History as Narrative Fallacy aka What Type of Apologist Are You?

Bruce Nielsonapologetics, doubt, historicity, history 37 Comments

“History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work. …the minds of the gods cannot be read just by witnessing their deeds. You are very likely to be fooled about their intentions.” (The Black Swan, P. 8 )

In a previous post I discussed the realities of The Black Swan, those improbable events that rule our lives but we pretend don’t and can’t happen. I also discussed how in actuality “randomness” is really just incomplete information. And finally I discussed how we feel the need to reverse engineer explanation for historical events — even though it’s impossible — and how, once we do, we have a really hard time realizing that there is more than one viable explanation for the same event. [1]

Which brings me to how this all directly relates to the LDS Church and specifically to the intolerance we show each other on the Bloggernacle at times. It is all directly related to two facts:

  1. History is a collection of facts demanding interpretation before we can process them.
  2. Thus all history is mostly narrative fallacy.

This means that two people can and will interpret it differently and both will have been fooled by their brains to believe that theirs is the one best way to explain those facts and only an idiot or liar would think otherwise.

It’s not hard to see that this simple explanation explains everything about the relationship between more believing and less believing Mormons. Indeed, it explains the relationship between Mormons and Evagelicals, and Evangelicals and Liberals and… Democrats and Republicans, and Communists and… well… it sort of explains life. Let’s leave it at that.

Why? Because some people have a narrative fallacy in the mind that proves or disproves the truth claims of the LDS Church (or fill in the blank point of view). To those that think they disproved it, it’s just obvious that the LDS Church is not “the one truth church.” Depending on their personal point of view it might also seem “obvious” to them that Joseph Smith was a charlatan, or that he was sincere but misguided, etc. To those that think they have proven it, the same could be said, but in reverse.

Furthermore, anyone that is held bound by a different narrative fallacy must seem like they are being deceptive, or at least brainwashed, by comparison. After all, both of you are being fooled by randomness (i.e. lack of information) on the subject into creating narrative fallacies to explain the outcome. And both of you, having defective brains, can’t help but feel “you’ve figured it all out.”

This is why we need to understand the real limits of history if we are ever to “get along.”

NNT is a huge history buff, so he wanted to treat history and historians well. Unlike financiers, sociologies, and statisticians, which he feels are usually charlatans, the historian’s craft has value even if that value is not actually finding out “what really happened.”

History is useful for the thrill of knowing the past, and for the narrative (indeed), provided it remains a harmless narrative. One should learn under severe caution. History is certainly not a place to theorize or derive general knowledge, nor is it meant to help in the future, without some caution. We can get negative confirmation from history [i.e. find a Black Swan and thereby prove something], which is invaluable, but we get plenty of illusions of knowledge along with it. (p. 199)

NNT’s advice to use history safely is, “Learn to read history, get all the knowledge you can, do not frown on the anecdote, but do not draw any causal links, do not try to reverse engineer too much – but if you do, do not make big scientific claims.” (p. 199)

This seems like obviously good advice, but as NNT points out, it runs counter to the current thinking by modern historians. He quotes historians that are “explicitly pursuing causation as a central aspect of [their] job.” (p. 199) Isn’t that what we’ve always been taught is the whole point of history? Are we not told that historians are to find cause and effect and that this is useful so that we aren’t “doomed to repeat” our mistakes?

His conclusion: “The more we try to turn history into anything other than an enumeration of accounts to be enjoyed with minimal theorizing, the more we get into trouble. Are we so plagued with the narrative fallacy?” (p. 199)


Mormon history suffers from an additional issue. It’s inextricably intertwined with religion — on both sides of the divide. Everyone knows that believing Mormons comprehend their history through the filter of their religious beliefs, but disaffected and non-Mormons do as well — and as much.

I believe this is why there are “good” apologists and “bad” apologists. The good apologists will realize the non-rationality of their beliefs (not irrationality, just non-rationality – that their beliefs are not a proven fact) and admit it up front. They will identify their biases clearly to those they address because their goal isn’t to prove. And they will take only a defensive stance (i.e. “you don’t have proof that my beliefs are wrong.”) not an offensive attack. They will never try to prove their beliefs using “reason” — which is really just a series of narrative fallacies — because they will realize there is no proof one way or the others and that rational verification is beyond our reach.

By comparison, the bad apologists will advance their personal narrative fallacies as “proving” their position. They will claim that anyone that does no agree with them, despite having the same facts, is being deceptive or must be intellectually inferior. They will use mockery when confronted with counter facts and will not be able to admit “yes, there is more than one viable way to read these facts, but I read it this way.”

But what is less acknowledged is that we are all apologists, believing or unbelieving. And there are good ones and bad ones on both sides.

So ask yourself, which type of apologist are you? Are you a good apologists or a bad apologist for your belief system?


[1] NNT has another excellent quote about this:

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:

  1. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in the world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  2. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and
  3. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories – when they “Platonify.” (The Black Swan, p. 9)

Comments 37

  1. Karl Barth: “A past, marked by a chaos of faces, is not an eloquent, understood, and apprehended past. If history can present no more than this, it is trivial. …History is a synthetic work of art. History emerges from what has occurred, and has one single, unified theme. If this work of art, this occurrence, this one theme, be not engraved upon the historian, there can be no writing of history” (Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 146).

    Emphasis on “synthetic work of art”. This is from 1919, long before postmodern theories of history and dialogue were developed, but Barth clearly shares (among other things) an understanding that history is constructed. This seems explicitly contrary to the Hegelian mood that dominates today, that understanding the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of history helps us understand the broad progressive sweep. Contemporary history is a byproduct of the Enlightenment and its notion of progress, rather than the timeless discipline which its practitioners often affect. Thus, as you remind us, anyone’s history must be taken with a grain of salt–including our own constructed internal history!

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Bruce,

    I definitely agree with your section on apologists. I find the best apologists realize they cannot “prove” the Church is true, only offer a way that it can be true. This is effective when dealing with critics of the Church that cry “this is factually untrue, therefore the Church is not true.” If any religion was studied on the basis of fact, without the realization of the “narrative fallacy” you discuss, every religion would be proven false.

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    “I find the best apologists realize they cannot “prove” the Church is true, only offer a way that it can be true”

    Can I engrave this on my desk?

  4. “I find the best apologists realize they cannot “prove” the Church is true,”

    and don’t simply say that you’ll know its true when the Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth to you (like it did to me).

    Bad apologists may also recognize that there’s no “proof” for God’s existence, or the validity of any one religion’s truth claims. But they try nevertheless to vaunt their own beliefs above others by an appeal to personal spiritual witness designed to suggest implicitly that God will reveal both His truth and His will to you if you are in tune to receive it. And if you don’t receive it, you’re sadly unworthy/lack faith/aren’t asking the right questions/not as special as the apologist.

    So whats a good apologist to do? Perhaps the only real to approach these discussion is by prioritizing love and respect for others over communication of information, over bearing testimony, and certainly over rebuking, prooftexting, or winning logical debates. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” is powerful stuff, indeed: if we can love and respect others like we love and respect our own selves, we might be less inclined to deride others when their interpretation of the data results in different conclusions than our own.

  5. 4. SteveS

    I really hope I don’t derail the conversation. I hope everyone can see past the actually topic and get my point.

    One of my biggest struggles with Church history is the ban of the Priesthood to African Americans. I did a lot of research on it, and prayed to understand it. My feeling, which you can debate is from the spirit or just a conclusion based on my life and experiences, was that the ban was not from God but from imperfect men.

    I told my father this once and he suggested I wasn’t in tune with the Spirit if that is the answer I received. So please forget the topic of the priesthood ban as to not derail the conversation. Please focus on those who make apologetic efforts though appealing to the Spirit.

    There is nothing wrong with that, but one should not be surprised if someone does pray for that witness and receives a different answer.

  6. The danger of pushing the idea of a “narrative fallacy” is that all thinking is primarily hermeneutic and thus nearly all thinking constructs narratives (or applies narratives to construct new ones). But so what? The issue is less narratives than the strength and rigor in constructing a narrative. And that isn’t fallacious.

    The over application of deductive fallacies to inductive and hermeneutic thinking is a huge fallacy…

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    #4 and #5:

    I do not believe that an appeal to an answer to prayer in any way makes one a ‘bad apologist.’

    Indeed, I do not believe an appeal to emotional thinking ever makes one a bad apologist. In fact, what I’m really saying is that you must appeal to emotional thinking to be a ‘good apologist’ i.e. you must explain your biases, your emotions, your feelings, and admit that your position isn’t the only strictly rational one. (None ever are, so this is the truth for all of us. If you think you are, you’re just fooling yourself and no one else.)

    I think the thing that makes one a ‘bad apologist’ in this case is the statement that, as SteveS says it, “you’re sadly unworthy/lack faith/aren’t asking the right questions/not as special”

    An explanation that someone believes in something via an answer to prayer is a truthful and correct statement and a very truthful explanation of why someone might believe the way they do. It’s an honest admission that they aren’t claiming their beliefs are the sole rational way of looking at the objective available facts. It’s an honest admission that there aren’t enough facts to draw a definitive conclusion. It’s an open admission that some knowledge is truly just “how we feel” about things.

    It’s the mockery — and mockery only — that is problematic here.

    We need to learn to separate these two. If we don’t, we will end up bitter towards anyone that bears testimony or equivalent (in or out of the LDS church) while never realizing we are often guilty of the same sort of appeal to emotional thinking — for none escape emotional thinking. Thus we will be the intolerant one because of our dual standard and our “opponent” will actually be the tolerant one.

    (more later)

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    “The over application of deductive fallacies to inductive and hermeneutic thinking is a huge fallacy”

    Certainly. But perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to, on occasion, admit that inductive reasoning can be and is sometimes wrong.

    Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to not call that which isn’t proven “the truth”, even if we think we have the strongest and best narrative.

    Perhaps it would even be a good thing to admit to ourselves that our narratives, no matter how strong we think them, are still created out the bias of our own rational blind spots.

    And, more to the point, perhaps we should realize that those biases cause us to legitimately disagree over just how “strong and rigorous” a narrative really is. For that’s precisely what we’ll never be able to agree on, how to measure the strength and rigor of a narrative in some objective manner. So instead we’re left with a void that we fill with emotional rhetoric.

    Is there anything wrong with that? No, so long as we are tolerant in how we do it.

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    Okay, back to #4 and #5:

    On the other hand, if I am reading #4 correctly, SteveS isn’t necessarily saying he was belittled or mocked in some way, he’s actually saying he inferred it from the mere mention of a spiritual witness in the discussion.

    If I am infering this correctly, and I may not be, this strikes me as problematic. For if we are going to discount all emotional thinking like that, then we have to discount #4 itself, don’t we?

    For example, does saying you disagree or distrust spiritual witnesses from God implicitly mean you think you are superior intellectually or rationally to those that do trust them?

    What is someone honestly felt offended over #4 because they honestly felt that SteveS was calling himself superior and them inferior?

    What if they honestly saw #4 as not “prioritizing love and respect for others over communication of information?”

    What if they honestly thought #4 implicitly meant that SteveS was “over bearing [with his personal emotional thinking], and… rebuking, prooftexting, or [just interested in] winning logical debates.”

    What if a person honestly thought #4 that SteveS was “deriding others when [his] interpretation of the data results in different conclusions than [their] own?”

    Do you see the problem?

    But is that really what SteveS was implying? Or did I merely infer it by looking for the worst possible interpretation?

    And if I discount such a statement in #4 as “invalid” then just exactly how does someone like SteveS participate in the discussion at all? For surely he *does* have a right to trumpet his own methods and beliefs — and even as superior! — if that is what he really believes.

    So I think we need to be careful about what we infer vs. what was actually implied.

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    #7: LOL, didn’t get it at first.

    I think the think plain English translation of Clark’s #6 is “So what if history and other disciplines are all just narrative fallacies? The real point is to make the strongest or most rigorous narrative that is the most likely to be correct. Not all narratives are created equal and I feel your article, Bruce, is claiming that they are.”

    Clark, if I in anyway misinterpreted what you said, please correct me. I replied as if that is what you said, in any case, because that’s what I thought you meant. 🙂

  11. Bruce #8: thanks for clarifying what I was trying to say. I don’t want to discount the usefulness of an appeal to personal spiritual witness, except when that appeal is used as an implicit attack on another person. Not to derail the conversation (which I think is fascinating, btw), but I saw lots of this type of witnessing going on in regard to discussion of Proposition 8, which betrayed the words of “love and respect” for others preached by the same individuals. (Plea: let’s not turn this into a discussion about SSM!)

    #10: #10: LOL, but as I read I was reminded of something mentioned by an apologist at the most recent FAIR conference, who said he liked to meet people with questions in person rather than over the phone or online. I think its much easier to convey love and respect for others in person than through any other means. The non-verbal cues we pick up from body posture, voice inflection, etc., all contribute to the tone and intent of our words, and give us added data from which to interpret the meaning of our words. So just as one may choose to interpret in my words in #4 in the worst possible way, in person it may be harder to make such a case, given extra non-verbal information.

    One more question that might be worthy of an additional post, Bruce: how does the concept of cognitive dissonance, so popular on more “liberal” LDS blogs fit into the picture of narrative fallacy of history, subjective personal experience, and Mormon apologetics?


  12. Post


    Just to be sure, I DIDN’T personally interpret #10 in “the worst possible way.” I was just showing how easy it is to do. (Of course.) I do get your point about how a testimony can be wielded as a weapon of intolerance.

    And I agree with you completely that in person avoids misunderstanding better.

    “how does the concept of cognitive dissonance, so popular on more “liberal” LDS blogs fit into the picture of narrative fallacy of history, subjective personal experience, and Mormon apologetics?”

    Wow, big question. Clearly they DO play in. It would be a mistake to not acknowledge this.

    Cognitive dissonance is the pain we feel when our actions and beliefs don’t match. (It’s probably more than this, but that’s what I think it means in this context. I’m not an expert.) So if we feel cognitive dissonance we address it in some way to remove the pain.

    The most common way it’s addressed is by changing one’s beliefs to match one’s actions. Obviously you could also change your actions to match your beliefs, but this is, statistically less common. (But then again, that’s pretty well the definition of “repentance:” changing one’s actions to match one’s beliefs.)

    But, of course, one can change one’s beliefs in two ways:

    Let’s say, for example, I believe Prophets are perfect people and then I see one sin. I now have cognitive dissonance. I can either:

    a) deal with it by holding steady my belief that prophets are perfect people and just decide their aren’t any prophets – let’s call this the “liberal LDS” answer or,

    b) I can deal with the cognitive dissonance by changing my belief about prophet’s being perfect – let’s call this the “conservative LDS” answer.

    (This is obviously a contrived example, and in reality, this isn’t a nuanced representation of either liberal or conservative LDS beliefs, so let’s not go there. Just use it as a contrived example.)

    But either way, cognitive dissonance changed my beliefs. Thus the liberal LDS people that play it up miss the point that they are just as strongly affected by in, and basically in the same way, as their more conservative counter parts. The choice was in what part of our beliefs we held steady and what part we changed.

  13. “we feel the need to reverse engineer explanation for historical events — even though it’s impossible — and how, once we do, we have a really hard time realizing that there is more than one viable explanation for the same event.” This really resonates for me. This is one of the key problems I have with some of the competing Mormon History books – they become novelistic in ascribing motives without making it clear that it’s just their best guess or opinion (Frankly, Truman Madsen is equally guilty of this as Fawn Brodie at both ends of the spectrum). Some are better at acknowledging the difficulty than others.

  14. Post

    Hawk in #14, question for you:

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Fawn Brodie will always write as if she knows the motives of the person she is writing about, but that Truman Madsen we are able to convince to tone it down and stop pretending that he knows a historical person’s motives.

    Doesn’t that just mean that Fawn Brodie has the more compelling “narrative” now? Won’t hers look stronger and more rigorous now?

    Therein lies that biggest problem (I didn’t address it in this post) that I see with the whole narrative fallacy business: if you want to compete at all, you have to go whole hog and try to have the best sounding, most emotional resonant narrative fallacy possible. But that means you have to honestly believe what you are saying, doesn’t it?

    Is there a better way to approach this problem then we already are? Or are we maybe already at an ideal, for better or for worse?

  15. Hmmm. I think it depends on the audience. Plus, isn’t Fawn Brodie dead?

    What I think is interesting about Fawn Brodie is that if you read literary criticism of her biographies, they would say that she is stuck in the past having bought Freud hook line and sinker even though a lot of that was debunked after she wrote her books. She continued down the Freud path a little too long, and reaped criticism for it. That, to me, casts doubt on her interpretation by highlighting her motives in interpreting historical figures in a very specific way. But most of her audience (for her JS biography) has no interest in the rest of her works and merely takes her interpretation at face value. That’s part of the problem with history regardless. I am inclined to think she believed her interpretation and was unaware of her bias.

    Likewise, Truman Madsen is just not living on planet earth. The paragon of virtue he describes has stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, stopping only to help George Washington chop down the cherry tree. Does he believe it? Probably so. But not to his credit.

    In reality, I think a Madsen lover would read Brodie and either think 1) she’s anti-Mormon or 2) wow, she must have it right because real people behave more like this than they do like the perfect person Madsen describes (creating cog-dis). A Brodie lover would read Madsen and think: “This is moronic apologetics.” Yet both are wrong. We should not attach in this way to either the narratives or the biographers. Yet, it is a human tendency to believe stories and storytellers rather than to be skeptical of them.

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  17. Post


    A bit more seriously, I think you are right that both Brodie and Madsen are telling “the truth” as far as they are able to. Thus I don’t think it does much good to accuse either (not that you were) of lying or deception. In reality, we learn more about Brodie and Madsen by reading their views of Joseph then we do about Joseph. This is the true nature of history.

    That being said, I think your point is that if you create a view of Joseph that is Madsen-like, you are also setting some people up for a fall. I can’t argue with that.

    But if you decide “well, I’m going to show some of Joseph’s imperfections so that I don’t cause people to fall” then you have to interpret Joseph in such a way to do so… which means, in reality, you aren’t any better then Madsen or Brodie. You are still creating a narrative about a man that you didn’t actually know that represents your best honest evaluation based on what the ice cube looks like after it’s melted (assuming it was ever an ice cube to begin with.)

    (Note: This is why I’m against the word “balance” when discussing history. Generally that just means “I draw the picture the way I see it, better than that one, worse that this one.” But in the end, it’s really just a apology for a certain point of view about how to draw the picture.)

    I see it as a circle. In the end, we can only write about what we honestly believe. And what we honestly believe isn’t necessarily “the truth” though it will seem so to us.

    I suppose I’m advocating nothing about “how to write history” (at least not yet) but rather I’m advocating “how to read it” at this point. So I think I’m agreeing with your last statement: “Yet, it is a human tendency to believe stories and storytellers rather than to be skeptical of them.”

  18. “In reality, we learn more about Brodie and Madsen by reading their views of Joseph then we do about Joseph. This is the true nature of history.” This is something I have given a lot of thought. There are two ways the narrative reveals the storyteller:
    1 – we see their biases, often more clearly than they can.
    2 – human beings tend to project our own characteristics onto other people.

    For the same reason (#2), as readers, the narratives we choose can also reveal information about ourselves.

  19. Post

    “For the same reason (#2), as readers, the narratives we choose can also reveal information about ourselves.”

    Ooo ooo. I like that! I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. I believe you just explained “confirmation bias” beautifully to boot.

  20. interesting about Fawn Brodie is how often she completely parts with reality in her footnotes.

    Since Stewart points out other contradictions in analysis, the serious question is raised of how well Brodie assimilated and correlated her own research. Another major trend is adding exaggerated description or imaginary details to an incident. Although Stewart has presented but a portion of the episodes that are embellished in the retelling, those now collected disqualify Brodie as a careful historian and move her work in the direction of sensational historical fiction. A related trend in Brodie’s methods is simply shoddy workmanship that inaccurately states basic dates and names, not to speak of incomplete and distorted quotations.

    E.g. from one of Brodie’s stories has Joseph Smith pass through Paris on his way from Nauvoo to Springfield. A number of errors are noted in the story (number of people with Joseph Smith 9, not 40, etc.) and ….

    “The third error is one of location. Paris, Illinois, is in the east of the state, some 10 miles from the Indiana border. Because it is not an intermediate point between Nauvoo and Springfield, Brodie clearly failed to check basic geography. …. If Brodie distorts simple narrative and cannot read a flashback of Joseph Smith in context, no careful historian can afford to rely upon her judgment without first examining the documentation for himself.”

    Or Brodie’s stunning ignorance of the LDS Church

    “Since the author was reared in the church, one is surprised to find numerous misstated facts to which the correct answers are known by ten-year-old Mormon children. For example (on p. 39) she states that “Joseph related that he found the plates in a stone box along with the sword and breastplate.” Joseph made no mention of finding a sword in the box. Again, Smith did not teach that throughout history only Melchizedek and Christ had held the Melchizedek priesthood, as is claimed on page 111. Evidence does not warrant the statement that Joseph taught that there were “three divisions in heaven, and that one-third of the spirits had been neutral” (pp. 173-174). And it has at no time been the practice of the Mormon Church to give the priesthood to boys under twelve years of age. She puts the age at eight (p. 412).”

    Or Brodie’s willingness to cut quotes and abuse them in spite of knowing better:

    “For example, after using considerable space in discussing Smith’s supposedly wicked life, Mrs. Brodie cunningly pretends that his Mormon associates were acquainted with his weakness and accepted them. She remarks: “Many in the church shared the attitude of Brigham Young who had a healthy understanding of human frailty.” Then she quotes only part of a statement made by Young, a quotation which appeared in Time (January 28, 1946): “If he (Smith) acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctrine that will save us, if we abide by it. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor’s wife every night, run horses and gamble . . . but the doctrine he has produced will save you and me the whole world” (pp. 145-146). An unbiased historical account of Joseph Smith would have informed the reader that in an unquoted part of Young’s statement he had declared that he had made it in reply to a certain priest who had accused Smith of committing almost every known crime and before he had become acquainted with the founder of Mormonism.

    Mrs. Brodie, having been born a church member and having lived among the Mormons for so many years, must have known that the following statement is typical of Brigham Young’s remarks regarding the founder of Mormonism: “Joseph Smith lived and died a prophet, and sealed his testimony with his blood. He lived a good man, and died a good man, and he was as good a man as ever lived” (Latter-day Saint Journal History, April 6, 1850, MS).”

    Referring to Fawn Brodie’s book, the authors assert that Joseph Smith made a mistake by saying the Nephites produced barley (p. 36); however, barley has been found in the Americas.

    One also wonders, rather wearily, just how long Latter-day Saints will have to contend with historians who espouse such methods. For Brooke is not the first. David Herbert Donald, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, once observed of Fawn Brodie (a writer much in evidence throughout The Refiner’s Fire) that, in her biography of Thomas Jefferson, she seemed not to be bothered by the fact that she can adduce only slim factual support for her tales of what she primly calls Jefferson’s “intimate life.” Reluctantly she confesses that there is “no real evidence” as to what happened in the Betsy Walker case. … Where there are documents, she knows how to read them in a special way. . . . Where documents have been lost, Mrs. Brodie can make much of the gap. . . . Mrs. Brodie is masterful in using negative evidence too. . . . But Mrs. Brodie is at her best when there is no evidence whatever to cloud her vision. Then she is free to speculate.

    For reference, you can read _Exploding the Myth_ it shows what happens when you actually check Brodie’s footnotes.

    F. L. Stewart (Lori Donegan) has educated herself in the sources of Mormon history simply through making a hobby of carefully checking Brodie’s documentation. Such a project is less a question of ideology than a fairly objective determination of whether the footnote citations of No Man Knows My History really support its thesis. Because this double-checking may be done on a broader scale, Stewart’s work is a valuable pilot study of the validity of Brodie’s generalizations. Book Reviews, BYU Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, p.231

    The essence of Exploding the Myth is a presentation of sixty-three violations of context or documentation in No Man Knows My History.

    Brodie’s cite to a court record, actually cites to a reference to it, of which we know:

    “This alleged record of the court does not conform to the requirements of the law as quoted below. It gives a long confession by the defendant, Joseph Smith, which the law does not require. It gives the testimony of five witnesses, whereas, the testimony of any witness is not recorded in a justice of the peace court. There is no record that any witness was sworn. It is announced he was found guilty, but no sentence is recorded. The record does not conform with the procedure of a trial. A reasonable conclusion is that the alleged record was written by a person totally unfamiliar with court procedure.” (The “originals” have long since debunked the claimed record).

    It would be obviously too tedious to go through over sixty examples of gross error, each broken into blunt analysis, point by point as to each error.

    However, on the matter of Joseph Smith’s debts (including those he was secondary or tertiary on), from a more recent analysis:

    Table 12, derived from Appendix A, presents our findings, which include $45,500 in mortgages or indebtedness for land, $28,500 in notes largely for wholesale merchandise for resale by Kirtland’s several mercantile firms, and $4,200 in loans from banks incurred at the start of the Kirtland Bank. These debts total $79,200. In addition there are the remaining $16,700 on the 1843 list which we have been unable to independently verify, and there were smaller transactions in land for which no notes or court action have been found to indicate whether they were for cash or credit. It is likely that some of these “purchases” were on credit and some for cash. If we assume all were on credit and add the remaining debts on the 1843 list, we likely have a reasonably good estimate of the maximum debt which Joseph Smith may have incurred during this period. This adds $6,400 for land purchases plus $16,700 from the 1843 list, for a total “probable” debt of $102,300. This amount includes twenty-six obligations totaling $46,000 which were not included among those listed by Brodie, and yet it remains considerably under the “well over $150,000″ that she advances.

    Marvin S. Hill, C. Keith Rooker, Larry T. Wimmer, BYU Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, p.416

    A note of caution is called for. It should be observed that what we have here is an estimate of the total indebtedness which Joseph Smith may have incurred during the entire period 1836-37. It does not necessarily follow that he owed that much at any one point in time. Some of these debts were very short term notes (two to four weeks) which were obviously settled; most were obligations for which Smith was secondarily and contingently liable (in one case with as many as thirty-two cosigners).

    ” In order to have paid off his existing debts, he would have needed to sell about 250 of his nearly 800 acres in Kirtland at $200 per acre, the minimum price per underdeveloped acre lot in 1837. Seen in this way, which we believe to be close to the way in which Joseph Smith and his creditors saw the situation at that time, it does not seem that Smith accumulated more debt than he or his creditors had reason to believe he could manage.”

    Compare Brodie to Kirkham:

    “The reader is now invited to read an excerpt from the writings of an unbiased scholar who sees great power for intellectual advancement, for peace and happiness in the lives of Latter-day Saints because of their faith and knowledge that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God. It is printed on pages 307-313 in this book. The following is introduction.

    Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, Vol.2, p.499 Faith and My Friends (1951, the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis, New York) contains a scholarly, unbiased analysis of the origin, history, and faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under the title, “The Mormon.” (By permission, The Deseret Book Store, Salt Lake City, Utah, has reprinted the complete analysis.)

    Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, Vol.2, p.499 The flyleaf states: “For more than fifteen years, Marcus Bach, author, professor of Religious Education at the State University of Iowa City, Iowa, foremost authority on the lesser known religions of America, has traveled from one end of the country to another, searching for the truth about what people believe.”

    Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, Vol.2, p.500

    The following excerpts from his book states that there is “A new impulse on the part of earnest, thoughtful people to find a philosophy that works, a religion to which they could dedicate their innermost loyalties and ideals.” (Page 17.) He does not venture an opinion concerning the claimed divine origin of the Book of Mormon but he does make this positive statement. “No Vermont schoolboy wrote this book, and no Presbyterian preacher tinkered with its pages.””

    To get a good flavor for Brodie, compare her anti-LDS screed with reviews of her other famous work:

    Most of the reviewers of Thomas Jefferson, and particularly those who are historians themselves, would say no, Ms. Brodie has not done her homework well. Richard B. Morris, holder of the Gouverneur Morris Chair in American History at Columbia University, writes,

    At times, in fact, her historical slips are embarrassing. She confuses the vote on and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. She says Jefferson turned down the offer to serve as a peace commissioner, but the record shows that. . . he accepted the appointment.

    Holman Hamilton states that

    the book contains many errors of fact or of judgment involving a wide historical spectrum. These range from an unsupportable statement–which would be important if true–about Abraham Lincoln (p. 23) to giving Jefferson Davis a strange name, “Thomas Jefferson Davis” (p. 469). Mrs. Brodie confuses “Light Horse Harry” Lee with Richard Henry Lee (p. 125) and with “Black Horse Harry” Lee (p. 444). She calls Edward M. House the “president-maker” of Woodrow Wilson (p. 301). And so forth.

    The most intensive review of Thomas Jefferson is by Garry Wills, historian and writer of a recent book on Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Writes Wills:

    Two vast things, each wondrous in itself, combine to make this book a prodigy–the author’s industry, and her ignorance. One can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort, enough to make Ms. Brodie the fasting hermit and very saint of ignorance. The result has an eerie perfection, as if all the world’s greatest builders had agreed to rear, with infinite skill, the world’s ugliest building.. . . She has managed to write a long and complex study of Jefferson without displaying any acquaintance with eighteenth-century plantation conditions, political thought, literary conventions, or scientific categories–all of which greatly concerned Jefferson. She constantly finds double meanings in colonial language, basing her arguments on the present usage of key words. She often mistakes the first meaning of a word before assigning it an improbable second meaning and an impossible third one.


  21. So after having read your recent posts Bruce, I am left wondering if you even believe anything can be “proven” or if everything is a narrative fallacy? If everything is narrative fallacy are all narrative fallacies equal?

    Do I need to recognize that someone who believes the earth is flat has an equally valid narrative fallacy as my “knowledge” that the earth is round? By the same token, is it equally valid to believe that Zeus reigns in heaven as it is to believe that Elohim does, or that no one/nothing does?

    How do we assign value to a narrative fallacy? Is it even possible?

    Can we assign “truth” to a “fallacy”?

  22. Post

    Kari, I think you are asking the same thing as Clark. See #6 and #11.

    In other words, you’ve both taken a realistic look at the problems of trying to determine ‘truth’ from history and assumed that it means I think all narratives fallacies are created equal and that nothing can be prove at all. Yet, I never said any such thing.

    I guess this is the short form: things can be proven. If you discover a black swan, you have proof that there is a black swan. Period. But you can never prove there is no such thing that there is a black swan.

    The problem is how our mind works. It’s all too easy to not see the difference between these two. The very fact that you took what I’m writing as meaning nothing can be prove and all narratives are equal is an example of how hard it is for the human brain to tell the difference between these two.

    So how does that apply to the validity of a belief “that Zeus reigns in heaven” vs. “Elohim” vs. no one at all? You tell me.

    The harder question is how do we assign value to a narrative. The fact is that we DO assign value to narratives. And clearly some narratives are stronger than others. Yet, there are many cases where we can’t agree how to assign value or strength to them. When it comes to history, this is quite common. More so than we are led to believe when taking history in school. Are true ignorance of history (but this is no where near a total ignorance) is simply not discussed or brought up at even the college (GE) level.

    In other words, I don’t think the issues here is whether or not some narratives are better than others. There are better and worse ones. I’m not even arguing that the standard way of determining strength of a narrative via triangulation is an incorrect criteria. It’s a correct one.

    I think the issues is the extreme difficulty in telling the difference once your mind has hoodwinked you.

    This suggests, as per my post #9, that we have a lot more need for tolerance. And tolerance is what we should learn here, not that there is nothing that can be proven.

  23. Bruce,

    I agree with you. I was just summarizing my impression from reading your three recent posts. I do think that things in the physical world can be proven. Clearly, at least to me, there is no value in a narrative that states the world is flat. Just as there is no value in a narrative that would posit the moon is made of cheese.

    It becomes more difficult when we are dealing with historical narratives – particularly those that attempt to ascribe motive to certain events. And it becomes most difficult when dealing with metaphysical narratives.

    When dealing with historical narratives, I agree with hawkgrrl; the narratives we chose to create and believe says a lot about us, and little about the history. But that is because, as you have pointed out previously, this is, imo, a biological response; our brains want to make sense out of the world, and so we chose narratives that make us feel good.

    When dealing with the metaphysical narratives, i.e. whether Zeus, Elohim, or nothing reigns over the universe, I would say that I don’t care what narrative you believe, as long as you recognize that it is just that, a narrative, and not proof of anything in the physical sense. Don’t force your narrative upon me (e.g. the crusades) and don’t try to convince me that because something makes you feel good that it should make me feel good – my brain is different than yours.

  24. Post

    “It becomes more difficult when we are dealing with historical narratives – particularly those that attempt to ascribe motive to certain events. And it becomes most difficult when dealing with metaphysical narratives.”

    Yes, this is the real point. Because of narrative fallacies, historical narratives must always be considered suspect. (Though there are also historical facts that don’t have to be. But they tend to not be useful to us until we put them into a narrative.)

    So this post is really about history, not all types of knowledge.

    “When dealing with historical narratives, I agree with hawkgrrl; the narratives we chose to create and believe says a lot about us, and little about the history”

    I agree.

    “When dealing with the metaphysical narratives, i.e. whether Zeus, Elohim, or nothing reigns over the universe, I would say that I don’t care what narrative you believe, as long as you recognize that it is just that, a narrative, and not proof of anything in the physical sense”

    I agree.

    To me, we are somewhat talking about the difference between “science” and “scholarship.” I think science is about repeatability. So we can count on it, even if we can’t agree on why it works the way it does. I think scholarship tends to be tentative forever and tends to reflect the scholar more than any reality. There would, of course, be exceptions. Scholarship is not devoid of Black Swans — positive proof.

  25. Post


    I do have to disagree with one thing you said, however, about the crusades. 😉 I’m actually going to do this as an example of how two intelligent people, you and me, can disagree over a historical narrative. So don’t take it as more than this. I’m just mentioning it because I find it interesting.

    I’m not convinced the crusade were about forcing religion on people. I think that’s a historical narrative we’ve made up post facto as a way of justifying the evils of religion.

    I believe the crusades were actually just a standard backlash to a land grab on the part of the Muslim world — they conquered lands held by the Christianized Europeans and the Europeans wanted it back. That’s certainly understandable.

    Bear in mind that the Muslims were the world power back then. Opposing them was no easy task and the Europeans only succeeded at all during the first crusade due to catching the Muslims off guard. In fact, the crusades were so insignificant to the Muslim world that it didn’t show up in their histories. (According to one scholar I heard, anyhow.)

    I believe the religious aspects of the Crusade was actually tacked on after the fact and had nothing to do with the real reason the crusades were fought; the real reason being land. And I believe that since it was really a war over land, that forcing religion played little or no role in the big scheme of things.

    That being said, this is just a historical narrative and is thus a narrative fallacy. I don’t suppose it’s possible to be certain how much religion really played a role in the crusades, if at all.

    Please don’t misunderstand me, of course it played a big role on the surface. What I’m trying to say here is that I think that if you remove religion from the equation, secular justifications would have existed instead to do everything exactly the same except for the capture of Jerusalem.

    Of course modernly we think of the Crusades as being primarily about Jerusalem. But back then it was just a side mission to the main objective.

    So my conclusion, at the moment anyhow, is that the Crusades were a primarily secular war over land — just like millions of wars before and after it.

    Here is another one to consider:

    “no value in a narrative that states the world is flat”

    Okay, I can’t resist this. 😛 Can we really say there is no value in a narrative that states the world is flat? I’d suggest that actually I’ve never used any narrative BUT that the world is flat in my life and it’s worked just fine so far. 🙂

    Of course the world *isn’t* flat, but for all intents and purposes for the way I use the world, it’s flat. Now if I were in a line of business where the curvature of the earth mattered, that would be different. But the fact is the world *is* flat to me and actually I think of it as flat the vast majority of time — like when I get out a flat map and find my way around, or lay out a yard projects, etc.

    This suggests that incorrect narratives can actually be correct to a degree. And thus they can be useful even if false.

  26. Bruce,

    Is it fair to say that religious beliefs are primarily based on this historical narrative? And if that is the case, how does anyone know that their belief system equates to absolute truth? How can the LDS Church claim to be the only Church holding the true priesthood?

  27. Post

    “Is it fair to say that religious beliefs are primarily based on this historical narrative? And if that is the case, how does anyone know that their belief system equates to absolute truth? How can the LDS Church claim to be the only Church holding the true priesthood?”


    Good questions. We are now confusing a few things, however. It helps to split the issues you are bring up out:

    1. Does the LDS church claim to have objective proof that they are the only true church based on objective evidence that everyone can and does agree upon? (Particularly do they believe/teach that their historical narrative is a proven fact via non-spiritual means?)

    2. Does the fact that the LDS Church can’t “prove” they are the “only true church” (whatever that means) mean they aren’t?

    3. Is there some rule that I’m not aware of that unless you have “proof” of your correctness, you have no right to move forward with what you honestly believe to be true? (And if this rule existed, how would *anything* get done ever? On the upside, all politics would be immediate dissolved and the news media would go off the air. 😉 )

    Also, what does the word “know” mean? Does it mean absolute certainty of knowledge? Or does it mean “knowledge of” something? To uses the world being curved example, do you have absolute certain knowledge that the world is indeed curved? What *do* you have absolute certain knowledge of?

    I’m sure you have certain knowledge on a great many things, but I doubt you have certain knowledge in very many academic areas. It’s too time consuming and cost prohibitive to have certain knowledge in more than a very few areas, generally speaking.

    So we generally rely on knowledge on authority (i.e. I trust someone that claims to have knowledge first hand). In fact, knowledge by authority is our primary way of “knowing” something, from what I can tell. I read it in a text book and thus I accept it as true. This system, as lame as it sounds on the surface, works 99.9% of the time and does so quite accurately. So there is little reason for me worry about it in most cases.

  28. This post totally reminds me of Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment by Blake Ostler.

    Now I ask again, can humans really know anything? Does the experience come from God, or do we merely interpret it to be experienced as coming from God? I’m going to deal with the strongest arguments that I know.

    The first argument is “The Argument from Interpretive Framework Inherent in all Human Experience,” and these are the premises. The first premise: all human experience involves interpretation, and I guarantee you that it does; that’s true. Two, the interpretation of the experience of burning in the bosom as coming from God is something we do as humans. And three, the interpretation is therefore a human contribution to the experience and all that we really know is that we have had an experience, that we experienced it as coming from God in the experiencing of it, and we cannot know more than that.

    Well, is that a good argument? It is in a sense, but the argument proves too much…

    I suggest that there would be no possibility of new experiences that break out of the framework of existing paradigms and world-views or our prior interpretations if all experience were necessarily limited to our pre-interpretive framework of interpretation. Yet that is precisely what a conversion experience is–it reorients one’s entire view of the world and changes and alters the interpretive framework. Thus, it must be in some sense logically and experientially prior to interpretive experience.

  29. Post

    Dude! It would be nice if I could have at least one idea that Blake didn’t think of first. *goes and sulks* 😛

    I really need to read that guy.

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  33. Where to start? I assume everyone here believes in God. If someone tells us they don’t believe in God we don’t jump up and down and curse them. If anything we wonder why they don’t believe.
    The trouble is it isn’t belief it is faith. FAITH IS A GIFT FROM GOD. We can’t say I read this book or I heard this lecturer so I know there is a God. God gives you faith to know He is. He gives you faith to know Jesus is; and yes he gives you faith to know the church is true and He will give you faith to know hidden things.
    If you get angry because someone believes or thinks differently than you that is your pride. It is your pride because it is a belief not faith. With faith you know.
    If you get angry because your faith is challenged you need to pray about the thing that is testing your faith. God chooses who He chooses. Our task is to preach the gospel. The Lord is preparing people to receive us and the restored gospel. He will lead them to us or He will lead us to them. So when they get here don’t poke them in the eye with a stick because they don’t have faith. They don’t have the knowledge we do. That is pride again. I am so smart “SMRT”

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