New Discoveries about Mayans and bias confirmation

We have an outstanding new example of how confirmation bias works in the arena of Book of Mormon geography and historicity.

Last week, researchers announced a major discovery about Mayan civilization based on LiDAR scanning of jungles in Central America. This discovery will probably confirm your bias no matter what you believe; i.e., it will support your position whether: 

1. You accept the New York Cumorah as taught in President Cowdery’s Letter VII and reaffirmed by the prophets and apostles, which I refer to as Moroni’s America (MA);

OR

2. You accept the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs (M2C) theory taught by BYU/CES intellectuals, which repudiates Letter VII and the prophets and apostles.

Another way to say this:

M2C seeks to repudiate Letter VII and the prophets and apostles.

MA seeks to support Letter VII and the prophets and apostles.

You decide which bias you share and then interpret the scriptures accordingly.

I’ll have lots more to say about bias confirmation in upcoming posts because it fascinates me that two groups can derive such dramatically different expectations from the same text.

Because this news about the Mayans is so fresh, let’s start by looking at the discovery. Then we’ll look at how the scriptures are interpreted to confirm the respective biases.
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Here’s one report, along with an image from the article:

https://phys.org/news/2018-02-laser-technology-reveals-secrets-ancient.html

A comparison of LiDAR data showing the ancient Maya site of El Zotz
covered in trees (left), and with the trees digitally removed. Credit: Ithaca College

The image on the left shows what the area looks like with tree coverage. On the right, the trees are removed, showing a complex of buildings and roads that are not visible naturally.

The new data revealed a much more extensive, sophisticated, and densely-populated civilization than was previously known or estimated.

One of the researchers, Thomas Garrison, will appear in a documentary on the National Geographic channel tomorrow (Feb 6). The article notes this: “Especially telling to Garrison are newly revealed agricultural features that would be necessary to support the lowland Maya population during their centuries of civilization—population estimates have now expanded from a few million to 10-20 million—and defensive structures that suggest warfare was far more prevalent than previously known.”

National Geographic has more photos here: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/maya-laser-lidar-guatemala-pacunam/
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Next, let’s look at the respective biases.

As an MA supporter, my bias is this: 
I accept the New York Cumorah as taught by Letter VII and the prophets and apostles. I interpret the text and relevant scientific and historical evidence in a manner that corroborates and confirms my bias.

M2C supporters (those affiliated with BYU Studies, BookofMormonCentral, FairMormon, the Interpreter, Meridian Magazine, BMAF, etc.) have a bias expressed candidly by BMAF
to increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex.They interpret the text and relevant scientific and historical evidence in a manner that corroborates and confirms their bias.

After I started writing this post, Meridian Magazine posted an article about this finding titled “How an Incredible New Archaeological Discovery Corroborates the Book of Mormon.” Now I don’t have to infer what M2C intellectuals would think about this discovery: I can use their actual words. You can see why I’ve referred to this source as Meridian Mesoamerican Magazine. They will never, ever tell their readers about President Cowdery’s Letter VII because their owners don’t want their readers to know what the prophets and apostles have taught. I consider this deceitful, of course, and you can decide for yourself whether you agree, but I don’t blame them for seeking to confirm their biases because everyone does it–even when, in this case, they are trying to persuade members of the Church to disbelieve the prophets and apostles.

You can see the bias confirmation in the very title of this article!
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There is nothing inherently right or wrong about bias. Everyone has biases. It’s a question of whether we honestly recognize our own and those of others, and then recognize that we interpret the world (and the scriptures) to confirm our biases.

Once we recognize the biases of the various players, the rest is easy.

Here’s an example. My first job out of law school was as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. After oral argument on a case, the Justices would vote on the outcome they wanted. Whichever outcome the majority voted for became the Court’s position, and the Justices assigned us, as the law clerks, to write the opinions accordingly.

Any of us law clerks could have written the opinion to reach whichever conclusion the Justices wanted. In close cases, it’s not a question of what the law is, but rather what the Justices want it to be. Then we write the opinion to make it look like the desired outcome was obvious all along. You always want the Court’s opinion frame the issue as a pursuit of the “correct law,” but everyone knows these opinions are anything but that. They are always a reflection of the personal philosophies of the judges. That’s why it makes such a big difference whether a conservative or a liberal is appointed to a court.

The reason lawyers charge clients so much money is not because they know what the law is, but because they know how to use the law to get what the clients want. 

BYU map designed to teach students that the
apostles and prophets are wrong about the New York Cumorah

It’s really no different in scholarly work. The idea that one side or the other is pursuing “the truth” is a ruse. Everyone is seeking purely to confirm his/her biases. When you look at the fantasy map currently being taught at BYU, for example, it has nothing to do with seeking the truth, and everything to do with teaching the students that the prophets and apostles are wrong about the New York Cumorah. Otherwise, the BYU map would show Cumorah in New York.

The same thing is going on in the Church History department, btw, which I’ll be demonstrating in upcoming posts. The scholars there are colluding with the M2C proponents to portray Joseph Smith as a confused speculator who was wrong about the New York Cumorah.

This is why the semantic arguments about interpreting the Book of Mormon are pointless. LDS literature on this topic is full of subjective interpretations about such topics as what constitutes a “narrow neck,” and whether that is different from a “narrow neck of land.” You will agree or disagree with a particular interpretation depending on whether you agree or disagree with the bias of the person proposing that interpretation.

Actually, this is why the M2C proponents oppose Letter VII so vehemently. You can’t mistake President Cowdery’s meaning when he states it is a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of Cumorah. There’s no wiggle room there.

To reiterate this again:

MA proponents seek interpretations of the text and relevant science, history, etc. that corroborate Letter VII and the prophets and apostles because they want to demonstrate their teachings are correct.

M2C proponents seek interpretations of the text and relevant science, history, etc. that refute Letter VII and the prophets and apostles because they want to demonstrate their teachings are false.

Everything you read about this topic reflects these respective biases.

Meridian Magazine has an agenda of teaching members of the Church that the prophets and apostles are wrong about Cumorah, so they published this article to reinforce that agenda.

My agenda is to teach members of the Church that the prophets and apostles are correct about Cumorah, so I publish this blog to reinforce that agenda.

This is all very basic, but it is usually overlooked.

Now, let’s look at how the new data about the Mayans confirms these respective biases.
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MA position. If you believe in the New York Cumorah, you will likely view this LiDAR discovery as additional evidence that the Nephites could not possibly have lived among the Mayans.

I think the text shows Lehi’s colony landing in the promised land, planting their own seeds, finding animals and ore in the wilderness, all while completely unimpeded by any existing civilization. (1 Ne. 18:23-5). I think Lehi’s observation that “this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations” was accurate; i.e., that there were no “other nations” in the promised land where they landed, “for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance” (2 Nephi 1:8). I do think think there were some indigenous people who went with Nephi when he fled (2 Nephi 5:6), but I infer they were unorganized hunter/gatherers that did not qualify as any sort of “nation” and were impressed by the Jewish immigrants’ technology, language, etc.

In my view, it is difficult enough to believe that Lehi’s family, a relative handful of immigrants from a distant culture speaking a different language, could have arrived and started planting crops on unclaimed land in Mesoamerica, encountering no resistance, but it is even more difficult to believe Lehi’s descendants could have managed to rule as kings and chief judges over even a part of a Mayan civilization, and that in the midst of this Mayan civilization, King Mosiah could have escaped with the Nephites into the wilderness and found a much larger group of illiterate people (the people of Zarahemla) who possessed exactly one engraven stone.

Now that we are learning from LiDAR that the Mayan civilization was even larger, more densely populated, and more sophisticated than we previously realized, the Book of Mormon seems even less plausible in that setting. IOW, the grander the Mayan civilization, the less likely it is that Lehi landed anywhere near that civilization.

This view is based on the text and has nothing directly to do with the New York Cumorah, but it does confirm my bias in favor of the New York Cumorah.
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M2C position. If you believe the M2C position that Cumorah is not in New York and that the entire Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, you will likely view this LiDAR discovery as additional evidence that the Nephites must have lived among the Mayans.

The basic M2C concept is described in the Meridian Magazine article. It is the idea that the Nephites were absorbed into Mayan culture. That’s why there is no Israelite DNA in Central America, no traces of Nephite languages or the law of Moses or Christian beliefs and practices, etc. M2C proponents believe there were bottlenecks (both DNA-related and cultural) that screened out Nephite cultural influence.

The M2C proponents think the verses I quoted above describe an arrival in Mayan territory and complete absorption into that culture. They think the text describes a massive, sophisticated society of millions of people, so they interpret the new LiDAR discovery to confirm their bias.

Let’s look at some of the verses cited in the Meridian Magazine article to demonstrate how the respective interpretation confirm the respective biases.
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M2C proponents generally believe the Nephites lived among a much larger culture (i.e., Mayan culture in Mesoamerica). The Meridian article cites Mormon 1:7 as evidence of a huge Nephite population, possibly in the millions, with intensive agriculture, etc.

6 And it came to pass that I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla.

7 The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea.

If you look at the published LiDAR images, and you want to confirm your M2C bias of a large, dense civilization, you will eagerly conclude that (i) Mayan buildings literally “covered” the land, and (ii) Mormon somehow knew this without the benefit of satellite images.

But if you’re not seeking to confirm your M2C bias, you look at the selected LiDAR images and notice they do not show the land to be “covered with buildings.” There are more structures than archaeologists realized, for sure, but most of the terrain remains uninhabited, just like in the much more heavily populated modern world. 

The National Geographic article points out that “The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.”

No ancient civilizations in Greece, China, Mesoamerica, or anywhere else, covered the land with buildings. The LiDAR articles themselves don’t make any such claim. Instead, they note that “Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.”

LiDAR shows us that the “face of the land” was mainly covered with agricultural activities and wilderness, with some areas containing a concentration of buildings, just as the land today is throughout the world, even in densely populated countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Lebanon, and Israel.

Only a bias-confirming M2C proponent would delude himself/herself into thinking that these LiDAR images show “the whole face of the land covered with buildings.”

Am I saying Mormon was wrong?

Not at all.

Let’s look at the scripture. He says he was 11 years old when his father took him on this trip. Why would he say the face of the land was “covered with buildings,” when such a description, if taken literally, is impossible as we just saw.

1. First, we have to consider this from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy.
2. Second, we have to consider what someone on the ground would see, without the benefit of satellite images.
3. Third, we have to consider what the term “building” means.

I’ve addressed all of this before in my book, Moroni’s America, but I’ll quickly summarize it here.

1. The perception of an 11-year-old differs from the perception of an adult. Think of Mormon as a Cub Scout. He wasn’t even old enough to be a Deacon. How would a Cub Scout perceive the world? To children, everything looks bigger. Who hasn’t revisited a childhood home and been surprised at how small it was compared with what you remembered?

Tikal viewed from the air

2. Without the benefit of satellite or aerial imagery, how would ancient people know what “the face of the land” was like? If you’ve climbed to the top of the Mayan ruins in Yucatan as I have, you know you can look over the relatively flat terrain and see the peaks of other ruins, many of them still covered with jungle. Let’s assume that in Mormon’s day the jungle was cut back so you could see the structures clearly.

What would Mormon see from the top of one of these temples?

He would see mostly agricultural land, just as the LiDAR images show.

The Meridian Magazine article, paradoxically, recognizes the inconsistency of its own argument. Look at these two applications of Mormon 1:7:

“Maya lowland population at apogee could have reached 15 million Mormon 1:7” (we can all see that Mormon 1:7 gives no population numbers).

“land use was intensive – nearing 100% utilization is some areas Mormon 1:7” (we can all read that Mormon 1:7 describes buildings covering the whole face of the earth, not “intensive land use”).

Besides reading into the text the M2C bias, these two claims are inconsistent. Which is it? “The whole face of the earth is covered with buildings” (Mormon’s description)” or “intensive land use in some areas” for agriculture (Meridian Magazine’s M2C description)? Do you see how bias confirmation can lead to absurd interpretations of the text?
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So what could Mormon have meant in these verses?

He could only have reported what he saw (or was told). I think this means that on his way to Zarahemla, he traveled in heavily populated areas.

I think everyone can agree that he did not have an aerial view.

So let’s think. How would an 11-year-old boy taking what was essentially a long field trip travel through a heavily populated area that was “covered with buildings” with so many people that it seemed to him like “the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea?”

One thing is for sure; Mormon either did not describe his experience accurately, or he could not have been traveling through the areas captured in these LiDAR images, because most of the land he would have traveled through was agricultural or wilderness.

National Geographic is going to show the most spectacular LiDAR images of stone structures, including temples and roads. They will show indicia of irrigation, including canals, dykes and reservoirs (none of which are mentioned in the text, btw). But by far, most of the land even in this “densely populated” ancient Mayan world captured by LiDAR is not covered by buildings.

Again, I’m not saying Mormon reported his observations inaccurately. I’m saying just the opposite.

Distribution of mounds and earthworks in the eastern United States.
Red dots indicate relative occurrence and comparative distribution
rather than individual major remains.

I think Mormon was traveling along the Allegheny and Ohio rivers on his way to the land of Zarahemla (Illinois and Iowa). In ancient North America, people lived along these rivers.

This map shows how the ancient moundbuilders in North America located mostly along rivers. This makes sense; rivers provided water, fish, and other wildlife. They were transportation corridors. They also served as boundaries between competing groups.

If, as I have proposed, Mormon was traveling along these rivers, he would have seen little more than buildings and people. (One non-LDS experts reports there were over a million mounds in ancient North America.)

Had Mormon instead been walking through Mesoamerica, he would have seen mostly agricultural and wilderness areas, occasionally interspersed with the Mayan structures.

From my perspective, confirming my bias in favor of Letter VII and the New York Cumorah, young Mormon was describing a long-distance journey through a heavily populated area where the “face of the land” (as opposed to the rivers he was on) appeared to be “covered with buildings” along with lots and lots of people.

From my perspective, a person traveling through the lands depicted in the Mayan LiDAR photos would never have described the land as “covered with buildings” because most of it was agricultural and wilderness.

3. What does the term “building” mean in the first place?

First, we have to recognize that not a verse in the Book of Mormon says any “buildings” were made of stone. We are told they were made of wood and, for one brief period in one location, of wood and cement (Helaman 3). But the only stone buildings in the text are in the imagination of the reader. 

If you want to confirm an M2C bias, then you can read “stone” into the text wherever you want. People who share your bias will undoubtedly agree with you.

But because I don’t share the M2C bias, I don’t see any stone buildings.

However, I do see “their shipping and building of ships,” which Mormon didn’t take the time to describe in detail but was just as much a part of Nephite society as “their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries” (Helaman 3:14). I take this to mean they lived along rivers.

So what could Mormon have meant by “buildings” in verse 7?

In my presentation at the 2017 Mormon History Association in St. Louis (you can read it here), I pointed out that Dr. Roger Kennedy, the former director of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, addressed a misperception about earth mounds, noting that earth mounds are actually buildings. “Build and building are also very old words, often used in this text [his book] as they were when the English language was being invented, to denote earthen structures. About 1150, when the word build was first employed in English, it referred to the construction of an earthen grave. 350 years later, an early use of the term to build up was the description of the process by which King Priam of Troy constructed a “big down to bare earth.” So when we refer to the earthworks of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys as buildings no one should be surprised.”

Even today when you drive along the Ohio River you see lots of ancient mounds that have been preserved. I’ve taken photos of many of these. By far, most have been destroyed and replaced by modern roads and structures. But as the map above shows, in ancient times if you traveled along these rivers, there were mound cities and defensive positions along the banks.

Most of the modern depictions of the moundbuilder sites illustrate Mississippian or later culture because these were built over earlier settlements that dated to Book of Mormon times, but they give a rough idea of what Mormon would have seen during his field trip.

This painting shows young Mormon on his way to Zarahemla.

A Cub Scout seeing this would definitely conclude that the “whole face of the land” was “covered with buildings.”

Nevertheless, if your bias is that Letter VII and the prophets and apostles are wrong, then you cannot accept my interpretation of the text because it would contradict your bias. It would generate cognitive dissonance you seek to avoid.

Instead, you must persuade yourself that traveling through agricultural and wilderness land, by foot, occasionally passing through areas of dense human habitation, would lead you to write that the “whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea.”
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You can also pretend that you don’t have a bias; i.e., you don’t have an opinion on whether or not Letter VII and the prophets and apostles are correct. You just want to look at the “facts” and decide.

If so, I’m interested in an explanation of how these Mayan LiDAR images show anything like the “whole face of the land covered with buildings.”
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There’s one more aspect of this passage we should examine.

The M2C proponents claim the Book of Mormon describes a Nephite civilization numbering in the millions (or at least in the midst of millions of Mayans). The LiDAR discoveries have increased population estimates to as high as 15 million, which confirms the M2C bias.

The MA bias sees it differently. I read the text as describing a Nephite civilization of tens of thousands, not millions, of people. (I’m not discussing the Jaredites here.) Because of my bias, when I read LiDAR discoveries that there were many millions more Mayan than previously believed, that takes the Mayan civilization even further away from the descriptions in the text.

I keep reading in Mormon 1. During the same year as Mormon’s field trip, he says there began to be a war (verse 8).

8 And it came to pass in this year there began to be a war between the Nephites, who consisted of the Nephites and the Jacobites and the Josephites and the Zoramites; and this war was between the Nephites, and the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites.

9 Now the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites were called Lamanites, and the two parties were Nephites and Lamanites.

10 And it came to pass that the war began to be among them in the borders of Zarahemla, by the waters of Sidon.

Sounds like a lot of people involved, doesn’t it? Seven separate groups, allied into two camps: the Nephites and the Lamanites.

In fact, Mormon says “the Nephites had gathered together a great number of men” for this war. They had a number of battles during which the Nephite “did slay many of” the Lamanites.

Now, how many men did Mormon consider to be a “great number?”

30,000.

Well, “even to exceed the number of thirty thousand.”

Look at how that is phrased. Mormon seeks to impress the reader with the size of this Nephite army by calling it “a great number of men, even to exceed the number of thirty thousand.”

As if the reader can hardly imagine a number as great as 30,000.

In the context of a civilization of 15 million people, how would this be at all impressive?

Do you see why, in my interpretation of the text, a Nephite civilization in the midst of 15 million people makes no sense?

Later, Mormon tells us that after he gathered in his people “together in one body” he was able to recruit an army of 42,000. (Mormon 2:7-9). That’s even more impressive than the 30,000, but still insignificant in the midst of 15 million people.

For these and similar reasons, the larger the Mayan civilization turns out to be, the less likely it has anything to do with the Book of Mormon.
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So far, I’ve only addressed Mormon 1:7 to show how confirmation bias drives one’s interpretation of the text. I could do the same with the rest of the Meridian Magazine article.

I freely admit my bias: I seek to corroborate and support President Cowdery’s Letter VII and the prophets and apostles who have consistently affirmed it.

M2C proponents also freely admit their bias: they seek “to increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex,” which requires them to refute and reject President Cowdery’s Letter VII and the prophets and apostles who have consistently affirmed it.

In my view, the intellectuals who push M2C don’t really care what the text actually says, so long as they can construe it–or make stuff up–up to confirm their biases.

They are so obsessed with proving the prophets and apostles wrong that they resort to strained interpretations of the text and seeing terms and concepts that don’t appear in the text anywhere. That’s how they come up with the 3 Js (Jaguars, Jungles and Jade) and the three Ms (Mayans, Mountains and Massive stone temples) that are characteristic of Mesoamerica but not the Book of Mormon. (Not to mention volcanoes…).
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Every time you read Meridian Magazine (or BYU Studies, or anything produced by any other members of the citation cartel), you need to recognize that the authors are confirming their biases.

If you share their biases, then you will probably accept what they write, no problem.

If you don’t share their biases, you will see right through their rhetoric.

Source: Book of Mormon Wars

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