May 9, 2009 at 4:15 PM 7 comments

A number of years ago I published a research paper on industrial innovation in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change that led me on an unexpected expedition to explore the cultural assumptions of two strange tribes: economists and political scientists.

 You see, taking the “logical next step” on my research seemed to require applying a type of analysis developed for political science (the spatial theory of voting) to industrial econometric data, and I knew I wasn’t going to be authorized to do that unless I had specialists in those two fields on my research team.  No problem, I figured.  After all, I had a professional staff position as a physicist at a Virginia Tech-owned think tank and one of the experts I needed was Virginia Tech faculty.

 And then I discovered that physicists, economists, and political scientists all had entirely different cultural assumptions about what constituted “logical next steps” in conducting research!

 In physics, the first thing you do when you find an unexpected result is repeat the measurement to be sure your experiment is operating correctly, and the “signal” is not spurious.  So the first thing I proposed for my prospective collaborators to help me do was to identify additional innovation-related data sets on which we could repeat and extend the analyses.

However, econometric data has always been scarce, particularly before governments started paying people to gather it or requiring it to be submitted by law.  Economists have developed tremendous expertise in teasing information out of the limited data they have available.  It humbles me to admit, as a physicist, that their shear mathematical brilliance often exceeds ours.  However, there is simply not enough data to “go around”.  So economics has developed out of a “theory-rich; experiment-poor” tradition, in which there are multiple theories to account for every observation.  Of course, this may have something to say about why economists couldn’t predict the current world-wide problems in time to do anything.

In that tradition, one does not react to prospective signals by getting more data.  There usually isn’t any more data available, and most signals (in any science) turn out to be spurious anyway.

After many discussions with my prospective research partner, I finally understood that, at minimum, we first had to develop a full description of what the spatial voting model should predict and also devise a theory of why industrial corporations behaved like political parties in regard to innovation. Otherwise, economists would pay no attention.

 So, off I went to enlist a faculty expert in spatial voting theory from Duke University, and discovered that in his discipline, one extended a theory only until you got it to the point where you could apply it to real elections.  Then “political science” turned to “political engineering”, and one started explaining the results of elections.  As a result, no one had really applied the technique to multiparty systems (which industry mimicked) that had little relevance to American elections.  To get over that hurdle, I would have to extend my research plan by another year.

When we finally submitted our research proposal to the National Science Foundation, the political scientists on the review panel gave it very high marks.  The economists on the panel hated it.  Scholars in different disciplines have different cultural protocols about how one seeks truth, and they weigh types of evidence according to their discipline’s culture as well.  I just had to accept that.

I’m remembering this personal history as I write this post because of material that has been circulating on the web for the last several months concerning a new 3 volume “unofficial official” church history of the Community of Christ being written by the historian of that church, Mark Scherer. A previous church historian, Richard Howard, has written:

“…the current church historian’s soon-to-be-published book, “Journey of a People,” Vol. I, [is] where Dr. Mark Scherer does some truly brilliant revisionist history based on deep research and perceptive conclusions. The book was to have been published in 2008, and then in January 2009, but is being delayed by bureaucratic fears of possible reactions by some of the more “conservative” membership.”

Another prominent church and national historian, Roger Launius, has reportedly criticized the necessity  of the whole project, and other reviewers from an LDS professional historical perspective have questioned whether the historical evidence even warrants Scherer’s conclusions (which have not yet been generally circulated). 

Personally, I’m wondering if this apparently simple matter of “historical truth” is really about which particular science tribe’s cultural assumptions are used to declare what’s true.

Don’t get me wrong. Mark Scherer is a strong historian who has always given my writings a fair read when I’ve shared them with him, and I expect to learn a lot from reading the history.  Just from looking at some of the maps of the first volume posted as proofs on the web for public review, I’ve learned that the church building in which my religious childhood was spent in Pontiac, Michigan, was built on the farm site that was the origin of one (Hyrum’s Division) of the two expeditions of “Zion’s Camp”.  (These expeditions were meant to provide aid and military support, if necessary, for church members in conflict with other settlers of Missouri in the 1830’s.)  I will be fascinated to learn more.

However, the controversy about the Scherer book may have little to do with simply reacting to “historical truth”.  The decision to put the focus on the historical setting of the 19th Century for understanding rather than earlier Mesoamerica may itself be the source of controversy because it seems to presuppose that the work of Joseph Smith can be prophetically inspired only in a metaphorical sense – e,g,, no Nephite ever lived; no physical artifact from the past was ever delivered to Joseph by the direction of an angel. Affirming this proposition is readily recognized as scary for conservative church members.

Yet, there is also a second, unacknowledged assumption in the decision, about which an open debate may be just as traumatic to church progressives (particularly among the leadership invested in the institution).  I’d state it the following way:

“Preserving the history of the Community of Christ remains important because that denomination should continue as a distinct “people” who now embrace a calling as a “peace and justice” church, even though that people came together for another reason (the belief that they were the “one true church).”

While doing research on historical membership trends within the Community of Christ, I was once loaned a cache of articles and statistics from the mid-20th Century when the leadership of the church began the process of reconsidering its founding in light of its deepening contacts with non-Anglo cultures.  Among the papers, which had accumulated in the library of the Washington D.C. congregation, was the summary of a presentation requested by the Presidency, Apostles, and Bishopric of the then-named RLDS church concerning the issues the church would face as it went through this re-examination.

Although I have long since returned the cache to its custodian and needed help to recall the name of the St. Paul School of Theology Professor (Dr. Paul Jones) who gave the presentation, one of his comments has continued to haunt me as prescient.  After outlining the issues to be faced as we uncovered the true facts of our history, he predicted that the “real crisis” would come as we tried to reconstruct a new identity consistent with our new facts.  Then he reportedly warned our leaders, “The world has absolutely no need for another Protestant denomination.”

For many, doubts about the founding generations’ bases of faith led straight to searching for an alternate rationale for continuing the denomination.  But that begs a more fundamental question that the founding generations thought they’d already answered. If we are not the “one true church” – if our existence as a community is merely the offspring of an historically driven act of religious evolution (whether prophetically inspired or not) – that self-discovery reopens not only the question of “what is our mission?”  It also reopens the question of why there should still be a “we” to have a mission.  The idea that we are only part of the Body of Christ logically implies that there are other parts of that Body.  Deciding to which part any of us is called to belong is a profoundly individual issue of conscience that cannot simply be delegated to a pre-existing community structure by default.   Like it or not, Joseph Smith had better be right about a great many things about which Episcopalians, Quakers, or Catholics have been wrong in order for us to have a common future as a denomination.  Because, if Joseph was not “on message” from God in a way those other denominations were not, we can probably be more relevant to pursuing peace and justice in the name of Christ as Episcopalians, Quakers, or Catholics than by reinterpreting the Community of Christ’s identity.


From a physicist’s cultural perspective, knowing more about Joseph Smith than we already know can teach us only so much about the validity of our beliefs. After all, I don’t evaluate the validity of evolution by studying the life of Darwin, or decide that E=mc3 instead of E=mc2 because of some new historical insight about Einstein. Knowing the pedigree of an idea is only important in disciplines where an idea’s correctness can’t be falsified independently.  

If testing whether a “prophet” is receiving a genuine revelation, what is the “null hypothesis” that an historian tests against? It can’t really have much to do with the presence of similar ideas in the culture to influence the “prophet”; if anything the presence of influences in the culture should be supporting rather than conflicting evidence.

When God’s actions are supposedly part of the hypothesis, one has to avoid assuming His absence in the “experimental set-up”.  For example, Christians do not argue against Jesus being the Messiah because Judea had been expecting a Messiah.

When there are testable predictions, physicists simply say, “test them!” If they predict correct results, we’ll test them again and worry about why they work later.  After all, we’ve built a whole century of technology on our confidence that quantum mechanics makes correct predictions, when we have absolutely no agreement about what quantum mechanics means or why it works.

And the outlandishness of the predictions doesn’t seem to faze us. Indeed, in my discipline, one famous physicist is said to have chided another, “Your ideas are crazy, sir, but probably not crazy enough!”

Joseph’s teachings left plenty of testable predictions, including surprisingly outlandish ones. The LDS are exploring many of them in Mesoamerica, and contributing to a strong and intellectually profitable debate within the archeological community.  Internal study of the Scriptural texts of the Restoration leads to other vital debates going on among literary experts relating to correlations with ancient origins.  The fact that such debates are even possible among serious scholars after nearly two centuries is instructive to someone with the cultural biases of my science tribe.  To use the analogy of the classic Looney Tune, at this point, the remarkable thing is not whether the toad sings opera well; the remarkable thing is that the toad still sings opera at all!


The bottom line is that we are better off when we approach important questions for the church from as many perspectives as possible.  We cannot cede such decisions to the cultural biases of any of the science tribes (including mine), or allow those tribes to claim exclusive jurisdiction.  Consider two more perspectives on the 19th Century nature of the Book of Mormon that we may not have had the expertise to consider, yet have much to say about authorship.

Orson Scott Card, a world famous and award winning science fiction author who is also a Mormon, has written the most devastating criticism I have ever read of the notion that the Book of Mormon is “sacred fiction” or, in fact, any document made up by a 19th Century author. The criticism is devastating precisely because it comes from a professional who tries to make up fiction about “alien” cultures for a living, and is acknowledged to be able to do it better than almost anyone in the Western world.

The Book of Mormon also asserts that it passed through the editorial hands of a military man; therefore expertise in ancient military capabilities and history is also valuable, and something a peace and justice church probably doesn’t have in abundance. Check out this blog to see the kind of insights that perspective can bring.

Entry filed under: Book of Mormon, Community of Christ, economics, history, Joseph Smith, literary analysis, military science, Mormon History, physics, political science. Tags: , , , , , , .


7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. MH  |  May 11, 2009 at 1:01 PM

    I’m glad you’re finally up and running. You have an interesting perspective. Now I’m going to have to read that Orson Card post. Thanks to the links of the maps from John Hamer. He used to post and Mormon Matters, and I miss his perspectives.

  • 2. FireTag  |  May 11, 2009 at 4:30 PM

    Thanks, MH. Your encouragement (and HTML help) was invaluable in getting started. John is now posting on, which you’ve already linked to your site, as well as on ByCommonConsent. Now, to get the right column of this theme properly organized and linked……

  • 3. Margie Miller  |  May 23, 2009 at 5:12 PM

    My physicist friend said this: ” It is indeed a strange paper. One wonders if his change of career from archeologist to fiction writer had anything to do with the fact that the BoM archeology that exists is indeed pure fiction. 🙂

    I have seen others who have postulated that Joseph’s seer stone only gave him broad brush ideas which he then dictated in his own version of Elizabethan English, copying the KJV style as best he could.

    This allows for the myriad of textual errors and inconsistencies in the stories. Thus the real text of the BoM did not state anything about horses .. this was just Joseph Smith’s words to describe some other animal which was used to pull chariots. This also applies to steel swords and scimitars etc. If as he claims, he has been given the task of film maker for the LDS church it is small wonder that there is so much fiction that is embedded in their propaganda movies.”

  • 4. FireTag  |  May 25, 2009 at 1:27 PM

    I find it striking how people weigh the same evidence differently according to our backgrounds — which is, of course, why I advocate bringing as many different perspectives to bear on the problem as possible. If the explanations of the Book of Mormon are to include fictional explanations, whether they are Jan Shipp’s “sacred” variety or fictional delusion or pure hoax, then Card’s expertise in writing fiction is highly relevant in criticizing those explanations, just as historical evidence is relevant to evaluating theories of historicity.

    Card’s Mormon roots certainly do not disqualify his expertise; there are plenty of non-Mormon writers who would back up his points. Some with modest backgrounds in other disciplines could point out others.

    For example, you mention above horses and chariots. They are anomalous because there are no records of their existence in Pre-Columbian Central America or for several millennia before. Yet, JS (or his smarter co-conspirators, as the hoax theory goes), who clearly imagined a hemisphere-wide setting for the story, puts horses and chariots (implying wheels) into the story, and then never uses them in any way they would be used in the setting he imagined.

    Chariots never see combat in the BofM, which any 1820’s professor with an Old Testament knowledge equal to Cecille B. DeMille’s would have done; nor are there any cavalry used in all of the maneuvers Mormon described. Nor (as Card noted) are there ever any wheeled vehicles used to carry supplies along the roads claimed to exist by the Book — civilian or military.

    In fact, the only time we see chariots, we see them owned by high nobles (kings and sub-kings), and used exclusively for VIP travel — like Presidential Helicopters are. It is the only way the last horses, and only chariots and wheels might plausibly be maintained for millenia after disappearing in the wild in a state too small to be undetected in archeology: as royal treasures kept in “zoos” as signs of power except when trotted out for ceremonial occasions and/or emergency courriers.

    So it is an anomaly for which there is no motivation and would be downright wrong in a hoax involving the location the hoaxer supposedly thought he was to be writing about, yet is maintained in exquisite detail at precisely the level needed to remain undetectable if historical.

    Fictional theories have to withstand their challenges as explanations as well as do historicity claims. That’s how science works, and perspectives like Card’s can play important roles in critiquing the fictional or hoax theories.

  • 5. GEOGRAPHY OF THE NEPHIHAH CAMPAIGN « The Fire Still Burning  |  November 14, 2009 at 2:12 AM

    […] of Christ) of continuing to address the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I’ve also noted here that such a task is best served by applying as many different disciplinary specialties as possible […]

  • 6. James Elliott  |  December 5, 2009 at 6:35 PM

    I am interested in the Inspired version and I thought I was starting on a thread on that subject. Did I get sidetracked? Do any of you posters think that Joseph was able to correct errors in the bible?

  • 7. FireTag  |  December 5, 2009 at 7:30 PM


    Glad you dropped in. The Inspired Version hasn’t been much of a topic here (yet) although I’ve got a place for future posts set aside in my category list. There is some discussion of the Book of Moses/ Inspired Version modifications of Genesis in the thread “You’ve Read this Post Before” which you may find interesting.

    Inherent in the notion of a modern prophet would be that the church stands on the shoulders of previous prophets, and that new insights should emerge throughout history — no new insights, no need for continuing revelation.

    Both the CofChrist and the LDS have formally or effectively decanonized previous understandings that had been published in their versions of the D&C, which implies, IMO, “correcting” previous understandings, so I guess I’m not surprised that a tradition that believed it was “restoring” lost truths under divine initiative would not hesitate to make such changes in the Bible.

    It isn’t like they can compell others to accept the changes — or the movement itself.


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