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Epistemology as Revealed by "Murder Among the Mormons"
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In the course of the last few essays I’ve been discussing the weaknesses of technocracies. That discussion began with the idea that one of the things they think is a strength, that they have a firm epistemological basis (i.e. technocracies are based on truth as uncovered by science) turns out to be a weakness. Because the important thing isn’t the epistemology per se it’s how it gets translated into a form which is not only palatable to the masses but which can be clearly understood and followed. A major theme of the ensuing posts was that science-based technocracy is bad at these important steps of palatability and simplicity, and that some part of our current crisis is due to the fact that many people believe the exact opposite. That the solution to all of our problems, both epistemological and otherwise, is simple, we just need to, as they say, “follow the science”.
This advice only works if science produces easily digestible, straightforward guidance. Rather than provisional probabilities which invariably involve numerous tradeoffs. And to be clear I’m glad we have some way of quantifying these tradeoffs, even if it’s through the use of muddled probabilities. But such knowledge, at best, only represents what is, it cannot give us our ought. What we ought to do, or ought to be. All of which is to say science is one part of any epistemological framework, but not a totalizing solution. Crafting a civilizational epistemology is and always will be a fantastically difficult problem, but rather than spend another post at the same well of epistemology through the lens of politics I thought it was time for a little break. Both to keep things fresh, but also because looking at epistemology from a different angle might help clarify some of the issues.
As you may have noticed, I was already a little bit in the headspace of religion, and then Netflix released the series, Murder Among the Mormons. Initially I wasn’t going to watch the series, because I felt I already knew the story. (This was true, though some of the details were surprising.) My dismissive familiarity derived not only from it happening where I grew up, but when I grew up. (I was in junior high at the time.) As a result I thought I had more productive things to do with my time, but then my wife watched it and told me that I would enjoy it just from a nostalgic angle. So I changed my mind. She was right, I did enjoy it and it was very nostalgic. In particular it was surreal to see footage of all the old news anchors who I had grown up watching, back when the evening news was a thing. But once I got past the nostalgia, I also realized that the series brought up some very interesting epistemological issues, and that these would be worth exploring, particularly in light of my latest blog posts.
First, for those who haven’t seen the series, a brief summary: Mark Hoffman was a dealer in antique documents. In particular documents written by people involved in the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons). His specialty was uncovering documents long thought lost, or revelatory documents no one ever suspected the existence of. He accomplished this mostly not by being a great detective, but by being one of history’s all time greatest forgers (that we know of, we’ll get to that can of worms in a moment). As you might imagine, no one knew he was a forger, and if he had been a little bit less greedy, or a little bit more frugal, perhaps we never would have known. But apparently despite making lots of money off of his various forgeries he spent it even faster, always assuming that whatever debts he racked up could be paid off by an even more spectacular, future forgery. This pseudo-ponzi scheme meant that by 1985 he was in deep financial trouble. His solution to this crisis was to make some bombs. I don’t think it’s ever been entirely clear how these bombs would solve his problems, in particular what his endgame was. Initially I thought that perhaps it was just me, but Jared Hess who directed the documentary (and also Napoleon Dynamite…) Came to the same conclusion:
I'm curious what was going through [Hoffman’s] head leading up to the decision to kill people. Truthfully, what did he plan to accomplish if he had gotten away with it? What would have been his next steps? What was his long-term game plan? Truthfully, it doesn't seem like he ever thought that far ahead because he obviously got in so much trouble with the Ponzi scheme that he had created and was just in over his head with debt and owing people money. He maybe didn't think that far ahead, but I'd be curious to hear it from him now, after being in prison this long, how he puts that all together.
His first bomb killed a document collector he had been working with, Steve Christiansen, and presumably this death took some of the pressure off of Hoffman. The second bomb was targeted at Christiansen's business associate, Gary Sheets, though it ended up killing his wife instead. (And they have a recording of Hoffman saying he didn’t care who it killed, even if it was a kid.) Apparently this second bomb was designed to make the murders seem related to a failing business both Christiansen and Sheets were involved in, and at this point I guess it was going according to plan, though as I said it’s not clear what that plan was. But then the third bomb went off accidentally in Hoffman’s car, seriously wounding him. This and a few other things turned him into the prime suspect, which led them to raid his house, which in turn led them to uncovering proof he was forging historical documents.
Out of all this we actually end up with three different areas of epistemology:
First there’s the epistemological madness one gets when you consider the idea of undetected frauds. By definition the greatest forgery would be the one that was never revealed as such. It seems clear that if Hoffman had just been a little bit less greedy, and maybe a little bit less crazy, that his frauds might have remained forever undetected. Had this happened, parts of history we considered true and verified by the evidence would have in fact been false. Science is based on examining the evidence but if some percentage of evidence is flawed or fabricated, then using science as a basis for our epistemology will be similarly flawed.
Second, there’s the task of historical epistemology which concerns itself with reconstructing what actually happened. Why did Mark Hoffman plant the bombs, what was his endgame? How many historical documents were forged by Hoffman? More controversially, how much pressure did the LDS church exert on the investigations? Did they hide any of their dealings with Hoffman? As I’ve looked into things a little bit more there seem to be disagreements about the answers to all of these questions. Meaning that the version of the story as told by Murder Among the Mormons, may not be entirely truthful. Or it may be perfectly truthful, and other versions of the story may be the false ones. I don’t know that much hinges on getting the facts perfect for this event, but there are many events where quite a bit hinges on which interpretation you accept.
Finally, there is the question of religious epistemology. This is an enormously broad and complicated topic, so we’re just going to examine the small niche where it intersects with the bombings. The biggest part of the Mark Hoffman story outside of the murders was a document called the Salamander Letter. This was a document purportedly written by Martin Harris, who, when Joseph Smith first started translating the golden plates, acted as Smith’s scribe. (He was also one of the Three Witnesses.) If you’re familiar with the golden statues on top of most LDS temples, those are statues of the Angel Moroni who revealed the location of the plates to Smith. The “Salamander Letter” had Harris’ description of this event, and in it rather than being an angel it was a “spirit [that] transfigured himself from a white salamander”. The LDS Church purchased the letter. There are various theories as to why (see my point on reconstructing history) but presumably one reason was they thought it was genuine. And here’s where the angle of religious epistemology enters the picture, if the LDS Church is led by a prophet who can communicate with God, why did he not know the Salamander Letter was a forgery?
Having identified the different flavors of epistemology touched on by the series, let’s take a deeper dive into each one.
It’s easy to imagine the epistemological distortions created by actual forgeries. We need look no farther than the Donation of Constantine (a forgery granting the Pope authority over the Western Roman Empire) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (A fabricated plan describing Jewish plans for world domination) to see the way such fictions can warp the world’s understanding. And, of course, these are fabrications which were revealed as such. I’m sure that if we are ever able to view the whole scope of history—say as one of the benefits of the afterlife, or if we finally crack the simulation we’re all living in—that we will be amazed by the number of things that were accepted as true but which were actually fraudulent.
As it turns out science is actually pretty good at detecting frauds, particularly within science itself. In fact one of its primary tasks is to combat the uncertainty and epistemological madness caused by undetected frauds and errors. Because of how successful it’s been at this task, the sort of mendacity that occurs in the cause of overt fraud should probably not be our primary concern, at least not at the moment. No, currently we’re facing a far more pernicious problem, a problem eating away at the foundation of science itself.
This problem has been labeled the replication crisis, and this is not the first time I have blogged about it, though it’s been a few years. This is a crisis arising out of incentives and biases, rather than overt attempts to deceive (though that also happens more often than it should). Among these biases is one for experiments that reveal something new rather than confirming or disconfirming something old; another is for exciting, unexpected results, rather than modest, common results; still others involve more general issues of respectability, and influence. These are the biases of the person publishing the results and they go on to distort the incentives of those generating the results. (Though these people are also biased.) The ultimate consequence of all this has been that in some fields less than half of studies can be reproduced and in some areas it’s less than 15%!
As I’m still basically in the mindset of talking about how epistemology affects politics, it’s interesting to examine how the broader replication crisis plays out when viewed through this lens. On the low end of things, some of the stuff that hasn’t replicated just seems vaguely silly. Like the idea of power poses, ego depletion and priming (for example seeing old people makes you walk more slowly). But when you move up to things like the implicit association test (which claims to be able to measure innate racism), pandemic triggered school closures, and interpreting the recent increase in murders, suddenly you’re dealing with questions that could have a profound effect on society, particularly given the current climate.
If the replication crisis had left us with one bucket of definitely provable things, and one bucket of definitely disproved things, and it was just a matter of using the first bucket when it came time to act or make policy, then there would be very little to be concerned about. But the number of things in those two buckets is very small. Instead the vast majority of findings end up in the “We’re still arguing about this” bucket. To take one of the silliest examples, in 2017 various studies appeared to debunk the idea of power poses, but then in 2018 Amy Cuddy, the chief advocate for the idea, came out with meta-study which appeared to support it. Now whatever rigor Cuddy applied to this meta-examination, no one could argue that she’s unbiased. Her reputation was built on the idea of power poses.
If we’re still fighting over power poses, you can imagine the kind of fights we’re having over important stuff, and the broader implications when it comes time to translate “science” into actual policy. Of course because of the hyper-partisanship of the moment, just about everything has policy implications and everyone wants to claim that facts are on their side. All of this serves to illustrate the claim I made at the start: following the science is easier said than done. Particularly when so much science has been exiled from the “definitely provable” bucket into the “we’re still arguing about this” bucket. Add to this the biases of those conducting the science (like Cuddy) and then add to that the biases of the general public, which have only been strengthened in the echo chambers of social media. That’s a pretty murky situation, meaning, as an individual matter, “following the science” becomes non-trivial even for stuff like vaccines and mask-wearing, and difficult bordering on impossible for just about everything else.
So, while the current world is not dealing with an epidemic of deliberate fraud—as least not yet, see the next section—we are dealing with very similar issues of uncertainty. The modern form of fraud currently happening in science is both subtle and mostly unintentional and the forgeries are inadvertent, but all the more difficult to detect because of that. That said as contentious as science has gotten, outside of science things are even worse.
On August 9, 2014, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. That’s the part pretty much everyone agrees on. But immediately the shooting became one of the precipitating events of the Black Lives Matter movement, and when that happened it became difficult to get people to agree about anything else related to the event. Initially numerous people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting, further claimed that Brown’s hands were up when he was shot by Wilson. This led to the phrase Hands up, don’t shoot! becoming one of the mantras of BLM activists. The problem with this mantra is that it’s not what happened.
Because upon questioning, to quote from St. Louis Public Radio:
DOJ investigators found the accounts of all 22 witnesses to be unreliable because other parts of those witnesses’ stories conflicted with physical or forensic evidence or with the accounts of credible witnesses.
Many of these witnesses denied incontrovertible evidence that Brown reached into the police car, struck Wilson in the face, was wounded by a gunshot inside the car, fled 180 feet, suffered no wounds in the back and then moved back at Wilson immediately before the fatal shots.
In many instances, the discounted witnesses repeated what they had heard from neighbors or on the news. Some witnesses admitted they made up stories so they could be part of a big event in their community.
Brown’s companion, Dorian Johnson, and friends quickly spread the word that Wilson had killed Brown execution style. An iPad recording and videos that captured conversations among the gathering crowd document the development of the false narrative.
Despite the DOJ investigation (and recall at the time of the investigation that Obama was still president) and articles by the Washington Post and New York Times pointing out that Brown did not have his hands up, the slogan still seems to be in fairly common usage. It was definitely still being used during the protests which happened last summer, and was the title of a book published in 2019, long after the investigation. Occasionally the phrase is accompanied by the claim that eyewitnesses reported that his hands were in the air at the time of the shooting, without going on to mention the results of the investigations into the credibility of those eyewitnesses. As if hinting at the report for those who are aware of the problems without conceding any ground.
The slogan’s ongoing use is an extreme example of the epistemological rabbit hole posed by our second area of inquiry: the difficulties of historical epistemology. Here we have an extensively documented event, from the recent past, but when asked in a poll “Did the Obama administration’s investigation of the Ferguson shooting find merit in claims that Michael Brown held up his hands in surrender before he was shot by police officer Darren Wilson?” 63% of all voters and 81% of all democrats answered in the affirmative. That they had found merit. Now this poll was taken in 2016, by what appears to be a partisan polling organization, and I would guess that mentioning Obama prejudiced the answers. But generally the passage of time only makes correct information harder to come by. I’m not sure there are any completely independent polling organizations left. And if mentioning Obama did prejudice the answers I’m not sure in what direction that prejudice operates.
There is a similar controversy in Murder Among the Mormons. In this case people on both sides have a lot at stake over what role the LDS leaders played in the whole affair. With faithful members obviously interested in putting the best light on things, while those people who are opposed to the church want to make it seem as if LDS leaders were applying inappropriate pressure at various stages.
Here I confess that I have not delved deeply enough into the minutia of things to know which of the supposed damning facts are true and which have been exaggerated or fabricated. I did however come across a podcast shortly after watching the series which featured a presentation given by George Throckmorton, one of the people who was finally able to conclusively establish that the Salamander Letter had been forged. He mentioned one incident which was featured in the book The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit and Death. (I believe, it wasn’t 100% clear if it was this book or another.) The book described leaders of the Church visiting Throckmorton and his associate, and while they asked a lot of questions they never, to the astonishment of Throckmorton, asked whether the documents were genuine. In the podcast Throckmorton pointed out that this incident had never happened.
Going farther back there are similar controversies over the events surrounding the founding of the LDS Church. And how could there not be? You have the combination of some extraordinary claims about, from a historical perspective, some very recent events. (Everything happened no earlier than 1820.)
The question is why? Why is it so important to get to the bottom of what happened to Michael Brown? Or to discover whether LDS leaders were inappropriately influencing things? Or to uncover what Joseph Smith was really up to in 1820?
I would contend that, as I pointed out at some length in a previous post, we have a mania for justice, and the only way to make sure we achieve justice is by knowing exactly what happened. This requires collecting facts and evidence, but as I have pointed out already there is nothing connecting the “is” of those assembled facts to the “ought” of just outcomes. In a sense we’re like Grand Moff Tarkin, the more we squeeze the more things slip through our fingers. We are never going to be able to perfectly reconstruct past events in some way that’s universally persuasive. (I haven’t even touched on the potential carnage of deep fakes.) And the more we try the more uncertainty we introduce which paradoxically means the more facts and evidence we assemble the harder it becomes to achieve the appearance of justice.
Like most epistemologies, religious epistemologies come in two parts. There’s the part concerning how truth is arrived at, and then there’s the process of adapting that truth to people’s actions and behaviors. Murder Among the Mormons touches quite a bit on that first part. Doctrinally, the LDS Church asserts that its leaders receive revelation from God, that they are in a sense directly communicating with Him. Now there’s a whole other discussion to be had about what form that communication might take, how it operates, and how specific it is. But as you might imagine many people thought that, at a minimum, regardless of the exact mechanism, that it should have been sufficient to enable the leaders to determine that the Salamander Letter was fake.
Of course this also touches on historical epistemology, because there is also a debate over what they believed at the time. Were they convinced of its authenticity? Or were they on the fence about it? I have no problem accepting that they did in fact believe it was genuine, nor does this idea particularly bother me from a religious perspective either. Because, should He exist, I don’t think acting as a perfect fact checker, or as some infinitely comprehensive version of snopes.com plays much of a role in God’s plan. I have talked at some length about what I feel the best model is for understanding God’s plan, but if you’re not up for 10,000 words on the subject, the tl;dr of it is that God treats us the same way someone worried about AI Risk would treat a newly created AI. And this treatment does not include correcting every potential mistake in judgement that we or an AI might make.
One doesn’t have to get that deep into the theological weeds or even necessarily be a believer to accept that God’s failure to reveal a forgery is insufficient grounds to falsify His existence. Just the concept of faith should be enough to explain why it didn’t happen. And it’s this same concept of faith that then goes on to be the primary tool for making religious epistemology actionable. If there’s a certain amount of trust involved in deciding what is true, and beyond that only completely trusting in God, that would seem to lead to a certain amount of epistemic humility.
Of course you can make the point that this humility was not always present in all times and in all places, that in fact it’s less a concrete universal rule and more an aspirational guideline which is generally only applied to other christians and even then, inconsistently. But having noted all of these exceptions, it’s hard to imagine that you get the idea of mercy without this foundation. Without believing that your judgment might be wrong and that the perfecting of justice is something you can leave to God. In contrast to this, as I mentioned in my previous post about our mania for justice, we now feel that we can arrive at perfect justice. That if we just assemble all of the evidence that there will be no need for mercy, and thus we have largely abandoned it as a principle.
I mentioned the nostalgia that came with watching Murder Among the Mormons. Of seeing 80s era local TV personalities and coverage from back when I was still in junior high. While not featured in the documentary, one bit of TV that was in constant rotation back then were commercials for Mr. Mac. Mr. Mac was a suit store specializing in cheap suits targeted at LDS Missionaries. It was owned by Mac Christensen, the eponymous Mr. Mac, who also acted as the spokesperson on all of these commercials. Mac Christensen was the father of Steve Christensen, one of the two people murdered by Hoffman. I had not made this connection until my wife pointed it out to me. After mentioning it she went on to tell me about an event she had attended where Mac Christensen was speaking. As part of his speech he related how difficult and time consuming it had been to forgive Hoffman, but how he had eventually done so. Nothing in the process of forgiveness involved figuring out which documents Hoffman had forged or trying to reconstruct the minutiae of October 15, 1985, the day his son was murdered. Nor did it involve figuring out the theological implications of divine communication.
None of this is to say that delving into theological minutiae is pointless, or that uncovering facts and evidence isn’t valuable. It’s just to say that for Christensen personally, none of it was as valuable is the peace he found through mercy and forgiveness.
The last couple of posts took longer than I expected. I ended up suffering from a little bit of writer’s block. You know what’s a sure fire cure for that? New donors!