The Problem of History – First a Fake Example

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. I never did finish this series on history and narrative fallacy.

In my past posts I discussed the impossibility of knowing what really happened in history as well as the problem that, believe or disbelieve, we all have much riding on how Mormon history is interpreted. Either way, it’s your personal religion at stake. 

The problem with me saying that is that, well, we all know it’s true — for other people. But due to the narrative fallacy, we think we’re the exception not the rule.

To prove that, at times, we’re all the rule, I am forced to start with a fake example because it is the only way to not derail the conversation immediately.

When Family History and Church Collide

I was studying my family history about an ancestor named Isaac Washington Pierce, Sr. Around the same time I was reading History of the Church. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the two connected; my ancestor is mentioned in History of the Church.

Isaac Pierce was part of the Kirtland camp that left Kirtland to follow Joseph Smith to Missouri. He is listed as being part of the camp on page 93 of History of the Church, Vol 3.

But more importantly the death of his baby, which happened while making the journey to Missouri, is recorded.

Under the Saturday, September 15 entry it states:

“Here T.P. Pierce’s child died, and was buried on Sunday, near Elder Keeler’s house.” (History of the Church, Vol. 3)

But now we have a bit of a problem, the name recorded is “T.P. Pierce” but there is no T.P. Pierce in my family. So could this be another Pierce? Perhaps. But there is no other “Pierce” family listed amongst the Kirtland camp even though History of the Church Vol 3, p 91 – 93 give a full list of the members of the camp.

Our best guess is that T.P. Pierce is Isaac’s wife, whose name is actually Phebe Baldwin Pierce.

But wait, it gets even more messy; my family’s records show the death of Isaac and Phebe’s baby as September 13, 1838, not September 15, 1838. But the Kirtland camp recorder records no deaths on September 13.

Could this be two different Pierce families with two different babies that happened to die two days apart? Well, while we can’t rule out the possibility entirely, the odds are very low. The fact that there is only one I.W. Pierce family listed as being part of the camp on the camp’s constitution and the fact that the initials are close to right – at least they got the “P” right even if it’s in the wrong position – and the fact that there is only one baby’s death recorded twice but within 2 days of each other makes it very likely that this is the same family and same baby’s death we are recording.

And yet we have two dates for the baby’s death. How could this happen? Well, it’s not hard to see that a mistake was obviously made. But which is the mistake? Is it History of the Church or is it my family’s history?

But is this really a concerning discrepancy? Of course not. Discrepancies like this happen all the time in the historical record. Historians must deal with such inconsistencies.

What If It Were Miraculous?

Though this discrepancy is unconcerning, let’s pretend for a moment that we’re dealing with something miraculous rather than mundane. For the sake of argument, pretend like the death of this child connected to a miraculous truth claim of a religion. Let’s get really crazy and let’s pretend that the son of Isaac Washington Pierce Sr. (named Isaac Washington Pierce, Jr.) went on to found the Completely Reformed and Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (CRRLDS) and that his foundational miracle was the visit of an angel and a dictated revelation from the angel that in parts states:

“I come to deliver these truths to you on the 13th of September, the very date of the death of your father’s child when part of the Kirtland camp traveling to Missouri. For God is mindful of your family.”

We now have a miraculous event tied to one of the two dates in question, which means that the inconsistency just took on a whole new level of importance. What before was clearly just the natural inconsistency of the historical record now becomes the basis for denying the truth claims of the CRRLDS.

So let’s imagine we are anti-CRRLDS’s making an argument that the revelation in question was fraudulent.

The Anti-CRRLDS for September 13 Date Being Wrong

The CRRLDS is clearly making up their founding revelation. The revelation claims to have been delivered on 13 of September, 1838, the date of the death of the Sr. Pierce’s child. But the Kirtland camp recorded keeper gives us the truth date as 15th of September.

Let’s consider this rationally, what are the odds that the camp record keeper in the Kirtland camp, who was keeping a daily journal, got this date wrong? Pierce Jr. fabricated this revelation on the date he thought the child died, but we know he used the wrong date. My guess is that angels don’t make mistakes like this.

The Apologist Response for September 13 Date

There are two dates recorded, but we feel that the parent’s personal records in question are more likely to be correct. We all know that daily journals sometimes get written days later with retro dates and this could easily be a mistake.

What I find interesting is that the Anti-CRRLDS argument really seems like a good argument. It would cause me to pause and wonder at the possibility that the foundational revelation for the CRRLDS is a fabrication.

And I also have to admit that the apologist response seems weak; it seems like a lame reaction to an obvious factual problem. (“Is that the best you can do?” I think to myself.) Given that I’m not really a fan of the CRRLDS I think this would be a sufficient argument to make me simply dismiss their truth claims out of hand.

But wait! Let’s switch the dates around and try this again! Pretend that the revelation had the date that is listed in History of the Church instead of the date in the family records.

The Anti-CRRLDS for September 15 Date Being Wrong

The CRRLDS is clearly making up their founding revelation. The revelation claims to have been delivered on September 15, 1838, the date of the death of the Sr. Pierce’s child, as recorded and published in History of the Church. . However, we know from family records that the real date of the death of his child was September 13, 1838.

Let’s consider this rationally, what are the odds that the family remembered the death of their own child wrong? Pierce Jr. fabricated this revelation on the date he thought his father’s child died, but we know he used the wrong date. My guess is that angels don’t make mistakes like this.

The Apologist for the CRRLDS for September 15 Date

There are two dates recorded, but we feel that the Kirtland camp recorders date is more likely to be correct. After all, camp recorders often record right on the very day whereas family records are probably recorded later.

 

Oh my goodness! The Anti-CRRLDS statement still seems strong to me. And the apologist rebuttal still seems weak. I know myself well enough to know I’m still going to dismiss the CRRLDS out of hand based on this attack.

But how could this be? How can either way seem like a legitimate attack and in both cases the apologist rebuttal seems weak?

Two Improbables

The reason both attacks seems strong and both rebuttals seem weak is because the odds of either date being wrong is highly improbable. It makes little sense to our minds that a daily note keeper could record a death on the wrong day but it makes no more sense to us that a family could mis-remember the death of a baby and record it wrong. Yet one of these two improbables happened. The apologists must defend an improbable event to a skeptical audience either way.

When there is nothing miraculous involved with the inconsistent dates, there is really no reason to worry about the improbability of either event, so our minds fill in the gaps without effort. When there is something miraculous at stake, our natural skepticism – and by this I mean our natural bias – kicks in and suddenly the inconsistency seems like a counter proof to the miraculous event.

The Illusion of Information

But does the date discrepancy tell us something meaningful about whether or not the CRRLDS revelation is made up or not?

Since we know this is a real non-miraculous historical discrepancy, and since we know there is no such thing as the CRRLDS, we know this is a made up foundational revelation. But that fact – that this foundational revelation is made up – is literally unrelated to the date issue. It’s like trying to determine the stock market using astrology. The inconsistency of the dates tells us nothing about whether or not this foundational revelation of the CRRLDS is made up.

Let me say it again: Despite what an effective counter argument this seems to be in proving the CRRLDS revelation a fraud, the fact that there is an inconsistency in the dates literally told us nothing about whether or not the CRRLDS revelation was a fraud. Nothing as in zippo, nada, nill, nothing, not a single thing at all.

Both of the “anti” attacks are really just narrative fallacies. Both are 100% information deficient because they convey, in Black Swan terminology, only the illusion of information.

By comparison, the apologists defense really does convey useful information because it concentrates on what we don’t know. It is unfortunate that our brains simply aren’t wired to recognize that the apologists are more factually right then the attackers.

Just the Facts Ma’am

This example will illustrate the problem of history in general and LDS history in particular: so much of it is only the illusion of information. Yet our brains are incapable of identifying the difference between real information and the illusion of information. Yes, there are facts here, but what are they really?

In my made up scenario the undisputed points are: [1]

  1. The baby died either on September 13 or September 15.
  2. There was a foundational “revelation” for the CRRLDS that mentions one of the two dates.
  3. The foundational revelation may or may not be a fraud.

The narrative used by the anti-CRRLDS to “prove” that the foundational revelation is a fraud supplies no information but instead is a good story that helps the information stick in our minds. Our minds, grasping for such a story, can’t help but feel that somehow the narrative conveys additional information that is probably true.

But as we’ve shown, the narrative actually conveys no information at all. All it’s really doing is taking an inconsistency that was naturally supplied by the historical record and then playing off our natural bias against the CRRLDS to help us form a narrative fallacy that explains the data points in an unfriendly way.

Did the Inconsistency Matter In the First Place?

But did this inconsistency even matter at all? I can prove it didn’t. Let’s take our anti-CRRLDS and demand an answer to the one question that really did matter: if the two dates matched would that have convinced them that the revelation was true?

Well, it would seem that fact 1 and fact 3 are unrelated then, because apparently even without an inconsistency, the revelation is still believed to be a fraud. This whole inconsistency never meant a thing to anyone. It’s merely a misdirection to justify a predestined conclusion.

Conclusions

This made up example illustrates the ease with which we can confuse a narrative fallacy that conveys no information at all with real information. It also illustrates that our biases play a substantial role in how we judge narrative fallacies as being meaningful or not – even when they are obviously not meaningful. It also demonstrates that that history is naturally full of improbable inconsistencies and that the existence of these inconsistencies tells us nothing about whether or not the events or related events were fraudulent. It also demonstrates that even if the inconsistencies in the historical record did not exist the probability of fraudulence does not change.

Notes:

[1] I hesitate to even call the above “facts” because in reality the only “facts” we have are that someone said the baby died and died on one of those two days. It’s, of course, possible that baby didn’t die, or that we had two babies, or that both dates are wrong. But since no one is disputing any of that, I’ll stick with my simplified list, even though this list isn’t actually a list of real facts either.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of History – First a Fake Example

  1. Very interesting analysis. Can you give us an example of an anti-Mormon narrative which also takes an “inconsistency that was naturally supplied by the historical record and then plays off our natural bias against the Mormons to help us form a narrative fallacy that explains the data points in an unfriendly way?” Simon Ryder is the one I can think of.

    In both anti-CRRLDS attacks, they say “My guess is that angels don’t make mistakes like this.” The attacks are based on the assumption that while mortal history can have inconsistencies, divine history cannot. It can’t prove that divine history might have inconsistencies, but it relies on our natural bias against an inconsistent God.

  2. Nate,

    When I was originally writing this series, I did a ‘fake example’ first because I intended to then do some real examples later right out of posts and comments people on Mormon Matters used regularly that were informationless narratives. Alas, I never did finish the series.

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