When Evidence Isn’t

The Effect of Prayer on God’s Attitude Toward Mankind” is a mathematical analysis of prayer’s impact that was written not by some crackpot, but by a Nobel Prize Winner, James Heckman, one of the world’s leading economists. He applies advanced mathematical tools to conclude that prayer can be effective, or, more specifically, “A little prayer does no good and may make things worse. Much prayer helps a lot.” His brief and seemingly scholarly paper is the kind of thing some people would take as evidence to buttress their faith. It’s actually clever sarcasm that pokes fun at belief in the unseen. One of the clues comes in the leading sentences:

This paper uses data available from the National Opinion Research Center’s (NORC) survey on
religious attitudes and powerful statistical methods to evaluate the effect of prayer on the attitude of God
toward human beings.

The technique— due to Singh (1977) — is briefly described here. Let Y be God’s attitude arrayed
on a scale ranging from zero to one. This is an unobserved variable. Let
X be the intensity of prayer in the
population. It too is scaled between zero and one. The population density of prayer is summarized by a
univariate density
f ( X ) which has been estimated by Father Greeley (1972).

Accept on faith that the conditional density of X given Y is of the form

g(X|Y)=a(Y)exp(XY)           (1)

where a(Y) is an unknown, continuous, positive, and differentiable function…. 

He’s trying to estimate the relationship between an observed variable X and an unobserved one Y (the attitude of God toward mankind). “Accept on faith” is humorous in this context. Accepting the key assumptions on faith naturally leads to “desired” conclusion–a fair reminder that our own assumptions and expectations can greatly shape what we make of evidence and data in our efforts to understand reality. In his conclusion, he offers the conjecture that this approach can be generalized to the case when X also is unobserved–OK, that’s also funny and a cute way to lampoon religion, where much of what we discuss and speculate on is unseen and mysterious. It’s satire, economist style. Kind of fun. And not actually evidence on the power of prayer.

Sometimes things that strike us as evidence for faith really aren’t evidence at all. It may be deliberate sarcasm that we have misunderstood, just as the expose at MormonCult.org has been shared by many of our critics, including some pastors, as vital evidence against Mormonism, or as the satirical essay on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the key source for the Book of Mormon has been accepted without thought by some.

A more frequent problem with evidence for things of faith may come from exaggerations and distortions that may be unintentional. Far too many faith-promoting stories are shared and accepted without adequate scrutiny. There are many faith-promoting stories A recent example of this, now circulating via email and social media, is a report that the non-LDS translator of the Afrikaans Book of Mormon found overwhelming evidence that it had ties to the ancient Egyptian language, and was convinced that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. This story is not mere “tripe” as some critics have claimed, but, like some other popular faith-promoting stories, contains possible errors and exaggerations which need to be toned down. The story began when a returned missionary posted a blog post sharing what he recalled (relying partially on his notes) from a 1972 event in South Africa where the non-LDS translator spoke and shared some of his impressions. I understand that multiple witnesses to the event confirm that the man was deeply impressed with the Book of Mormon and probably did see many strong ancient Semitic elements inherent to the text, but the first version of the story written by John Pontius (who passed away in Dec. 2012) had some issues and John retracted it with a statement that it was essentially accurate, based on feedback from others who heard the translator speak, but the part about first translating the Book of Mormon into ancient Egyptian was not fully accurate. See John Pontius’ post of March 12, 2012, “Die Book van Mormon.” Kevin Barney examines the statements of Brother Pontius and some of the apparent problems in a post at the excellent LDS blog, By Common Consent.

The version I saw most recently in email implies that the remarkable and possibly exaggerated and somewhat erroneous story is based on an article in the LDS Ensign. I think that is supposed to add authority to the account, but no link or reference to the original article is given. Typical of Internet rumors. The March 1973 Ensign has an article by Lawrence E. Cummins, “The Saints in South Africa,” that mentions the translator, Reverence C.F. Mynhardt (Felix Mynhardt in Brother Pontius’ version). But none of the really interesting faith-promoting comments are found in the Ensign.

So what do we make of this? My take is that Reverend Mynhardt probably was a smart guy who did recognize, as many others have, that the Book of Mormon has a strong Semitic flavor and that some of the awkward English grammar fits language patterns in ancient Semitic languages like Hebrew or Egyptian. He may have made comments along those lines in his talk. But there may be some hyperbole or linguistically inaccurate statements in the notes and memories of impressed young missionaries who heard him speak. Wish we had more details on what he actually said. I think it would be wrong to completely dismiss his story, but also unwise to make too much of it.

I suspect a lot of poorly documented faith-promoting stories are that way: there may be a cool core of reality, but errors in transmission and memory, coupled with human tendencies to inflate and exaggerate unintentionally when something resonates and excites, require caution in using and repeating the account. If we don’t have reliable sources, footnotes, or supporting evidence, sometimes it’s best to treat faith-promoting material a little like the way we sometimes treat faith-challenging material as well, and put it on hold until we have more complete information.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on “When Evidence Isn’t

  1. Actually, experiments have shown that mass intent has real consequences. I saw this in action at the Hill Cumorah pageant one summer. A summer storm blew in and drenched the whole place, except for the stage and audience. As an usher in the parking lot, I regretted leaving my bar of soap at home. Prayer and faith made that hole in the rain.

  2. I'm assuming your example is tongue-in-cheek, and I suspect meteorologists will find Palmyra's little hill has weather matching the environs pretty well, but sometimes really strange events do happen that are hard to explain by chance or nature alone. Yes, things that can only be called little miracles or even big ones, though it's a crazy world in which plenty of unwanted rain, earthquakes, fires, and bullets find good guys as well as bad.

  3. Well said. Regardless of whether a story is faith promoting or not, people need to be cautious.
    Like the State Farm insurance commercial – the man is sending info. about his wrecked car with phone apps. and the woman said she didn't know one could do that with State Farm. The man asks her where she heard that and she says the internet and that nothing can be put on the internet if it isn't true, and he asks her where she heard that and she answers with "on the internet". Then her "French model" date shows up.
    It is important to do research if we really want to know the whole story or get more information, as unbiased as possible, before passing judgement or believing. Sadly people will not do research on their own – regardless of the subject.

  4. At the risk of perpetuating an inaccuracy, when I lived in Saudi Arabia I attended a discussion with an Egyptian man, not a member, who had done some translation of the Book of Mormon into Arabic. The one thing I remember from the discussion is his comment that the crazy phrase "And it came to pass…" has much in common with an Arabic or Semitic phrase that is used much the same way.

    Too bad I didn't have a video recorder in the early 80's…

    Mark Steele

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