Lies Are Bad, LDS Edition

I recently discovered, via this thread on r/mormon, an article on By Common Consent, titled Yo, Dre, I got something to say!, and I found it rather disturbing. The article seeks to make two points. Here’s the first one:

First, I think we need to carve out a space for people who are willing to accept the BoM as scripture, just not of the historical kind (i.e., a modern pseudepigraphon), to remain within the fold and be accepted as good members of the Church.

Only two sentences in to the article and we’re already on the wrong foot. You see, the Book of Mormon itself claims to be historical. While it may not try to be a complete history of its peoples, it still announces itself as a factual account of people who actually existed. If you’re willing to accept it as the word of God, why not trust its historical message as well? Joseph Smith, the man who brought forth the book, also considered it to be an actual history in addition to being a vital collection of scripture. Several other latter-day prophets and apostles share Smith’s opinion; read the statements collected in this comment and think of what they would say to you if you told them that the Book of Mormon wasn’t historical.

But it appears that the author, Kevin Barney, is fully prepared to contradict his own church leaders on this point. He starts by contradicting Gordon B. Hinckley. He quotes from this interview:

Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

And then he says this:

On the one hand I appreciate the vibe he was going for, and this it’s all true or all false stance does indeed pack significant rhetorical power. But note that this is exactly the stance anti-Mormons want the Church to take, because it makes their job incredibly easy. On this stance all it takes is one problem, one counterexample, one bauble that turns out on examination not to be as shiny as it seemed at first blush, to bring the entire house of cards down. Not leaving room for any sense of nuance at all for a religion as recent and messy as Mormonism simply is not a smart corner to paint ourselves into.

Kevin, why are you contradicting the prophet like that? I thought you accepted this guy as a prophet, seer, and revelator, uniquely qualified to speak for God. Are you saying that he fell into an anti-Mormon trap just because he wanted “rhetorical power” in an interview?

It’s worth noting that Hinckley was not the first to use such rhetoric when talking about the Book of Mormon. I’ve compiled a few similar statements:

“Either the Book of Mormon is true, or it is false; either it came from God, or it was spawned in the infernal realms. It declares plainly that all men must accept it as pure scripture or they will lose their souls. It is not and cannot be simply another treatise on religion; it either came from heaven or from hell. And it is time for all those who seek salvation to find out for themselves whether it is of the Lord or of Lucifer.” – Bruce R. McConkie, What Think Ye of the Book of Mormon?

“Likewise, we must make a simple choice with the Book of Mormon: it is either of God or the devil. There is no other option.” – Tad R. Callister, The Book of Mormon—a Book from God

“To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.” – Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon

“Finally, conversion to the Book of Mormon is conversion to the divine, prophetic calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is the divine evidence of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s calling. Either this is all true, or it is not.” – Joseph B. Wirthlin, The Book of Mormon: The Heart of Missionary Proselyting

“Nearby is the Hill Cumorah. From there came the ancient record from which was translated the Book of Mormon. One must accept or reject its divine origin. Weighing of the evidence must lead every man and woman who has read with faith to say, “It is true.”” – Gordon B. Hinckley, Testimony

As far as I can tell, the “all-or-nothing” view is the official position of the Church, and if that plays into the hands of anti-Mormons, so be it. But Kevin is determined to depart from this viewpoint, even if it means contradicting God’s mouthpieces and making Joseph Smith a liar. He even has an explanation for why Smith would lie, which is his second point.

My second thought is, taking the BoM as a pseudepigraphon for the sake of argument only, why would Joseph have created such a production? What was the pseudepigraphic impulse that led him to do it? Well, I see him as a young Ice Cube: He had somethin’ to say! And while for some purposes having a sharply closed canon can be a feature, it can also be a bug. If the canon is closed shut, tight as a drum, what is a new prophetic voice to do? Who is going to listen to the musings of an ignorant farm boy to the effect that, say, the Old Testament is not sufficiently and explicitly Christian? Maybe his family, but that’s about it. Not a soul would care what Joseph qua Joseph had to say about much of anything.

In other words, Smith lied because he had to. No one would have listened to his divine message if it was just Smith saying it, so he had to create a new volume of scripture, full of false history and false authors, to give his sayings more weight. Then people would listen and the work could move forward.

If this is how the work of God is supposed to progress, then God is a chump.

I am no longer Mormon, but I have not forgotten one lesson that I learned over and over in the Church: Don’t Lie. This talk by Marion G. Romney is typical of my instruction, and I thank the Church and all its members for pushing honesty so thoroughly. I would expect all the leaders of the Church to be exemplars of honesty, especially when it comes to matters central to the faith. Thus, to think that the Church’s founder could be lying in and about the Book of Mormon, the Church’s most important document, is hard to bear. It would mean that Joseph Smith had no faith in God’s power to carry the truth into people’s hearts, so he lied to manipulate them. It would mean that generations of Church leaders have been either liars, knowingly repeating a falsehood, or fools, unknowingly repeating a falsehood. It would mean that hypocrisy is built into the Church’s foundation. It would mean that either the Church is out of line with God’s will, since its members keep spreading a lie, or that God doesn’t really care about lies, since He allows a big lie to go unexposed.

You know, Kevin, for a guy worried about playing into anti-Mormon hands, you sure do give the anti’s a lot of ammunition.

Kevin tries to justify deception by appealing to history, and the difficulty of being heard:

This is the same dynamic that occurred in the formation of the biblical canon originally. There are almost certainly pseudepigraphic works within our biblical canon, because false ascription was simply the only way for those works to gain a hearing.

This doesn’t convince me at all. If there are pseudepigrapha within the Bible, it doesn’t mean that lying and impersonation are okay; it means that you need to take a hard look at the canonized books and figure out which ones are trustworthy and which ones were written by damned liars. The actions of men are not supposed to set precedent for ignoring the commandments of God.

To deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon is to deny its truthfulness, and the truthfulness of Joseph Smith, and either the truthfulness or the wisdom of the prophets and apostles that followed after him. Once you’ve accepted all that, you’re in a rather difficult position as a member of the Church. One option, the option I took, is to leave the Church. It’s not an easy option, but it’s a logical one; you can’t trust a liar or anyone who believes one, so if Smith is a liar and everyone after him is either a liar or a dupe, it’s best not to follow them at all. Kevin Barney does not want to take this option. Kevin wants to stay in the Church, but not really accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God, and not really follow the prophets, at least not when it makes it easy for anti-Mormons to make fun of him. He wants to think of Joseph Smith as a good man, but one who would lie for his own benefit, and the Book of Mormon as a good book, but not one that can be trusted on all points, and Hinckley and all the prophets as good guys, but not always aware of the best course for the Church. Kevin Barney is an idiot.

When Ice Cube had somethin’ to say, he didn’t pretend to be Dr. Dre in order to say it. That’s the route that Joseph Smith should have taken. But that’s not the route he took, and that’s why I don’t listen to him. I advise everyone else to do likewise, and yes, that includes you, Kevin Barney.

P.S. Atheists do not have the fear of God to motivate us to tell the truth, but we do have the good counsel of Sam Harris warning us about the cost of even tiny lies. Seriously, read the man’s book, and you’ll find renewed motivation to always tell the truth.

EDIT: I kept calling Kevin Barney “Kevin Conroy” for some reason. I’ve changed all the mistaken names to his correct name. Sorry about that, Kevin.

SECOND EDIT: I have realized that Kevin’s position is not quite as extreme as I have said it was. In his first point, he is not saying that we should believe that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical. He is saying that we should make space for those who believe that it is ahistorical. It’s an important distinction, and I apologize to Kevin for missing it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough to save Kevin’s argument, because the arguments I brought against this position still stand. Rejecting the historicity cuts at the very heart of Mormonism, undermining the trustworthiness of its scriptures and its leaders. Why would anyone want a space within the LDS Church while believing things that invalidate the Church’s claims to Godly authority? It makes no sense at all. Better to find a space on the outside, where you don’t have to make excuses for a lying Joseph Smith and a clueless Gordon B. Hinckley. Trust me on this one.

Lies Are Bad

In my last post, I noted that Alexander Baker had a rather odd view (in my opinion) of the value of honesty. Quoting from this post:

Is the plagiarist wrong simply because plagiarism is dishonest? No. Lying is only wrong when done to deprive another person of property. Deceiving a robber about the location of your valuables is virtuous.

This acceptance of dishonesty caught me off guard. But it turns out that Baker is hardly the only one arguing such a thing. Here’s Murray Rothbard arguing something very similar in The Ethics of Liberty:

We have therefore affirmed the legitimacy (the right) of Smith’s either disseminating knowledge about Jones, keeping silent about the knowledge, or engaging in a contract with Jones to sell his silence. We have so far been assuming that Smith’s knowledge is correct. Suppose, however, that the knowledge is false and Smith knows that it is false (the “worst” case). Does Smith have the right to disseminate false information about Jones? In short, should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

And yet, once again, how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. Pragmatically, again, this situation may well redound to the benefit of the people being libelled.

The thought that keeps running through my head as I read these statements is this: What is WRONG with you people!?

Of course, I’m reacting out of anger, not rational disapproval. But I think I at least have a good reason to be mad. I don’t like being lied to, and here these guys are, saying that lying is not wrong! What gives?

Giving my opponents the benefit of the doubt here, it seems to me that they’re arguing that lies do not necessarily cause harm. Thus, while lies may be disgusting and immoral, we shouldn’t automatically treat them like crimes. Alexander even goes so far as to offer a situation when lying could be considered just and moral.

But I think these guys are missing something. I think that they are missing the fundamental nature of lies. To me, the important point is this: lying is for enemies.

Consider our friends in the animal kingdom. They lie to each other, and they do it quite often. A crab spider, disguised as a flower, is lying to any nearby insects about its true nature. And why not? It’s not trying to cooperate with the bugs, it’s trying to eat them, so open and honest communication would not serve the spider’s agenda in any way.

Picture taken by Jeffrey C. Oliver, 2000
“Sorry, pal, but you should have read the fine print more carefully.”

It’s not just predators who lie, of course. Prey lie, too. And why not? If a creature is trying to eat you, do you have any obligation to give it an honest account of your true nature?

But Rothbard and Baker are not talking about predator-prey relationships between animals. They’re talking about human relationships. And not just any human relationships, but peaceful human relationships, the sort that we’d like to permit under any circumstances. In situations like these, there should be no enemies. I may not be friends with everyone, but I seek to be an enemy to no one, and I consider that to be a reasonable standard for all people. If someone lies to me, or lies about me, then my default assumption is that they are an enemy to me, and therefore they are an active danger, requiring appropriate response.

The nature of lying becomes more apparent when you look at the sort of lies that people defend. Crosbie Fitch has a particular lie that he likes to use as an example: “There are no Jews in this house”. The implication, of course, is that the liar is speaking to a Gestapo officer or some other anti-Semite, and is concealing the existence of Jews in order to protect their lives. Now tell me this: would you say that the liar has a friendly relationship with the Nazis they’re lying to? Of course not! They’re enemies with the Nazis, and they’re acting like enemies by actively obstructing the Nazis’ efforts to achieve their goals. We say that the lie is just because the liar is justified in treating the Nazis as enemies (hardly a controversial position, to be sure). But in a situation where the questioner is not worthy of being called an enemy, would we still justify the liar?

Now, having said all that, I must concede that there are many, many, many circumstances when punishing a liar is simply not possible, let alone desirable. If I actually had to enumerate when you could and should punish a liar, my position might not be so far from Rothbard’s. But I still think that Rothbard and Baker are far too cavalier about lies and liars.

The fact is that, as humans, we rely on each other. We need the knowledge that other people have, so we count on each other to tell the truth. Thus, we are generally justified in ostracizing liars simply because they lied, even if the lies had no effect. And if the lies did in fact cause measurable damage, then the liar has to pay. Rothbard is right in noting the problems that can come from libel laws (and he’s quite right to reject any right to “reputation”) but he’s wrong to reject libel laws entirely. Lying hurts, and lies are bad, and any society made of humans is going to recognize that.

The Spies Who Loved One Another; or, The Bourne-Again Identity

Apparently, Vacation Bible School has decided that the military-industrial complex is totally cool and is a great way to help our children get to know their Lord and Savior. So, for their 2014 program, they’re encouraging kids to join the International Spy Academy and become special agents for the one true God! They’ve got lots of swell features, like “Mission Music”, “Classified Crafts”, and “Top Secret Snacks”! So pick up your Starter Kit (being sold by the good folks of Answers in Genesis) and join the Truth Force today!

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die unto the Lord!”

Okay, guys, I get it. You’re trying to be cool, and you heard that the kids these days are down with secret agents (see: Totally Spies, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., etc.). But first off, you’re a church. Churches were never cool, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Just accept it. More importantly, spies are bad. Haven’t you been paying attention? It’s not the Cold War anymore, and despite all the hype about the “War on Terror”, it’s plain to see that in the eyes of the government, we’re all terrorists. The most recent Captain America movie should have made this clear: spies are the bad guys now. No one trusts the three-letter agencies anymore, so the timing of this is really stupid… unless, of course, this whole thing is a psyop designed to get kids to trust spies, in which case its timing would make quite a lot of sense.

I already considered Answers in Genesis to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, and this strengthens my position. Like the spooks they praise, these people are not to be trusted.

Making hay in the dark

Imagine that there is a group of people, dedicated to finding needles. We’ll call them the Needle Seekers’ Association. They’re looking for loose and lost needles. After all, those things can be dangerous if you’re not expecting them! And where are you most likely to find loose needles? In haystacks, of course! So the Needle Seekers collect haystacks.

A lot of haystacks.

Just so many haystacks. In fact, they soon end up with more haystacks than all the farmers in the county. But hey, gotta find those needles somehow. So the seekers collect hay, and sort hay, and search through hay, and bring out needles.

Then they keep the hay.

In fact, they don’t just keep it, they use it! They get into the hay business, and they sell quite a lot of it. With their huge stock of hay, the Needle Seekers’ Association becomes the biggest hay seller in town.

Then one day, a traveler comes to town, observes what’s going on, and asks, “Why do these hay sellers call themselves needle seekers? I’m seeing a lot of hay in what they do, but where are all the needles?”

Where, indeed.

The impetus for this story is the latest revelation from Snowden and company that the NSA scoops up and keeps data on 9 totally innocent people for every genuine surveillance target (and even that may be giving them too much credit). They sort this data and then, as the article puts it, they “retain, store, search and distribute to its government customers” this information. As Boing Boing puts it here:

Almost everything in the NSA cache is haystack, in other words, with just a few needles. And the hay is deliberately collected and retained, even though it consists of things like love notes, baby pictures, medical records, and other intimate data belonging to people who are under no suspicion at all.

And just what are they doing with all that hay? Rest assured that they are doing something with it. After all, when you see a farmer’s field full of haystacks, it’s safe to assume that the farmer isn’t actually looking for needles in them.

The Stupidity of Power (brought to you by the Department of Woo-Woo)

The polygraph, popularly known as the “lie detector”, is not what its proponents claim it to be.

The polygraph does not actually detect lies, because nothing can detect lies. Instead, it monitors and records reactions in the body of the person being tested. It checks how you’re breathing, how much you’re sweating, how fast your heart is beating, and so on. The theory is that when you tell a lie, your body reacts in a certain way, and that by detecting those reactions, the polygraph can determine when you’re trying to deceive the questioner. A seductive idea; to be able to sniff out a lie, right at its source! What power, and what convenience!

The trouble is that, as the Leonard Saxe and the APA put it, “There is no unique physiological reaction to deception.” The FAS did a thorough study of polygraphs, and they got results like these:

Fourteen individual analog studies:
– correct guilty detections ranged from 35.4 to 100 percent and averaged 63.7 percent;
– correct innocent detections ranged from 32 to 91 percent and averaged 57.9 percent;
– false positives ranged from 2 to 50.7 percent and averaged 14.1 percent; and
– false negatives ranged from O to 28.7 percent and averaged 10.4 percent.

As the FAS put it, “the polygraph detects deception at a rate better than chance, but with error rates that could be considered significant.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. And then they give us this to chew on:

One area of special concern in personnel security screening is the incorrect identification of innocent persons as deceptive. All other factors being equal, the low base rates of guilt in screening situations would lead to high false positive rates, even assuming very high polygraph validity. For example, a typical polygraph screening situation might involve a base rate of one guilty person (e.g., one person engaging in unauthorized disclosure) out of 1,000 employees. Assuming that the polygraph is 95 percent valid, then, the one guilty person would be identified as deceptive but so would 50 innocent persons. The predictive validity would be about 2 percent. Even if 99 percent polygraph validity is assumed, there would still be 10 false positives for every correct detection of a guilty person.

10 people, falsely declared liars, for every liar found. And that’s for a 99 percent validity. Look again at the estimates for actual validity, and do the math for yourself.

Happily, some folks have paid attention, and have limited or banned the use of polygraphs. Here in the U.S., defendants and witnesses cannot be forced to take a polygraph test, and several states forbid employers from using the test on their employees. Unfortunately, government agencies are still allowed to polygraph their employees, so the test is still used as a pre-employment screen by the FBI and the CIA.

Let me emphasize the oddness of this. The polygraph is inaccurate enough that courts can’t force it on witnesses and private employers can’t force it on their would-be employees, yet the CIA and the FBI – two agencies who really ought to have top standards for using reliable tests – still use it to screen their employees. Two powerful agencies, whom we are asked to trust with our safety and security, are totally committed to using a bad test.

Sadly, this kind of behavior is typical. Whether it’s the bomb detector used by the UK and Iraqi government (among others) that’s no better than a dowsing rod, interrogation techniques that can compel anyone to confess to anything (never mind whether or not they actually did it), or the NSA’s habit of collecting huge amounts of data that don’t actually help prevent any attacks, the high and mighty have a proven track record of stupidity. Keep that in mind when they ask you to trust them and give them more power.

Edited to add: If you really want to have a good look at the shenanigans involving the polygraph, head over to But before you go check that site out, keep in mind that the NSA is targeting that site (and possibly trying to entrap the folks behind it), so protect your privacy by using Tor, or TAILS if you want to be really safe.

The Spy Draft

The national security letter strikes me as an inherently bad thing. As they exist today, they can compel people and institutions to hand over information, much like a warrant, except that they don’t require a judge’s oversight. A judge is only required to review an NSL if someone challenges the NSL. But here’s the really tricky thing: when you get one, you can’t talk about it. It comes with a built-in gag order. So good luck asking anyone if you have any grounds to challenge it, sucker. For most folks, your only realistic options are to comply or to get arrested. In effect, they force the recipient to become a spy; they must hand over whatever secret information their superiors want, but they cannot reveal their actions to anyone. Brewster Kahle got one, and his experience was not a pleasant one. I don’t want to see that sort of thing happen to anyone.

And how many people does this sort of thing happen to? Well, if we go by 2013 alone… 19,212. That’s how many NSLs were sent out in just one year. Nineteen thousand secret warrants. Nineteen thousand forced acts of spying. And if you think that’s bad, apparently it used to be worse: this article says that between 2003 and 2006, the FBI issued about 200,000 NSLs. That comes out to about 180 secret gag warrants being sent out every single day.

Some folks call modern America a “police state”, but I don’t think that’s quite the right term. It conjures up images of massive overt oppression, when what’s really happening is much more insidious. I propose, instead, that we call our current state a “spy state”. You can’t see who’s watching you, but you know they’re there, seeing everything you do. And life goes on and everything seems normal, until the day they decide they need you, in which case you’d better cooperate, or you’ll just disappear. There is no resisting the spy draft.