Prophetic Authority vs. the Law of Averages

May 30, 2007 | 63 comments
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J. Nelson Seawright put up a post last week that is clearly a Trojan horse designed to undermine liberal Mormons. Sure, it disguises itself as a discussion of how to conceivably be more correct than the General Authorities; but this is obviously just a front. So let me warn all the liberals away from this trap before they reap the whirlwind.

If you are a liberal Mormon, the very last thing in the world you want is to invest in a model that says the best available signal of truth is a poll of Mormons. You’ll get destroyed. You’ll lose almost every time. It will be a bloodbath. Don’t go there. Most Mormons do not agree with you on contentious issues in Mormonism, and you know it. Truth by poll is really, really bad for the minority view.

Furthermore, as Mormons, we already have staked a very strong position against truth by poll. As we’ve all noticed, 99% plus or minus 1, disagrees with us about the divinity and truth claims of the LDS church. So yes, we have testimonies born of the spirit that what we believe is true, and no poll is going to take that away. That is because, fundamentally, we reject the idea that on average people are right about the gospel. For the natural man is an enemy to God.

OK, so put that aside and let me mention a couple other points from JNS’ interesting post, which is, I think, a response to my original post here. I am going to do my absolute best to make this a low jargon diet.

1. JNS uses in the background some very intuitive proofs showing that, in general, an average across a bunch of people (all considered equal) is more reliable than any one of them. It does not, in any way, show that that average is better than the prophet. It does not say that averaging enough people will yield the truth, any more than averaging squirrel heights will tell you the height of a zebra. Of course, if you assume that people on average are more right than the prophet then you will get that result. When JNS says:

“In fact, for a huge range of assumptions about error structure, it is possible to construct a perspective that totally disregards the position of the General Authority but is nonetheless superior to that of the General Authority.”

One might get the impression that he is saying that his result is typically the case. But, though perfectly correct, the statement is a little confusing. There are an infinite number of error structures, so for most things that can happen, there are indeed a “huge range of assumptions” that will yield that result. But all of them have the characteristic I mention above–they assume that people as a group are a better signal than the General Authority. This is not proven, it is assumed. There is another “huge range” of assumptions under which the GA is the best signal. And, in fact, there are a “huge range” of assumptions under which the best path to truth is to read squirrel entrails. But we would, in general, not believe those assumptions. You may go off whichever assumptions you wish– they are, really, a matter of faith.

2. So let’s assume, with the model JNS presents, that the best signal of truth is the average of the rank and file membership of the Church. Then let’s ask them if they think we should follow the prophet or a poll of members. I bet they will say we should follow the prophet. So under either model, following the prophet looks smart! If you disagree with me on that poll it just makes it all the more obvious that we don’t even know what people believe, much less whether they are right on average.

3. Suppose we want to average between the prophetic view and the communal view. Well, if the prophet took into account the communal view before he started then that will never help unless we are better at taking it into account than he is. But if there is one thing that internet discussion make obvious, it is that people have widely different views on what the communal view even is, much less how to integrate it with the prophetic one.

Now suppose that the prophet ignored the communal view but we knew it (we don’t) and, although it is somewhat biased (meaning on average it is not quite right), we’d like to integrate it into our estimate of the truth. Since we don’t know the size of the bias, we could easily mess up and get a worse estimate. We lack the information to optimally combine the two.

4. I love the law of averages and there are lots of places in which it can do wonders. JNS has used this to make an excellent point about counsels. This law of averages is almost surely a component in why the Lord has a law of witnesses and a rule about unanimous quorum decisions holding special force. There is, as Elder Ballard so pointedly has reminded us, safety in counsels.

But the voice of the people, well, we know from scripture that the minority usually picks wickedness and the majority picks good. Except, of course that sometimes they don’t when the land is ripening for destruction. Not great. We do, though, have a variety of counsel saying that “the safest course” is to follow the prophet. So it appears that, for the “error structure” that actually exists but we can’t see, following the prophets is best. We could poll the members and I bet they would say the same thing :).

5. JNS’s model (and the earlier version I used) is one where there is one truth for all of us. If we are talking about decisions that vary by person, we could also write down that model. In that case, a general conference talk is probably going to only give some general principles and ask us to take it from there, based on our circumstances. This is the smart thing for the GA to do, and seems to be exactly what they often do (see Elder Oaks’ talk on divorce for example). This also represents about 99% of the decisions we have to make in this world. We have plenty of opportunities to use our own light and knowledge to make decisions, as well as to confirm the guidance of the prophet.

This doesn’t begin to exhaust all the interesting ways of thinking about prophetic authority and probability, but the post is already too long. Many thanks to JNS for giving me a reason to think about the subject again. And let me state my view that the prophet really is the safest course. He gives us counsel when he thinks it will be a net gain to us. The Lord guides the Church, as a whole, through him and the other men with the keys. As I modeled mathematically in my prior post, and as countless prophets have made clear, they need not be perfect to be worth following very closely, because we also are not perfect, nor are we given the keys to guide the Church.

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63 Responses to Prophetic Authority vs. the Law of Averages

  1. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Frank — I already called you on the distortion that my model assumes that the group is better than the GA. No — that’s the implication. It simply assumes that the difference in squared bias between the average group member and the GA is less than the variance of the GA position. That’s a more specific assumption, and that’s what we ought to talk about. It just isn’t as sexy as the result — but in theory that means we could have a more rational conversation about it.

    Frank says:

    3. Suppose we want to average between the prophetic view and the communal view. Well, if the prophet took into account the communal view before he started then that will never help unless we are better at taking it into account than he is. But if there is one thing that internet discussion make obvious, it is that people have widely different views on what the communal view even is, much less how to integrate it with the prophetic one.

    Now suppose that the prophet ignored the communal view but we knew it (we don’t) and, although it is somewhat biased (meaning on average it is not quite right), we’d like to integrate it into our estimate of the truth. Since we don’t know the size of the bias, we could easily mess up and get a worse estimate. We lack the information to optimally combine the two.

    *****

    It’s all assumptions unless someone can come up with measurements on any of this. We don’t have clear evidence that the GAs typically consult a lot of members on decisions. Clearly, there are a couple of instances in our history where they have, and also many instances where diaries and meeting minutes make clear that they haven’t. For any given discussion, this will usually only become clear decades later, so we have to guess. As such, it isn’t clear that we can safely assume that the information of the mass of faithful members has been taken into account.

    Frank’s #2 misses the obvious point that we don’t have to choose between only the GA or only the poll of members. My argument is that we can and should integrate various sources of information; this isn’t a black-and-white issue, although we can make it one if we ignore all but the most extreme possibilities. I think this is the most important point: Frank’s argument works most obviously when we have to choose either one or the other; in reality, we can combine, average, and integrate in a number of other ways.

    “…the voice of the people, well, we know from scripture that the minority usually picks wickedness and the majority picks good. Except, of course that sometimes they don’t when the land is ripening for destruction.”

    Cheers. Then only talk to the people who are trying to faithfully live the gospel. You can define the population here; regardless of how you do it, there will probably still be many thousands of people with useful information left to talk to.

  2. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    JNS, Thanks for responding.

    “It simply assumes that the difference in squared bias between the average group member and the GA is less than the variance of the GA position.”

    The audience has no idea at all what that means. I told them what it is equivalent to assuming. Calling one the assumption and the other the result is like saying that we’ll assume a>b, a=A and b=B and then finding the “conclusion” that A>B. Since the audience does not know what mean squared bias is, all it does is obscure what you are doing. For those interested, bias is a measure of how wrong you are as a group. Variance, in this case, is a measure of on average how wrong the prophet is as an individual. Thus saying squared bias is less than variance is equivalent to saying the group average is better than the prophet. There are some details to work out to get this “result”, but you always need a condition that boils down to the same thing.

    “As such, it isn’t clear that we can safely assume that the information of the mass of faithful members has been taken into account.”

    That’s a funny word, “safely”. Oh that’s right, its the one used when referring to following the prophet as the safest course. Thus we actually do have information about the best course, if we find that information credible. As for your point about us not knowing how much they use outside input, well presumably they use it to the extent they find it optimal. They probably make mistakes, but then so would you. And thus it is not at all clear that you can do better at integrating the two views than the prophet already does. But maybe you think you can, good luck with that.

    “Frank’s #2 misses the obvious point that we don’t have to choose between only the GA or only the poll of members.”

    Frank #2 is a lead in to Frank #3 where I do consider integrating various kinds of info. The one you just got done talking about…

    “Then only talk to the people who are trying to faithfully live the gospel.”

    And if we define it as a random sample of temple worthy members I bet they will agree with me that the best course is to follow the prophet. :) So either way I’m good. By the way, I agree that polling ten thousand active members would give me a great signal on a lot of things. In fact, I bet I would be far more comfortable with that than you would. Which is why I find it so mystifying that you are pushing this view.

  3. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    “For those interested, bias is a measure of how wrong you are as a group. Variance, in this case, is a measure of on average how wrong the prophet is as an individual.”

    Actually not. Bias is something that both individuals within the group and the prophet have. It’s how much persistent personal or cultural prejudice distorts an individual’s understanding of or expression of revealed understandings. We all live in a cultural context, and we all have persistent beliefs that disrupt our access to truth. To the extent that members and GAs are from the same cultural context, there will be shared bias. To whatever extent GAs manage to overcome that, they may have less bias than members in general. Clearly, nobody ever removes 100% of the bias.

    Variance, by contrast, involves idiosyncratic error related only to a given issue/individual combination. This isn’t long-standing personality or culture, it’s the inherent noise of human cognition and of spiritual reception by mortals.

    “Oh that’s right, its the one used when referring to following the prophet as the safest course.”

    Oh, come on. This discussion isn’t about whether to follow prophets, it’s about how.

    “And if we define it as a random sample of temple worthy members I bet they will agree with me that the best course is to follow the prophet. :) So either way I’m good. By the way, I agree that polling ten thousand active members would give me a great signal on a lot of things. In fact, I bet I would be far more comfortable with that than you would. Which is why I find it so mystifying that you are pushing this view.”

    Frank, yes, we’re all following the prophet. The poll question ought to involve whether — while following the prophet — it’s ever wise to take any other information whatsoever seriously.

    I should note that none of us really has any idea whatsoever what a poll of ten thousand active members, randomly selected from the whole worldwide membership, would look like. It’s a total mystery until someone actually does it. There’s adequate reason to think that it might look different from such a poll in Utah or even the US, although nobody really knows.

  4. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Looking back, when JNS said:

    “Frank’s #2 misses the obvious point that we don’t have to choose between only the GA or only the poll of members.”

    I think my answer was incomplete. Let me add that if we polled a random set of temple worthy LDS about whether we should follow the prophets or mix polls of Mormons with the view of the prophets, as JNS suggests, I think the clear response would be that we should just stick with following the prophet. If we were to make it a scale of relative weight (meeting JNS’ preference for shades of intepretation) I think the poll would come back with a very large weight on the prophet and very low weight on the poll result. And since one can’t put more than all the weight on the prophet, if more than half the people say we should put all the weight on the prophet, you don’t want to take an average, you just would put all the weight on the prophet (because the responses are censored).

    OK, that was not jargon free, sorry.

  5. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Frank, the better poll would be a deliberative one that exposed people to a discussion of the arguments in favor of various perspectives, gave them a day or so to think about what they do in their actual lives and to pray about the issue if they wished, and then asked for their position. We want to get something like serious personal spiritual insight, not off-the-cuff responses. So that’s what a good implementation of my perspective would look like.

    Obviously, we have no idea whatsoever about how the response would turn out.

  6. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    By the way, I know that you, Frank, have commitments to principle that override your personal preferences on some issues. Is it so surprising that I might also? That I might prefer anything that gives access to divine truth, even if that divine truth turns out to be something I don’t personally prefer?

  7. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    I’m off to lunch, I’ll respond when I get back.

  8. MCQ on May 30, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    I think you two should just fight it out in a steel cage match with Steve Evans’ mother. According to Steve, you would both lose. End of discussion.

  9. Robert C. on May 30, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Another issue I haven’t seen addressed (but then I’ve only skimmed the million or so comments on these threads…), is the assumption that truth is objectively knowable (i.e. exogenous, sorry I can’t think of a less wordy way to say that…). Here’s an example:

    My own independent view is that tatoos are harmless. The fact that the prophet has counseled against tatoos changes my situation in two ways: (1) I question my own independent view (I think this is what the model does address), and (2) I am now responsible for how I respond to this counsel (this is what the model fails to address).

    I think is very important in the seemingly popular birth control example. When the counsel was against birth control, it wasn’t a relevant issue for me—so, for me, it isn’t wrong. For those whose Church leaders counseled them not to use birth control, the rightness and wrongness of this decision is certainly a different issue than for me.

    (Looking again, I guess this might be a special case of Frank’s #5 about personal revelation, I think, though I think there is a substantive difference in the point I’m trying to make….)

  10. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Robert, I think you’re right that there’s something important in how we respond to advice and instructions we’re given by our leaders. We’re told to hearken, which (following the OED) means to listen carefully and sympathetically, and perhaps also to apply ourselves to understanding. If we reject such messages out of hand or automatically assume ourselves to be superior, then we haven’t done the hearkening bit right. We covenant to take such advice and instructions very seriously in our personal deliberations and prayers, and I suppose we will be liable if we don’t live up to those covenants.

  11. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Your choice of bias definition vs. variance is fine, but it does not substantively impact anything we’ve said.

    “Oh, come on. This discussion isn’t about whether to follow prophets, it’s about how.”

    I think the definition of follow the prophet is not actually that hard to figure out. If follow the prophet meant to follow a mixture of poll results and the prophet then the Church could say that, but it doesn’t. I bet we could even find some Church talks on what it means to follow the prophet. I bet we could even find a bunch of Church talks to reduce the variance to be unimportant!

    “The poll question ought to involve whether — while following the prophet — it’s ever wise to take any other information whatsoever seriously.”

    I think I addressed this in my last comment that posted above this one. But to answer again, if the “other information” is just a poll of other active members on the same question addressed by the prophet, I have a pretty good guess of what the result would be. If you don’t then I suggest you start polling and see what you come up with in your stake. Later you talk of having people deliberate and pray and then answer the poll. You are never going to get that poll you describe– ever. You might as well have a method based on the consultation of flying dingos.

    “I should note that none of us really has any idea whatsoever what a poll of ten thousand active members, randomly selected from the whole worldwide membership, would look like. It’s a total mystery until someone actually does it.”

    In other words, you are proposing an estimator of unknown bias, the actual value of which we also do not know. Sounds like a winner. How about we bring your theory back around when we actually have a clue what temple-worthy Mormons believe (since you think we don’t know). And see if you can slip in that question about weighting prophets vs. polls on there!

    “By the way, I know that you, Frank, have commitments to principle that override your personal preferences on some issues.”

    I am not sure what you are thinking about, care to elaborate?

    “Is it so surprising that I might also? That I might prefer anything that gives access to divine truth, even if that divine truth turns out to be something I don’t personally prefer?”

    Well it turns out that your method will never threaten you with that as it is based on a “deliberative poll” that will, I’d guess, never happen to your satisfaction and you refuse to believe we already know anything about what it would say. As such, it cannot falsify any view you have.

    Now, on the other hand, if you thought we could know something from what members around us appear to believe and say they believe when we talk to them casually, well then I think you would not have many of the beliefs you appear to have. So that contradiction was what I found surprising. It turns out there is no contradiction because your proposed estimator is sufficiently pie-in-the-sky as to be no restriction on you whatsoever (Although I will be very happy to be proved wrong.) I don’t doubt that you would trust this mystical poll, I just doubt that it will ever speak.

  12. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    MCQ,

    “Steel cage match” is actually not a bad description of many an economics seminar at my grad school.

    I agree Robert, that’s what I was trying to get at in #5. And i agree with JNS that we have the responsibility to take leader’s counsels very seriously. Also, I don’t know about the OED, but the typical definition I hear in the Church of “hearken” is “listen and obey”. Or am I wrong?

  13. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    “…you are proposing an estimator of unknown bias, the actual value of which we also do not know…”

    Good description of every estimator ever proposed regarding any religious issue. But we do know that, under reasonable conditions, some of these estimators have lower MSE than others; my post spelled out that taking other information into account can improve our understanding even past what we get from listening to GA council. You can sling rhetoric at that it you want, but it’s not particularly enlightening.

    “…you refuse to believe we already know anything about what it would say…”

    Honestly, I don’t think we know what the answer would be even to your simple proposed poll question. If the question is clear enough for people to understand, it strikes me as having non-trivial probability that people will say we ought to take GAs very seriously, and also take very seriously our own spiritual insights and those of others. The poll here is just a metaphor, since nobody does any public polls of church members. So don’t get hung up on the metaphor, please.

    And, Frank, it’s none of your business — but I’ve been persuaded to change my positions on religious and moral issues before and I’m sure it will happen again. Your supposition that I’m unwilling to change is false. But so also is your sense of what members say to me in causal conversation — my beliefs are not too much out of what I think is the mainstream in the non-Utah church.

  14. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    JNS,

    I actually have a start to your deliberative poll. It’s a fairly small group of men and women who, after much prayer and careful deliberative thought, have shared their views semi-annually on a wide range of subjects. The views tend to actually be pretty uniform, so they appear to have a low enough variance to be a useful guide.

    Also, I assure you that as a group they are very active, very prayerful and very deliberative. So they should make a very high quality sample. There may be some bias, but it seems very likely that they have less than the Church as a whole, so we actually may well do better with them than with a random draw. Especially given their observed low variance.

  15. Karl D. on May 30, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    I suppose this is really a question for JNS, but I wonder why JNS made such a strong assumption about the variances? Correct me if I am wrong, but the assumption seems to be the following: If you aggregate lots of rank and file members opinions then the average bias will be unaffected but the position will have virtually no variance and a single GA opinion or even an aggregate of 15 members is likely to have significantly more variance. My skimming of the comments on the BCC thread is that this was the most controversial assumption. Was the goal was simply to show under certain conditions that it may be optimal to take a position that is a weighted sum or average of the GA position and non-GA position? You can write down a pretty simple model that has that implication and still assumes that GAs have less bias and less variance than any other possible source (aggregated or individual). You primarily need the correlation between the biases to be sufficiently low to get some sort of diversification effect. The model would still have plenty of issues, but it would avoid an assumption that many find unpalatable.

  16. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    “The poll here is just a metaphor, since nobody does any public polls of church members.”

    A metaphor for what? What are the other mechanisms that work the same as your poll and achieve the same result? Your metaphor is driven by a law of large numbers so what is it a metaphor for and is that other thing also driven by a law of large numbers?

    “my beliefs are not too much out of what I think is the mainstream in the non-Utah church.”

    That would be a fascinating post :)

    “Your supposition that I’m unwilling to change is false.”

    I never said it, I don’t believe it.

    “But we do know that, under reasonable conditions, some of these estimators have lower MSE than others; my post spelled out that taking other information into account can improve our understanding even past what we get from listening to GA council. You can sling rhetoric at that it you want, but it’s not particularly enlightening.”

    JNS, I was not slinging rhetoric, I was making your assumptions clear to a lay audience. Did you count how many people who read your post started off by saying they did not understand the math? You say the conditions are “reasonable”, I laid out what the conditions were equivalent to in English so people could judge their reasonableness for themselves. It was blatantly obvious from the comments to your post that many people did not understand what was actually going on in the model and what was driving the results.

    And yes, people should take very seriously their own spiritual insights. Especially because in most cases, GA advice is sufficiently general that we need that insight to apply counsel to our own lives.

  17. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Karl,

    I don’t know why JNS did that, but it is worth noting that you are going to run into trouble combining the estimates if you don’t know the bias terms.

    4 is, as you well know, a biased estimator with 0 variance. So is any other number. But that does not mean we can gain better estimates by throwing in random real numbers.

  18. Karl D. on May 30, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Frank, you’re, of course, right about the bias terms. Not only do you need the estimates of bias but you need the covariance matrix as well. That is what I was alluding to when I said, “The model would still have plenty of issues.”

  19. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    “You can write down a pretty simple model that has that implication and still assumes that GAs have less bias and less variance than any other possible source (aggregated or individual).”

    This is only true if (a) faithful church members as a group have a very large shared bias that GAs don’t have or (b) GAs have zero variance. Any average will eventually have basically zero variance when the sample size gets large enough. Point (a), which involves the difference in squared biases, is the real issue — as I made clear in my post.

  20. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    “The model would still have plenty of issues.”

    Then I agree :).

  21. Karl D. on May 30, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    JNS, I think you missed my point. I wasn’t trying to argue that it was a good or bad assumption. Only that many find it controversial, and I don’t think you need it to make you basic point (unless I misunderstood you basic point).

  22. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Oops, please ignore my last comment.

    You might make a more complex model involving full covariance matrices, etc. But I think what I did was sufficient for the current task. The assumptions aren’t really that controversial — most of the debate has involved people simply assuming that I was arguing for a corner solution in which we disregard the GAs, and most people who have understood the model have one of two responses:

    (a) They like it, or
    (b) They, like Frank, think that the GAs have already taken the wisdom of the membership into account in all cases.

    For point (b), there’s actually historical evidence, and many decisions are made with little or no consultation of the membership. That might be because of some unpublished revelation, but I doubt it. Probably it’s because the decisions were made by people using the leadership theories of their time — which until recently emphasized hierarchical management rather than the integration of the wisdom of the masses.

  23. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Karl, right, I missed your point. But, in my defense, I did figure that out on my own! Sorry, didn’t mean to misinterpret…

  24. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    There are probably lots of alternatives, but here are a couple more takeaways someone might have:

    3) The wisdom of the masses is only accessible through means we don’t have (elaborate deliberative polling) and so is not particularly relevant to the questions at hand.

    4) The GAs may not perfectly extract the signal from the masses, but they do a better job than we can, so there is nothing to gain from trying to do it again.

    5) The GAs as a set of quorums are actually a large enough group with low enough variance that they can accomplish the benefits of variance reduction without outside polling. But when they can’t, they do consult others. They do this imperfectly, but we don’t have a means to improve on their method from the outside, because it requires knowledge we don’t have.

    “there’s actually historical evidence, and many decisions are made with little or no consultation of the membership”

    Obviously, many decisions may be low enough variance that little or no consultation is optimal. But on some things (curriculum materials for one) the Church actively solicits outside input. Maybe this is something that has changed over time. Maybe it has been fine all along. How to use member wisdom is an interesting question and one I imagine the Brethren think about a fair bit. Especially since so many decisions are made locally.

    I am still curious how you think, practically speaking, I can access this wisdom of the masses. And if I did how I could combine that estimate with prophetic counsel. It seems to me that to do so requires me to know things I do not know nor can readily guess at. You readily admitted to not having the foggiest clue to what the wisdom of the masses was. So that is a problem.

  25. JNS on May 30, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    Frank, even if we don’t have access to the whole wisdom of the masses, as long as we know one person who hasn’t been consulted by the GAs on a specific issue, we can potentially improve the position you or I could hold based only on listening to the GAs marginally using that person’s information. And this all happens at the margins. The marginal result is true even if the GAs listen to the masses–because the GAs can’t listen to everyone. Indeed, if the GAs do consult members, that means the GAs rate the members’ information as of some value — which justifies incorporating additional info from those members not yet consulted.

    How much you weight member versus GA advice depends on individual assumptions. My argument is just that most Mormons’ assumptions justify listening to GAs and also other people we trust. Not really all that infeasible to do, is it?

  26. Frank McIntyre on May 30, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    This is true if we weight them optimally– a weight which may well be zero or very close to it. In fact, since their estimate is quite possibly biased, the optimal thing to do may be to say the opposite of what they suggest. You have to be able to estimate what part of their information is new and what part is worse than what you’ve got. If we weight them incorrectly we can end up with a worse estimate. For example, if we give them too much weight, our estimate gets worse. And in the type of model you’ve constructed, the weight on one person, given a prophetic announcement is likely to be at best vanishingly small.

    The reason your claims sound so plausible is because there is a close case in which they are very plausible– The case where the correct decision varies widely by person. Then it is incredibly likely that one can gain insight into one’s best move by consulting those close to you (as long as they are doing their best to follow the spirit, etc.) In the Church, we’ve even set up a structure for this with GAs regularly asking us to consult our local leaders for counsel.

    As for “most Mormon’s assumptions”, well I thought you didn’t think we knew enough to say what most Mormons believe. What happened?

  27. John Williams on May 30, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    What would happen if we polled the entire Earth’s population on ethical / spiritual matters? I imagine that the average results would be sort of similar to what Mormons believe:

    1. It’s unethical to kill other people.
    2. It’s proper for one man and one woman to get together and have children and raise them as a family unit.
    3. It’s unethical to steal other people’s property.
    4. It’s unethical to lie.
    5. There is a supreme being or some form of deity.
    6. We should help other people be happy.

  28. timer on May 30, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    It’s a little tricky to think about your own religion, so let’s consider the question for religion in general.

    Suppose you belong to any religion at all and that your religious leaders or your interpretations of your sacred texts say X. Suppose further that X (be it a statement about politics, slavery, suicide bombing, race relations, female circumsision, birth control, evolution, etc.) is one that the vast majority of educated people in the world consider not merely implausible or doctrinally silly (which could apply to any claim of divine inspiration), but very deeply morally and ethically wrong.

    I would argue that, in this circumstance, you should think especially long and hard before accepting X. Treat the religious statement seriously, but also think very seriously about what other people are telling you, and if you must adopt X, do so with an unusual amount of caution. [If you want to make math of this, maybe it would come down to some sort of weighted average between X and the view of the educated world about what is ethical — or maybe a more complicated function, but you get the idea.]

    There can be little doubt that the world, as a whole, would be a better place if people took the more extreme statements of their religious leaders with a bit of a grain of salt. Or if they at least occasionally asked themselves, “If I follow this counsel and my leader turns out to be mistaken, will I regret my behavior for eternity? And will I feel that, in my heart, I always knew the counsel was wrong?” [Recall the Blaise Pascal quote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”]

    Okay, Frank might say that while this may true of other religions, it certainly does not apply to the our religion, the one true religion, with its uniquely inspired leaders. To this you might counter:

    1. Isn’t this what the adherents of any religion say? Don’t people always think their own leader is uniquely inspired (and doesn’t this often lead to serious trouble)? Is there some sort of Kantian moral imperative here — that the world would be better off if everyone questioned leaders, so we should do it too?

    2. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that we’re the only true or the only inspired church. Maybe we’re only mostly true — maybe we’re just the truest of the various approximations to truth obtained by various inspired seekers of truth. In this case, we can weigh the opinions of others seriously while still believing our church is uniquely ordained of God.

    3. Mormonism is not a blind obedience cult by any stretch. We’re very pragmatic and cautious and are frequently told to seek our own spiritual confirmation of what the prophet tells us. When the confirmation doesn’t come, and the world says X is horribly immoral, we may still ultimately accept X but… much more cautiously and probably less enthusiastically, and we may even find a way to interpret X that is a little more moderate than what the person who said X intended (again, this may in practice come down to something like the weighted average JNS proposes).

    4. For most of us, our beliefs already — whether we admit it or not — reflect an average between our predispositions, the views of our neighbors, and the prophet’s counsel (rather than complete acceptance of the prophet’s counsel). If (hypothetically) the prophet gave a series of talks condeming both tattoos and racism with equal vehemence, most of us would still consider racism a serious offence and tattoos, at worst, a fairly innocent vice. Even if we try to align perfectly with the prophet, we tend to listen selectively, to draw our own interpretations, to use our own minds, etc. This is exactly how it should be.

    Of course, Frank could then argue that this line of thinking leads to a watered down version of the gospel, and that if we adopt this perspective, we’ll soon be like American Catholics — drawing inspiration from the pope, but feeling free to ignore him whenever he seems to be wrong. But I would also speculate that, around the world, especially outside of Utah, most Mormons are already a lot closer to this approach than the absolute-acceptance-of-GA’s word approach that Frank (if I understand correctly) believes to be the best performing strategy.

    If I am correct, does this mean that most Mormons are faithless slackers? Probably. :) But it may also be that they are simply wiser than Frank. At least on average.

  29. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 12:06 am

    “But it may also be that they are simply wiser than Frank. At least on average.”

    “wisdom” here being defined as obeying the Kantian imperative by thinking you can outsmart your leaders? Eh.

    ” I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men will perish”

    Sometimes the wisdom of the world is overrated. Of course I fully agree that if your leaders tell you to start killing your family you should defer. And that is for reasons already well laid out in the probabilistic model. You talk of the leaders telling us to do horribly immoral things. Is this what you think the model is about? I think the model fits best in reference to when the prophet speaks and the law of witnesses is invoked. Offhand I don’t know of a single time that the FP as a group counseled the Saints to do horribly immoral things. Do you have something in mind? After all, I’m a Mormon and, as you pointed out, we’re a pragmatic bunch.

  30. John Williams on May 31, 2007 at 2:06 am

    Frank, how about the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

  31. Ugly Mahana on May 31, 2007 at 7:10 am

    John, you have distorted not only Frank’s point, but also history. The First Presidency didn’t counsel the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Although, I’m sure, it was much easier to farm in Utah than it was in Illinois in the 1840s.

  32. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 9:49 am

    John,

    UM nails it.

    timer,

    I think my last comment came across harsher than I intended. So let me ramble on for a while about what your comment brought to mind. Not that it is what you intended– just what I read when I saw it.

    The prophet makes some statement, and is supported by the FP and the Quorum of the 12. It is a statement about something we really have almost no way to know what is right except through revelation (like tattoos, earrings, infant baptism, or abortion). Then we decide that the prophet has some good ideas but surely we can improve on them. We justify it by referencing the Kantian imperative(!).

    So to me, that sounds suspiciously like the following:

    “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. ”

    And to top it off you then make a reference in your comment to the “wisdom” of not hearkening _too much_ to the prophet.

    The one thing that is bad about learning is that, as a group, we are vulnerable to overweighting our own views and underweighting the prophetic. So it seems to me that, as the True to the Faith manual puts it, the “safest course” is to follow the prophet, in order to avoid that problem. And as I’ve shown in my last post, noting _some_ prophetic fallibility is not a trump card to get one out of careful obedience. Widescale fallibility might be, but we don’t think that is the case. Whatever minuscule gains I imagine I can gain from re-optimizing on prophetic counsel appears, based on the True to the Faith manual and the above passage, to be swamped by the risk that I am going too far– because that is exactly what God told me I tend to do.

    And I would feel like a moron to get to heaven and have God tell me that I made the exact mistake he told me not to make when to me it seems so easy to avoid. Now, maybe for many people it is very hard to avoid. It is a kind of “favorite sin”. Fair enough, I have plenty of other sins that I find hard to avoid. But in that case let’s recognize it for what it is– rather than painting it as a virtue born of our above average IQ!

    So that is where I am coming from. Maybe that is completely off track from what you were trying to say, but it is how I saw it.

  33. Josh Kim on May 31, 2007 at 11:26 am

    The scripture tells us that the Lord will never allow a Prophet to lead us astray, that he will be struck down before he can. When the First Presidency and the Twelve submit a statement or say, \”thus sayeth the Lord,\” we take it as the literal word of the Lord.

    Isn\’t this logic a bit circular? I mean where does it lead us.

    Hypothetical: Suppose an Apostle, or whomever the Prophet happens to be at the time, makes a statement or announces a Revelation that is a complete lie. Then suppose that the Lord does not strike him down. This revelation is sustained in a conference. The members of the Church sustain it and follow it. But it\’s a lie. But the Lord\’s Annointed can\’t lead the membership astray, right?

    What then? Are we supposed to go on blind faith?

  34. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Josh, remind me again how we gain the knowledge that what the prophet says is a complete lie? In this hypothetical, did GBH send you a note taunting you about how he is leading the members astray and there’s nothing you can do to stop him? Because otherwise I don’t see it.

    Which is more likely, that the prophet is leading us astray (and the FP, Quorum of the 12 and the 70s all combined are wrong in their unanimous support) or that you think the prophet is but you are wrong? Surely you don’t want to operate on blind faith in your own correctness!

  35. timer on May 31, 2007 at 11:49 am

    “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. ”

    I don’t think you can really replace “God” with “church leaders” in the above verse. If you believe the latter always perfectly reflects the will of the former, then this whole discussion is pretty much moot. (Of course, I’m sure you can find a “follow the prophet” verse too…)

    Most of the FP messages these days are fairly bland and uncontroversial (love your families, do your home teaching, pray a lot, etc.) — at least in the sense that the cost of being wrong isn’t that high. Nobody is commanding you to stone an adultress, slaughter the people of Jericho, marry somebody else’s wife, etc. (although in theory, similar circumstances could arise again…)

    The modern leaders are also fairly cautious in their official statements and tend to leave wiggle room for personal interpretation. (Think “women are primarily responsible for nurture” versus “women with children in the home should never work for money unless they are financially compelled to do so.”) In these cases, your learning may not affect _whether_ you adopt the prophet’s counsel, but it will undoubtedly influence the way you interpret the counsel. I don’t think there is really any way around this.

    Instances where church guidance seems to require doing things that the popular CW considers seriously immoral are fairly rare these days; they come along maybe once a decade or once a generation (think polygamy or blacks and the priesthood). Treatment of homosexuals might be an example for the younger half of this generation. (The overwhelming majority of people in this country under 30 see nothing wrong with the “abomination” of homosexuality.) People who know nothing about homosexuality besides what they learn in conference talks might come across as pretty intolerant or at best out of touch (“I’m so sorry to hear that you are an individual struggling with same sex attraction, but I love you as a fellow child of God” versus “So you’re gay.”) But people who combine the church’s views with what they learn from others [do you prefer “thoughtful synthesis” to “weighted average”?] tend to come across as kinder, wiser, more nuanced, etc.

    Most of my friends are agnostics who believe religion is immoral, and that the premium it places on obedience is cynically self serving and horrendously dangerous. They love to cite the examples of people doing things they would never do on their own because some leader tells them to. In their mind, joining a religion means willfully turning off a part of your brain, agreeing to put a leader’s word before your own conscience.

    I disagree. (I will not recommend that they read your post!) I think the fact that we are so pragmatic — that we weigh what our leaders tell us with our other sources of knowledge before we act — is actually one of the great virtures of our religion. The church helps us to become better by helping and inspiring us to do what we feel in our hearts to be right. It does not (generally speaking) ask us to turn off those hearts and simply obey.

    ” “wisdom” here being defined as obeying the Kantian imperative by thinking you can outsmart your leaders? Eh. ”

    Actually, Frank, I did not mean to make this the _definition_ of wisdom… The people I mentioned are wiser than you in many ways. This is only the tip of the iceberg. :) Of course, the wiser of the bunch would replace the phrase “outsmart your leaders” with something like “interpret the guidance of your leaders in the context of the learning you have acquired from other sources.” Those wise Mormon slackers are pretty clever with language you know. :)

  36. Josh Kim on May 31, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    It’s a hypothetical, Frank.

  37. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    timer, in the vast majority of cases, we are left to our own devices to make decisions (as you noted). And I think that is worth pointing out.

    “I don’t think you can really replace “God” with “church leaders” in the above verse. ”

    Oh well, never mind then. I guess that verse was irrelevant. Glad we dodged that bullet! By they way, what is your infallible source for the counsel of God to which you apply this verse? :)

    “I’m so sorry to hear that you are an individual struggling with same sex attraction, but I love you as a fellow child of God” versus “So you’re gay.””

    You’re kidding, right? How is the first one in any way something that GBH or the FP would discourage us from doing? It sounds spot on like what GBH would endorse. The post is about what to do with contradictory information but your point here is about using congruent information wisely.

    “Instances where church guidance seems to require doing things that the popular CW considers seriously immoral are fairly rare these days; they come along maybe once a decade or once a generation (think polygamy or blacks and the priesthood).”

    Tough, tough questions, no doubt. And I’m sure we agree that we don’t want to get into a big discussion about them on this thread. I think they are precisely the sorts of cases where we should start thinking hard about _our_ infallibility and the world’s infallibility vs. that of the prophets and the Q12. We could even read some conference talks about the issue to get some guidance

    “interpret the guidance of your leaders in the context of the learning you have acquired from other sources.”

    Now there is a phrase that could mean just about anything. I am all for it. Or I’m against it. Both probably. :)

  38. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    “It’s a hypothetical, Frank.”

    Sure, but since the whole point of my post is to compare prophetic fallibility to personal fallibility, the hypothetical is only interesting if it address both issues. You’ve got massive prophetic fallibility but completely glossed over personal fallibility. So humor me and allow for the possibility that I might be wrong when I think the prophet and Q12 is leading us astray. As I said before, we surely don’t want blind faith in our own correctness.

    Or, here’s an interesting one, suppose an angel appears to you and says that the prophet and Q12 is leading the Church astray. Do you follow the angel or the prophet?

  39. ronito on May 31, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Hmm….let’s see. What did Joseph Smith do???

  40. timer on May 31, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    ” “I’m so sorry to hear that you are an individual struggling with same sex attraction, but I love you as a fellow child of God” versus “So you’re gay.””

    You’re kidding, right? How is the first one in any way something that GBH or the FP would discourage us from doing? It sounds spot on like what GBH would endorse. The post is about what to do with contradictory information but your point here is about using congruent information wisely. ” ”

    I actually meant the former statement to be the bad one. Not that there is anything so wrong with the sentiment… But my point is that if you actually _say_ the former statement outloud to an actual gay or lesbian person, it comes across as very patronizing and annoying. For one thing, generally speaking, they prefer to be called “gays” or “lesbians” not “people struggling with same sex attraction.” (Most GAs conspicuously avoid the former terms.) Second, the line “but I love you as a fellow child of God” suggests the continuation “much as I love all sinners — even Hitler — as fellow children of God.” As far as I know, gays don’t like to be condescended to in this way. (Perhaps you have a counterexample?)

    To my knowledge, the matter of fact “So you’re gay” is the nonjudgement and accepting approach prefered by most young people and most gays in America today. Think “So you’re Catholic. Let’s play tennis” versus “I’m so sorry to hear you are struggling with a misguided doctrinal foundation, but I still love you as a fellow child of God.”

    Anyway, this is a minor point, and it’s just about nuances and manners and how to talk to other human beings without completely ticking them off. But it is an example in which people who adopt the _posture_ of the GAs without thinking will do a lot worse than people who combine the general _principles_ of the GAs with some of the wisdom of the world. (Can I call this a weighted average?) This does not mean that the GAs are “wrong,” exactly. But it does mean that if you have gay friends, the GAs are probably not the first Mormons you are going to want to introduce them to.

    “I think they are precisely the sorts of cases where we should start thinking hard about _our_ infallibility and the world’s infallibility vs. that of the prophets and the Q12.”

    I completely agree. In situations like these, we should do all kinds of thinking about all the potential fallibility of all the parties involved. I think JNS would also agree.

  41. Adam Greenwood on May 31, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    I think that’s almost entirely a non-sequitur, Timer. As far as I know, the general authorities have discussed homosexuality but they haven’t discussed the specific phrases one should use in talking to gay friends and acquaintances. There’s no weighted average because there’s nothing from the general authorities to weight.

  42. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    ronito,

    What God wanted. Am I missing some deep but obvious lesson?

    timer,

    Oh, so not an awkward “So you’re gay…[awkward silence]” but a nonchalant, almost world weary “So you’re gay, let’s play tennis”. Sorry I didn’t catch that. In any case, my point remains the same. Your example is not of contradictory advice, but of how to use two pieces of complementary information. (Do catholics like tennis?)

    “I completely agree…I think JNS would also agree.”

    Of course you do. The statement I made has basically no content whatsoever. :) I have to say, I still find it startling if you feel you can improve on ratified Church counsel on questions that are so incredibly complicated that no mortal can even begin to answer them. I honestly don’t get that, but perhaps you do.

  43. timer on May 31, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    “Of course you do. The statement I made has basically no content whatsoever. :) I have to say, I still find it startling if you feel you can improve on ratified Church counsel on questions that are so incredibly complicated that no mortal can even begin to answer them. I honestly don’t get that, but perhaps you do.”

    That’s the beauty of vague generalities. But you know, beyond the basic commandments and admonitions to do good, most church statements are also simply too vague and non-specific to be “wrong” in any precise way. So can I point to a series of recent FP statements and say, “These are wrong?” No, of course not. But aside from the obvious doctrinal differences, I would have equal trouble finding a statement by the local evangelical minister or Jewish rabbi that I can declare to be “wrong” with any confidence. “Love your neighbor” and “teach your children well” and “pray a lot” simply cannot be wrong.

    Beyond the basic rules, the GAs usually don’t communicate a lot of specifics. But they do communicate attitudes, guidelines, and general philosophy. These are not going to be “wrong” but…. sometimes you can improve yourself faster if, instead of adopting the attitudes and postures they communicate without thinking, you let the world and your reading and own experience and your neighbors influence you some as well. I think my gay friend example is the best I can do for now (although as I said, and you reiterated, it is not exactly a case of GAs being “wrong” — just a case of their expressing themselves in a manner that might be unnecessarily offensive to some; the scriptures don’t say that prophets are perfect communicators or have the perfect attitudes or postures — just that they are doing their best to communicate the wisdom God has given them, and we have to try to figure out what they meant to say…)

    In fact, most often the “ratified church counsel” is so vague that you simply _have_ to “improve on it” (refine it, flesh it out, make it relevant, etc.) before it can be of any practical use to you. ALL practical questions are too complicated for mortals to being to answer. (The answer to “Where should I go for dinner?” may have long term effects that none of us can begin to fully understand.) But that’s no excuse not to try, and it’s no reason to _automatically_ assume that if a church leader seems to be making a mistake, it is because God has given him a revelation. (Maybe this will be true in many or most cases, but you’ll use your brain in the cases where there appears to be an especially egregious mistake — here’s where the “weighted average” comes in, although it’s not really an ordinary linear averaging…)

    Of course, if you were an evangelical, you’d have to say “I still find it startling if you feel you can improve on Biblical counsel on questions that are so incredibly complicated that no mortal can even begin to answer them.” And in the OT in particular, much of the “advice,” such as it is, really is confusing and self-contradictory and frequently opposed to what we now believe to be right… So you have to “improve on it.” Just don’t call it that. Call it “interpreting it” or “understanding it” or “applying the general principles to our day with the help of personal inspiration” or “picking out the passages of most relevance to us.” Isn’t language wonderful? Change a few words and everything sounds so much nicer. Your way of thinking may have almost nothing in common with the way the OT prophets thought, but you do believe in God, and you do honor the prophets of the past, and you would never to be so bold as to say that you are smarter and wiser and more morally englightened than they were (even though, in many ways, you probably are).

    Okay, I’m done for today. I have some prophets to outsmart and ratified Church counsel to improve on. Nice chatting.

  44. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    “I think my gay friend example is the best I can do for now ”

    If that example is what you are talking about then I have zero objection. If you are talking about finding ways to apply general counsel in our lives, then of course we are going to have to do some work. I hope you don’t think I don’t agree and understand that.

    That is all a far cry from what I had in mind when I wrote up these posts. Namely, I can’t tell you how many times (mostly online) I have a discussion with somebody where the prophet has said “the doctrine or policy of the Church is X” or “please do X” and some very smart people respond, “well X is nice, but not X is probably better”, and then justify it with bizarre references to MMM and how prophets aren’t infallible. OK, that is slight hyperbole, but if you have hung around with Mormons long enough you know what I am talking about.

  45. John Williams on May 31, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    re Mountain Meadows Massacre

    There are some who argue that Brigham Young was complicit in the tragedy. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. If he was, then it would be a good example of a time when a member of the First Presidency gave some bad advice.

  46. ronito on May 31, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    No. I think that honor would go to the Kirtland Safety Society fiasco.

  47. John Williams on May 31, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    ronito,

    The list is long. Take your pick.

  48. Frank McIntyre on May 31, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    You guys are thinking too small. We’ve had members of the FP excommunicated, for goodness sake!

    But, more specifically, I referenced the whole FP because we have both Law of Witnesses and scriptures in the D&C which give special prerogative to unanimous decisions of quorums. So no, even if we lived in the fantasy world where BY authorized MMM, it would not meet the conditions the Lord has set forth (and therefore the conditions I referenced).

    As for KSS, that looks to me like an error, but as you may have noticed, the whole point is the model can handle fallibility and still keep rolling. I can’t think KSS would qualify as “horribly immoral”.

  49. timer on May 31, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    Hey Frank,

    Okay, back again. Can you give me three of four examples of cases in which the Q12 has unanimously declared X to be true in some sort of official statement and many smart and otherwise faithful Mormons have tried to improve on X in a way that you find objectionable (possibly citing the fallibility of prophets and/or relying on general worldly wisdom that contradicts X)?

    This whole business has become so theoretical, that at this point I really don’t know what you have in mind. Is X a falsifiable declaration of fact? A prediction about the future? An abstract doctrinal declaration (something about Heavenly Mother, say)? A specific behavioral guideline (say, no R-rated movies) that appeared in some offical publication or other but is not by itself terribly important as a hard fast rule? (I know of at least one apostle who watches occasional R-rated movies…) Is it more of a vague and general piece of advice, in which case what constitutes “improvement” on the advice might be somewhat open to interpretation? Is it an issue in which the official Q12 pronouncement is over a decade old and has not since been reiterated so forcefully? What is it, precisely, that the Q12 is unanimously declaring in official pronouncements and seemingly sincere Mormons are failing to accept because it conflicts with generally accepted wisdom? [Note: I can think of plenty of Q12-sanctioned “good works” that we fail to perform because we are lazy, or have limited attention and resources, or are too busy blogging, etc. But you seem to be talking about a moral disagreement.] What are the specific instances in which your “Just shut up and stop second guessing the unanimous opinion of the Q12!” advice seems to be most merited?

    Three or four examples would be great. Then I would have a better idea of what you’re talking about and could stop trying to guess!

    (By the way, if you read church history, you’ll note that there can be disagreement among church leaders. What appears to the public to be unanimity may conceal a bitter divide and/or a very close vote — or a vote that initially went the other way and was overruled by the prophet. But that’s another matter.)

  50. Matt Evans on June 1, 2007 at 1:08 am

    “I know of at least one apostle who watches occasional R-rated movies…”

    Oh, you can’t keep that a secret. Who? Which movies?

  51. Frank McIntyre on June 1, 2007 at 1:32 am

    Let me clarify that I think even something said by one prophet matters, but that God will not usually leave it at that. Other prophets or Apostles will testify to the same principle. An even higher bar are unanimous declarations, which get special weight. When I asked above for “horribly immoral” things I was curious whether anyone could come up with one that met this unanimous quorum bar. I still don’t know of any but would be interested to see some.

    Joint proclamations of the Q12 are fairly rare. But I think even unanimous FP statements represent a rather high bar– in fact they are,as I recall, given the same doctrinal weight as the Q12. There is something about this in the D&C. So here are a few off the top of my head.

    Proclamation on the Family– different people interpret it differently, but some people simply out and out disagree with their own interpretation of it– they think it is wrong.

    The statement favoring an amendment for gay marriage– it is very recent so you could easily track down bloggernackle discussions on it.

    Any other time the Church has made a political stand, members have objected to them speaking and/or said they thought the FP was wrong. Well,the FP can be wrong, but odds are they aren’t.

    Polygamy. some people seem to think it was all just a crazy mistake.

    People who refused to accept that polygamy could end (although, like some of the above groups, many of these ended up leaving the Church). Now one could make an argument about this in the years following 1890, but by the 1920s, for example, is it safe to say that the Church’s position was clear?

    Come to think of it, go back and start reading any collection of FP statements and I bet you could find people in the Church who disagree with some subset of them and think they know better.

    Oh, and here’s a quote I found recently from President Kimball (said when he was an Apostle)– there’s a chapter you might enjoy on the whole subject:

    “The authorities which the Lord has placed in his Church constitute for the people of the Church a harbor, a place of refuge, a hitching post, as it were. No one in this Church will ever go far astray who ties himself securely to the Church Authorities whom the Lord has placed in his Church. This Church will never go astray; the Quorum of the Twelve will never lead you into bypaths; it never has and never will. There could be individuals who would falter; there will never be a majority of the Council of the Twelve on the wrong side at any time. The Lord has chosen them; he has given them specific responsibilities. And those people who stand close to them will be safe. And, conversely, whenever one begins to go his own way in opposition to authority, he is in grave danger. I would not say that those leaders whom the Lord chooses are necessarily the most brilliant, nor the most highly trained, but they are the chosen, and when chosen of the Lord they are his recognized authority, and the people who stay close to them have safety”

  52. timer on June 1, 2007 at 9:59 am

    Most of your examples are simply not straightforward statements that have to be right “right” or “wrong.” I don’t think they quite fit into your model.

    Consider the political examples: We should not fall into the Political Science 101 trap of confusing opinions about facts with preferences. Most political difference are based on differences in preferences, and the statement “I disagree with the policy X” in political discourse often means “I do not prefer X” and sometimes means “I would prefer to live in a world in which X were not enacted, and most of the people I know feel the same way.” It does not generally mean “I believe that the average expected utility of all humans throughout all time will be higher if X is enacted.” Occasionally it means that, but most reasonable people — and most FP messages, for that matter —stay clear of such sweeping, unverifiable claims.

    If the FP says “We’re going to buy a chunk of main street and build this and this,” members can reasonably say, “I like the layout of SLC better without these changes.” When they “I think the church should build such and such building in such and such way” it should be usually interpreted as a preference (and thus outside your model) not a declaration of fact. For all we know, the reason the FP proposed a particular change was simply that they thought it would look pretty. When I say I “disagree” with this reasoning (maybe I think it’s ugly) this is an expression of preference, and as such, it has nothing to do with your model. There is a separate question of whether it is appropriate or helpful for members to be really vocal in expressing personal preferences that clash with those of the FP, but reasonable people can disagree on this matter, and anyway it has nothing to do with your model.

    The same reasoning can apply to other “in our backyard” issues like Utah alcohol and gambling laws. It may even apply to SSM legislation. Very often in politics, there is not a lot of mystery about what the effects of a policy will be — the debate is between people who prefer those effects and people who don’t. Certainly, you can say “I think polygamy is horrible” without exactly “disagreeing” with any statements of fact.

    What kinds of declarations could your model apply to? Consider the following candidates:

    1. We declare X to be a true statement.
    2. The Lord commands you to do X.
    3. We encourage you to do X in your personal lives.
    4. We encourage you to support the legislation X.
    5. We think that the legislation X will help achieve Y and that Y is good.

    Your model is most relevant to 1, but I don’t think any of your examples were in this category. Your model doesn’t relate to the commandment side of 2 (whether you obey a commandment or not might be independent of whether you “agree” with any sort of factual statement), though one could interpret 2 as a special case of 1 (since the FP could be mistaken about the fact that the Lord has made this commandment). Anyway, none of your recent examples was in this category.

    As for 3, in general, there are many reasons that people might choose not to do things that the FP only “encouraged” them to do. (The reason is it was encouragement instead of commandment was that the FP wanted to leave precisely this wiggle room.) So your model doesn’t really relate directly to 3. And it relates to 4 only indirectly, in the sense that 4 is related to the belief expressed in 5. And in 5, you have to be a bit careful. Did the FP declare that X would achieve Y as a statement of fact, or did they declare that fact that they believe X will help achieve Y is a statement of fact? How forcefully did they mean to express this opinion?

    Suppose the FP are staying at your house and before they go to sleep they unanimously declare, “Would you go downstairs and shut the windows? We enjoy the cool air, but we want the windows shut to keep the mosquitos out.” You go downstairs and you see that, in fact, the windows have very good screens, and that the mosquitos are coming through the open door. Would you wake the FP and ask them to clarify? Of course not. You’d leave the windows open and close the door.

    Of course, this is not an official declaration. But in public versions of this example (the FP tells you to do a private action X to achieve Y and you discover that, in your neighborhood, doing X is not actually achieving Y) it may be that you have some new information to convey to the FP that could be helpful for them — or you may adopt the view that you are following the FP more closely by doing Z (which in fact does achieve Y in your neighborhood) than by simply doing X (which does not). This could be a matter of interpretation.

    So I think we’re going to have to work harder if we want to find an example that really fits your model. I guess the closest would be if you could find something that said “We believe that an SSM ban will strengthen the American family” and somebody says “I believe it won’t strengthen the American family” but the claim is so subjective (what does “strenghten” mean) that the differences may relate more to preferences or to interpretations than to facts. I’m not sure that this counts.

    Do you think you can find a single example that really, unambiguously fits your model? My suspicion is that reality is simply too messy for your model to be useful in any meaningful way.

  53. Frank McIntyre on June 1, 2007 at 10:13 am

    sorry, no time today to point out where you are wrong. :)

    If you have a spare moment perhaps you could write up something on my behalf explaining how more of the examples can, in fact, fit. Think of it as an intellectual challenge!

  54. Frank McIntyre on June 1, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Real quick,though, here’s a hint. If the FP says we support a Constitutional Amendment on X, you seem to want to call that a no-show in terms of the model. I don’t think it is. It is a declaration that an action would be good. If I say the action would be bad, we’re on our way to an obvious disagreement.

  55. John Williams on June 1, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    timer,

    Please, please, PLEASE tell us about the apostle who watches R-rated movies.

  56. timer on June 1, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    Frank,

    The amendment on SSM is probably pretty close to an example that fits. Trouble is that “would be good” is a little vague. Good for whom? I can believe the FP is inspired and still think that SSM amendment is bad for me and bad for the people I know and care most about, etc. Or I can believe that the amendment will, on balance, make people much less happy and less fulfilled during this life than the lack of an amendment would. I can explain all my reasons for this in great detail. I can tell you that I would personally very much prefer that there not be such an amendment and that many people I know feel the same way. I can say all of this without directly saying the the FP statement is “wrong.” It may sound to you like I am trashing the FP position…. but if I am careful, I can make all of my points without doing that at all.

    John,

    Apostle who is a relative of a friend of mine watches occasional serious and morally uplifting flicks with an R rating, like Beloved (no Basic Instinct, no Terminator, etc.). I don’t know if I’d be betraying a confidence by naming names, so I won’t. He agrees with all the principles behind not watching R-rated movies, but just doesn’t respect the MPAA opinions as absolute.

  57. John Williams on June 1, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    timer,

    Maybe your friend wouldn’t mind…

  58. Frank McIntyre on June 3, 2007 at 9:38 am

    timer,

    “I can believe the FP is inspired and still think that SSM amendment is bad for me and bad for the people I know and care most about, etc. Or I can believe that the amendment will, on balance, make people much less happy and less fulfilled during this life than the lack of an amendment would.”

    I’m probably not going to re-engage the question in a serious way today, as I’ve got a lot going on this weekend. I could go through each example and show the same thing, but lets stick with this one for now. It is pretty obvious that what you are saying is that “the FP claims that we should do X (implying that it will be of eternal net benefit to the children of men), but I can note costs to X, and benefits to not X. In fact, I think it will be a net eternal loss to some specific person or set of persons- which may include me.”

    Well I can note costs and benefits to pretty much any action. And most policies have winners and losers. But that does not in any way come to the point of the question. The FP statement is about what should be done, and so is most properly interpreted as a statement of net eternal benefits aggregating in some way across people. If you agree with their net evaluation, then you are substantively in agreement. If you think we should not do X, you are making the claim that X would be a net eternal loss, aggregating across people– possibly in a different way.

    Your examples of particular costs or people who _you_ think will lose, if in the end you agree with the FP about the net societal eternal benefits, aren’t really to the point I’m making. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with pointing out costs, as long as you are equally careful to point out benefits. Just pointing out one and not the other usually makes one look like either a politican or a little dumb.

    “I can say all of this without directly saying the the FP statement is “wrong.””

    I completely agree. But to do all that, without ever noting that you do agree with the FP (assuming you do) about the right course of action is a little silly. And if you don’t agree iwth the FP about the right course of action, then, well you do think the FP statement is wrong, whether you directly said so or not.

    Second, we can both agree that there are some people who look at the FP statement and say they think it is wrong and we should do not X. Thus they obviously meet the criteria I laid out. They believe they are more likely to be right than the FP. That’s a coherent position, but I find it surprising.

  59. timer on June 3, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Is it possible that God would ask the FP to support a political measure that God actually doesn’t want or intend to see passed? In this case, the FP would be right in urging support of the measure (this is what God asked them to do) and you might also be right in expressing the view that it would be bad for the country if it actually passed (indeed it would).

    It is certainly conceivable that God could ask the church to support a nutty, doomed-to-fail political measure for a whole host of, well, political reasons. Perhaps to build bridges with other conservative denominations, to create tension between his people and the liberal intelligentsia, to test our ability to balance compassion and faith, etc. [If you’re read the Bible, you’ll note that God has a history of making slightly nutty demands of his followers…]

    The question is, in these situations, should individual members declare aloud, “This particular political crusade is slightly nutty” or be silent and pretend that this is not the case? I can respect people who make either choice. I can respect feeling that it would be disingenuous to try to persuade non-Mormons that the publicly available data support the measure if you believe otherwise. It may be that God’s purposes are best served by having the FP support the measure while at the same time having individual members (those thus guided by the Spirit) oppose it vehemently.

    With Mitt Romney running for president, I think we’re going to be hearing a lot about how individuals are expected to follow their inner lights on political issues — and why they are not expected or required to agree with the FP on all issues or do exactly what the FP does. After all, we have to say this if we want Mitt to have any chance at all of being elected. ;)

    Let’s just hope there are no anti-Romney forces reading this post…. Actually, I’m pretty sure everyone has stopped reading. We can speak freely now. ;)

    Anyway, since you already agreed that God’s purposes need not be best served by having everyone adopt the attitudes and postures of the GAs towards gays, it’s not so great a leap to suppose that the church is better off when at least some members take different political positions from those of the GAs. A hypothetical statement (“it would be good if it passed”) doesn’t necessarily have well define true or false value. (If there is no way the measure will pass, what does the statement even mean? Can a statement like “If pigs could fly, they would have a wingspan of three meters and live in Australia” really be true or false?) However, when God tells the FP to support a position — and privately tells an individual member to oppose it through personal revelation — well, these admonitions are pretty clear.

    If you follow politics and you’ve been in the church long, you probably know lots of examples of this sort of thing happening.

    By the way, here’s a reason to think the expressed GA political opinions might be less likely to be correct than yours. The GA political opinions [not direct revelations — just opinions] are, due to various demographic factors and various historical accidents, extremely closely aligned with those of the U.S. Republican party.

    And Republicans are usually wrong.

    Therefore… ;)

  60. John Williams on June 4, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    I found J. Nelson-Seawright’s model of the wisdom of the crowds to be persuasive. Then Frank McIntyre had to spoil the fun. McIntyre’s post here made me realize that in JNS’s model, if you were in the minority, you were probably wrong. This does not bode well for Mormons because our opinions of many issues are minority opinions. It does not bode well for liberal Mormons because their opinions within the Mormon Church are minority opinions.

    Under JNS’s model, the ultimate source of knowledge would be a world-wide poll. But here’s what’s interesting about that: the worldwide poll in the year 1800 would be different from the worldwide poll in 2000. Why?

    I think maybe because some minority opinions become mainstream opinions with time. Under JNS’s model, people with minority opinions are probably wrong, but they are not always wrong. When they are right, their opinions will eventually be persuasive to the rest of the world.

    So if the minority opinions that we hold as Mormons are correct opinions, then the average knowledge of the world might eventually align itself with Mormon thought. Likewise, if the opinions of liberals with the Mormon church are correct, then eventually the average knowledge within the Mormon Church might align itself with the philosophies of liberal Mormons.

  61. Frank McIntyre on June 6, 2007 at 11:38 am

    John,

    Sorry to spoil your day :)

    timer,

    I was gone and now am back. Since you probably aren’t reading anymore, I’ll keep my comments brief.

    1. It is convenient to pretend that Republicanism is a “historical accident”. But I imagine one could make as persuasive a case that your views are “historical accident”. I think it is a silly argument.

    2. Your example of how the prophet could say X and God could tell you to say not X is not in the least supported by the scriptures. In them, we find wonderful examples (like Hiram Page) of people who think they are getting alternate revelation. Naturally, that does not mean that it is _impossible_ for your example to happen. Rather, I find it startling that anyone would think that is _the_ explanation for why we have dissenters in the Church. I think, in the vast majority of cases, the explanations provided in the scriptures are far more compelling and likely–

    1. attuning to the philosophies of men
    2. misled by Satan
    3. pride in one’s education
    4. unwillingness to take counsel or pray about it
    5. adhering to the traditions of their fathers
    6. blinded by personal sins
    7. tricked by the natural man

    etc etc. Once you get past that list, I think the _probability_ left over for “God told me to oppose the Church’s teaching even though he also told the prophet to do the exact opposite” is decidely narrow.

  62. timer on June 6, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    How can you possibly judge the motives and character of the “vast majority” of Mormons dissenters? Is your definition of “dissenter” so broad that it includes everyone who feels that something is amiss with the church’s stance towards gays? Or everyone who believes that the following statements

    1. GAs are on balance much more Republican than Democrat.
    2. Democrats are on balance much more correct than Republicans.
    3. The church is true.

    are consistent?

    By the way, Julie M. Smith has a nice post about strong Mormons whose inner lights told them (correctly) that something was amiss with the church’s stance on blacks and the priesthood, and who struggled to find the right way to deal with and/or express their concerns. I think (no offense to either of us) that the discussion there is shaping up to be more thoughtful and nuanced than this discussion has become. I propose we end here and voice any additional thoughts we have on her post.

  63. John Williams on June 6, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Frank,

    Your post here made me consider non-Mormon opinion in JNS’s model. But I still really like JNS’s model.

    In comment #60 I tried to explain how minority opinion could still be justified in a wisdom-of-the-crowds model.

    I think liberal dissenters within the Mormon church might at times be more correct than mainstream Mormons.

    And I think that Mormons (who are very much minorities within the world population) might be at times be more correct than the rest of the world.

    timer,

    Instead of focusing on “Republican” vs. “Democrat,” focus on what is right and what is wrong.