Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Frauds and Hoaxes

In the latter 1970's, I spent three years as Dr. Paul R. Cheesman's research assistant. During that time, his office was ground zero for most things Book of Mormon within the Church. One day we got word that President Kimball's office had a set of metal plates purported to be the brass plates of Laban mentioned in the Book of Mormon 1 Nephi 3:3. They arrived in our office a few days later and it fell to me to determine if they were authentic or not. One look told me they were modern fakes, but I gave them the benefit of every doubt. They came with a wild story attached.

A family, recently baptized in England, had supposedly inherited the plates from a mysterious ancestor who had discovered them in a cave in Peru in the 1800's. The Mission President in England thought they were genuine ancient artifacts because the family appeared to have altruistic motives. He arranged for the plates to be shipped to Salt Lake. Dr. Cheesman, who was a big fan of metal plates, thought they might be genuine ancient artifacts because they were shiny and 1 Nephi 5:19 says the brass plates of Laban would never be dimmed by time.

I cataloged all the characters engraved on the plates and compared them with character sets from known ancient languages. The number of correlates were trivial. I plotted the frequency of character repetition and compared that with examples from known ancient languages. The repetition pattern was less random than I would have expected. I sent one of the plates to the metallurgy lab at Geneva Steel. They determined it was cold rolled brass plate manufactured in Birmingham, England between 1920 and World War II. They further determined that the markings were engraved by someone hammering on the plates with a tempered steel cold chisel.

As I was writing my report, the English donor family visited us. They had met Pres. Kimball and been feted for a few days in Salt Lake before coming to BYU where the hospitality continued. I got to spend a couple of hours with them asking questions about the supposed expedition to Peru. They showed me a letter purportedly from their explorer ancestor describing other artifacts still in the Peruvian cave, including more engraved metal plates. The letter referenced a secret map identifying the location of the treasure. They gave me a "urim and thummin" which they had tried unsuccessfully to give to Pres. Kimball. It was a costume jewelry necklace that included a couple of large glass balls. It was obvious the family hoped I would get excited about the other artifacts reportedly still hidden in Peru. My report predicted that upon their return to England, they would ask for money to mount a new Peruvian expedition.

They returned to England and sure enough, asked for a large yacht and funds to finance several years of South American travel because they had just "found" the surreptitious treasure map. Of course the Church denied their request since their motive now unmasked the fraud. The family immediately went inactive. I hope they enjoyed their all expense paid trip to Utah.

Unfortunately, we saw many other cases of fakery during my years with Dr. Cheesman. Some came from Mexico, others from all over the U.S. All had a price tag attached. Many came with the tantalizing promise that there were more "artifacts" where these had come from, but only the person requesting funds knew where to find them. The dark art of forging "antiquities" to dupe gullible Mormons was alive and well in the 1970's.

Joseph Smith had to deal with similar nonsense. See the August, 1981 Ensign article by Stanley B. Kimball entitled "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax."

Because the Book of Mormon is often considered a forgery by those who do not know it well, we as Latter-day Saints should be fastidious to avoid frauds and hoaxes as we deal with questions of its historicity.

These "artifacts" and many others of similar ilk are known fakes:
  • Newark Holy Stones, aka Decalogue Stone on display in the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, OH.
  • Las Lunas Decalogue Stone, aka Las Lunas Mystery Stone about 56 kilometers south of Albuquerque, NM.
  • Soper-Savage collection aka Michigan relics currently in the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, MI.
How do we know these controversial "antiquities" are forgeries? They are out of context. Genuine artifacts relate to their surroundings in discernible, reproducible ways. Frauds do not fit their environment. An excellent book was published by Bob Bennett, former US Senator from Utah, in 2009. Entitled Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, it analyzes famous forgery cases, detailing the techniques used by forensic law enforcement officers to distinguish frauds from genuine documents. Bennett's methodology is germane to any discussion of one-off eccentric "relics" that enter into the Book of Mormon conversation.

Unfortunately, Mormons with more zeal than knowledge (Hugh Nibley's phrase) sometimes promote fake antiquities as they talk about the Book of Mormon. That is the reason the Lord tells us to seek wisdom "out of the best books" D&C 88:118 through disciplined learning. Articles, periodicals, books, and other media divide into these categories:
  • Junk science. Speculation by non specialists.
  • Pseudo science. Arguments by people working outside their field of expertise.
  • Science. Work done by trained specialists in their chosen discipline.
Since the 1970's, my radar screen is always on the lookout for junk science. It has no useful place in Book of Mormon studies. In the words of Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "a bad argument is worse than no argument at all." People who promote forged "antiquities" do much more harm than good. Eventually the naive people who believe them suffer a betrayal narrative.

What is the common denominator behind frauds and hoaxes? Money. The Newark Holy Stones generated revenue as "curiosities" in the nineteenth century and more than 150 years later people are still going to Coshocton, OH and paying good money to see them in a private museum. How many magazines, books and documentaries promoting the Las Lunas Decalogue Stone have been sold? The Soper-Savage "discoveries" generated a cash flow to the perpetrators for decades.

While I am on the subject of lies, it is not helpful to the cause of the Book of Mormon around the world to have for-profit enterprises masquerading as non-profits. The LDS Church is a genuine non-profit that goes to great lengths to separate its commercial business holdings in for-profit legal silos. BYU and BYU Studies are non-profit. FARMS was non-profit. FAIR Mormon, Interpreter Foundation, and Book of Mormon Central are all legitimate non-profit charitable institutions. People who register .org domains or use the term "foundation" when in reality they are for-profit corporations or LLC's are being disingenuous and doing a dis-service to the body of believers. The Book of Mormon deserves better.

Characteristics of the literature promoting frauds and hoaxes:
  • Proof texting. This is the practice of spot reading material, focusing only on the parts that support a pre-conceived notion.
  • Obsolete citations. Archaeology, with good reason, favors the most recent reports because science is continually improving.
  • Uncredentialed sources. Many lay people dabbling in technical disciplines lack the background necessary to be source critical.
  • Isolates and eccentrics. Artifacts that do not fit cultural patterns known to science are always dubious. Items of unknown or questionable provenience are less useful than material found in situ under controlled conditions.
  • Conspiracy theories. People who allege widespread conspiratorial data suppression are often outsiders with limited understanding of how academic or scientific organizations work. Departments, institutions, and entire disciplines do have biases, but academic freedom is the norm and paradigm-shifting interpretations are often celebrated.
  • Sales hype. Truth can be understated. Frauds are typically oversold.
  • Profit motive. The age-old adage "follow the money" applies. Sensationalism sells. Think P.T. Barnum, the master of celebrated hoaxes. "Every crowd has a silver lining" and "There's a sucker born every minute."
So, if you see people telling only one side of a story, citing old sources, relying heavily on non-professionals, promoting items that do not fit known cultural patterns, talking about data being systematically suppressed, and making a sales pitch, the story they are peddling is likely bogus.