e., flexible, tentative views that we continue to challenge, re-examine, and refine as we encounter new evidence. We’d all do well to recognize that “the jury’s still out” on so many major issues and questions in life, and possibly always will be.