Blog Post #22: What are the Odds of That? Bayesian Statistics and the Prophetic Status of Joseph Smith

In my previous 21 blogs over the past two plus years, I have discussed some of the evidence that, at least to me, supports the claim that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.  In this matter, we have only two choices.  Either Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, or he was a fraud, a fake, a liar.  Specifically, the Book of Mormon is also a fraud and a fake, since Joseph claimed that he translated it by the gift and power of God.

It is incredibly important that we know which is correct.  This is a matter of eternal importance.  Was Joseph a prophet…or a liar?  Did God really speak to Joseph or not?

One way to test Joseph’s claims is to examine the evidence.  Joseph claimed that God and Jesus appeared to him and gave him revelations. These revelations contain a lot of very specific statements that claim to be facts given by God.  These statements can be tested with evidence.

There is a problem with this approach, however. Joseph could have been a good guesser.

One scientific (and reasonable and logical) way of dealing with the problem of guessing is to apply statistics. As I wrote in Blog #9:

If he (Joseph) was guessing, then his guesses ought to be distributed among right and wrong guesses, and easy to spot using statistics. He should be wrong part of the time, and right part of the time.

What is statistics? In brief, statistics is the mathematical description of the probability (the chances) of certain independent events occurring.  While statistics may sound complicated, at its heart, statistics is dead simple common sense and mathematics applied to better understand how likely certain events are.

One of the clearest illustrations of statistics is given by rolling dice.  The population here is the values (1 through 6) on the six sides of the die.  Since a die has six possible values, then there is a one in six chance (16.66666…% of the time) that the value “1” will turn up when the die is cast, ditto for each of the other values 2 through 6. If you have two dice, then each die is independent of each the other die and there is still only a one in six chance that any given value will turn up for that die when it is rolled.

Here is the key point: probabilities of individual events must be multiplied to estimate the probability of all the individual events occurring together or as a result of the same cause The probability of each individual die coming up with a “1” is 16.666% (out to as many “6s” as you want).

But the probability of rolling “snake eyes” or both dice coming up with a “1” on the same roll (simultaneously) is not 16.6% but 16.6% (0.0166) times 16.6% (0.0166) or about 0.02756 or approximately 2.76% of the time. So roughly three times out of a hundred times that you roll two dice at the same time you will get snake eyes.  

I invite you to perform that experiment.  You can test this assertion and verify it for yourself.

Going on further, if we want to roll three dice at the same time, what will be the probability of rolling three “1s”?  By the formula, it is 0.166 x 0.166 x 0.166 equals 0.00457 or about 5 times in a thousand.  (That’s a lot of dice rolling to test the assertion, or you can just take my word for it.  :)).  If we roll four dice together, what is the probability of rolling four “1”s simultaneously?  It is 0.000761, or about 8 times in ten thousand rolls of the four dice.

How about three different events, with different probabilities, each occurring simultaneously due to the same cause?  Let’s say that the first event has a probability of 1 in a hundred (0.01), the probability of the second event is one in a thousand (0.001) and the third is one in 10 (0.1). What is the probability of all three of these events occurring simultaneously if they are part of the same population? It is 0.01 x 0.001 x 0.1 = 0.000001 or 1 in a million. 

Conversely, the probability that all of these events will NOT occur together is 1.0 minus the probability that they all will occur together.  In this example, it is 1.0 minus 0.000001 or 0.999999, or 99.9999%, or 999,999 to 1. 

How do you like those odds? Would you bet against those odds? 🙂  (However, people do it all the time when they play the lottery–sigh…)”

OK, enough of quoting myself.  The “population” here is the specific testable facts, statements and claims in the revelations and other divine guidance given to Joseph Smith, in other words, when Joseph was acting as a prophet.

Why those times?  Because Joseph never claimed to be infallible. He never claimed to be more than a mortal man. And he never, ever claimed to be perfect in his statements as a fallible human being. So it is no use to test those statements, although many detractors of Joseph do exactly that. The detractors spend no effort on studying the revelations given to Joseph to test that revealed evidence, which is abundant and specific.

So, Joseph did say that there was no error in the revelations he had taught.  These revelations include the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price. Thus we can test Joseph’s prophetic credentials statistically based on the revelations he received.  If he really was a prophet, then those supposed statements of fact given to him by revelation are true. If Joseph was just a man, then all those statements of fact are just guesses.  If they are guesses, then some guesses will be right, and some will be wrong.

Now, in the real world, we usually don’t experience the kind of mathematically well-defined probabilities that rolling dice offers to us. Instead, we usually deal with “odds” or “probabilities”, many of which are somewhat subjective. By “subjective”, I mean that the individual must decide for himself/herself what constitutes strong evidence, what evidence is positive but not especially strong, and what evidence is just barely worth mentioning.

Bayesian statistics provides one approach to this kind of problem and is well-explained in this introductory article.

In the Bayesian approach, we write the likelihood ratio (the likelihood that Joseph Smith was a false prophet) as:


Where D is the data to be entered in the ratio.  Also, H is the hypothesis being tested, that Joseph Smith was false prophet and therefore a liar, because he claimed to be a prophet. On the other hand, ~H is the converse hypothesis, in other words, the hypothesis that Joseph was a true prophet and that he gained his knowledge from God.

We can assign a likelihood ratio or “Bayes factor” to each statement of fact associated with the revelations given to Joseph.  This likelihood ratio is the probability that the statement is true given the assumption that he was just guessing divided by the probability that the statement is true given the assumption that he was a prophet.  This likelihood ratio therefore represents the strength of the evidence, in this case the evidence against Joseph being a prophet.

Here is a good introduction to Bayes’ theorem, which underlies the analysis that I am going to present in this blog.

Once we have decided on the likelihood of guessing correctly about each specific fact, we then multiply the likelihoods of guessing right about each of these specific facts. The number obtained by multiplying all of those individual likelihoods together is the strength of the total body of evidence that Joseph was a really good guesser instead of a prophet. This number is also the likelihood that he was a liar and fraud, because Joseph was not a prophet as he claimed to be.

Now, here is a key point about Bayesian analysis.  It is important to understand that this Bayes factor or likelihood ratio, or the strength of the new evidence, tells us how much we should change our prior beliefs based on the new evidence. In Bayesian analysis, our prior beliefs about a particular hypothesis or idea are called the “skeptical prior odds”.  The change in the prior beliefs as a result of the new evidence are called the “posterior odds”.

This approach to data is frequently used in medical tests.  I thank my son, Brian Marshall Dale, Ph. D. in biomedical engineering, for this specific example. Brian pointed me toward Bayesian statistics and provided a number of helpful editorial suggestions for this post.

For example, if a disease is somewhat rare then an individual might have “skeptical prior odds” of 1:1000 for them having the disease.  If the test has a likelihood ratio of 100 (a good medical test for screening) then our posterior odds would be 1:1000 x 100 = 1:10 for them having the disease.  The individual piece of evidence changed our minds substantially (from 1:1000 to 1:10) but because we were initially quite skeptical (1:1000) that the person had the disease, we still think it is more likely that they do not have the disease (1:10). A doctor would then call for a more definitive (and more expensive or invasive) test to give additional information and we would continue to update our new odds as we received new information.

The subject of this blog is the prophetic status of Joseph Smith.  If we choose, we can start with an extremely “skeptical prior odds” that Joseph was a prophet.  We choose to allow only a 1:1,000,000,000 (one in a billion) chance that he is a prophet. Thus we start with odds of 1,000,000,000:1 (a billion to one) that he is just guessing.  This means that even before we look at the evidence, we are very confident that he is not a prophet, and the statement of facts he made are just guesses.  We would require supporting evidence with a likelihood of 0.000000001 (one billionth) in order to change our beliefs to the point where we would consider “even odds” (1:1) that he is a prophet, and evidence even stronger than that to consider it likely or be confident that he is a prophet.

So here is another illustration of the approach I am suggesting to test the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith.

An acquaintance of mine claims to have really good astronomical equipment and data. Using his equipment and data, he says that I will be able to observe the first rays of dawn from a particular window in my house at 5:10 a.m. on my 67th birthday, Tuesday June 13, 2017. He furthermore tells me that the moon (in its crescent phase) will disappear below the northwestern horizon that same morning at 3:25 a.m. as observed from that very same window.

So, I want to test this fellow’s claims. I am somewhat skeptical of his claims and decide to assign skeptical prior odds of 1000 to 1. In other words, I think it is about 1000 times more likely that he does not have the equipment and data that he claims to have, or stated another way, the odds of him having this equipment and data are 0.001 or one in a thousand.

But I want to test his claim. He might be telling the truth.  Does he have a good astronomical equipment and data or not?

I get up really early on June 13, 2017 and go to that particular window. Sure enough, I see the tip of the crescent moon disappear in the northwest right at 3:25 a.m., according to my wall clock, which happens to be a very accurate atomic clock.  I am impressed, so I decide to wait up and test his next prediction.   I go to the same window at 5:05 a.m.  Again, just as he predicted, I see the first edge of the arc of the sun appear just a few minutes later, as near as I can tell, right at 5:10 a.m.

So, I have two choices. Either this guy is a very good guesser, or he does have access to good astronomical equipment and data.

How good a guesser?

Well, this is not exactly the same as rolling dice where the odds are well known.  The odds are up to me to decide. For my own reasons, I can decide that the odds of guessing correctly that the moon would disappear at a certain place on the horizon at a particular time as seen from a particular point would be about 1 in 1000. Since the sun is bigger, and many people (at least us early risers), have a better general idea of when the sun comes up than when the moon sets, I give him a 1 in 100 chance of guessing the correct time of sunrise, as seen from the particular place on a particular day.

If I just consider the first event, the setting of the moon, then Bayesian analysis requires me to multiply the probability that he could correctly guess the time of moon set (1000 to one) times my skeptical prior of one in a thousand (0.001). The result is 1:1 or even odds. I am impressed but not yet convinced.

But he also correctly predicted the time of sunrise, which I thought was 100 to one against.  So I must multiply the odds of both correct predictions (1000 to one and 100 to one) times my skeptical prior of 1 in a thousand. The result is 100:1.  For me, this is really strong evidence. I am now convinced of his claim to have good astronomic equipment and data.

Now, let’s apply this approach to a just a few of the statements of fact in the revelations given to Joseph Smith.  Since I really, really don’t want to believe a false prophet, I decide to make the test a very severe one. On the other hand, there have been prophets before, and Joseph might also be a prophet, so I have to keep that possibility open.

But I am really skeptical, so my skeptical prior will be a billion to one. In other words, I decide ahead of time that the likelihood that Joseph was a false prophet was a billion to one. Said another way, the likelihood that he was true prophet was one in a billion.  So it is going to take a lot of evidence to convince me that he was a true prophet.

To make my analysis, I decide to assign one of three different likelihood ratios to each testable fact that I consider.  I will use 2 (0.50) for evidence that is “not worth more than a bare mention”, 10 (0.10) for “positive” evidence, and 50 (0.02) for “strong” evidence for (or against) H, the hypothesis that Joseph was a liar (or a true prophet).  These values are typically used in the literature on Bayesian statistics.

My blogs have all been about evidence against H.  Other people can provide evidence for H as they may choose. Also, other people may choose to assign other likelihood ratios.  More about these individual choices below.

  • Evidence only worth a bare mention (50% or 0.50)  Joseph could perhaps have found out this fact by study at the library or by studying the Bible carefully, but it is not by any means an obvious fact, for example, that people eat food. We won’t be impressed by the statement that someone has had dinner, but if we know that they ate a very specific kind of food on a specific day as a religious observance, then that might have some value as proof.  Joseph would have to be both lucky and clever to have inserted these 50% likelihood facts into the revelations. For example, we now know that the standard military unit in Old Testament times, their “platoon”, was 50 men. That is a very specific number, one that Joseph might have known if he had read the Old Testament very carefully (See Second Kings Chap. 1) and had both remembered the number and remembered to use it at the right place in his “made up” story, the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4:1).
  • Positive evidence (10% or 0.10) Facts that I choose to assign likelihoods of 10% (one in ten odds) are those that Joseph might have been able to reason out, given time and expert knowledge, but which to me seem really unlikely for him to have guessed. One example might be the very good description of a volcanic eruption and earthquake given in 3 Nephi Chapter 8. Mesoamerica, the most likely setting for the Book of Mormon history, is earthquake and volcano country. But upstate New York where Joseph lived is not.  How would Joseph know how to correctly describe a volcano and earthquake from the point of view of the person experiencing the event?  I actually think facts like this have a very low likelihoods of being guessed correctly, but I am going to be really tough on Joseph’s claims and say that they have a 10% likelihood of being correct when guessed.
  • Strong evidence (2% or 0.02) Facts with a 2% likelihood (one in fifty chances) I am going to count as essentially impossible, given any reasonable amount of knowledge or study available to Joseph. But, once again, to be really tough on Joseph Smith’s claims, I am going to say that he had a 1 in 50 chance of guessing these correctly, even if I think the odds are more like 1 in a million or less.  The use in ancient America of heavy clothing as armor and in the Book of Mormon (Alma 43:19) have been described in an earlier blog. This is one such example of something that I think is a nearly impossible guess, probably odds of one in a million or less.  I have read lots and lots of books about all kinds of crazy and weird things, but, except in the Book of Mormon and the accounts of the Spanish Conquistadores, I have never read anything about clothing used as armor.  Maybe you have, and want to give it a higher likelihood.  Your choice.  But I am going to make it a 1 in 50 likelihood.

So, to start with, we have here three separate statements of fact in the Book of Mormon, which Joseph claimed to have received from God. Either they were all just guesses, or Joseph did in fact receive them as he said, from God.

What is the likelihood of getting all three of these guesses right? Standard military unit of 50 men (0.50) times an excellent description of a simultaneous volcano/earthquake (0.1) times using heavy clothing as armor (0.02) equals 0.001 or likelihood of one in a thousand.

But that is not enough for me.  My “skeptical prior” is a billion to one that Joseph was not a true prophet, and a billion to one (1,000,000,000) times one in a thousand (0.001) is still a million to one…that Joseph was a false prophet.

OK, now I will briefly summarize some of the other evidence that I have written about in this blog over the past two plus years and assign one of these three likelihoods to each piece of evidence: either 0.5 or 0.1 or 0.02.

As an engineer, I lean pretty heavily toward physical evidence. As a reading addict, I am also strongly impressed by literary proofs.  As a human being, the human side of the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith really fascinate me. Just so you know my priorities.

So, here goes.  I am going to briefly list each piece of evidence and maybe say a little more about it but the details for each piece of evidence are in my various blog posts.  The Bayes factors (likelihoods) I assign to each are given in bold script.

  1. The standard military unit in Old Testament times and in Jerusalem about 600 BC was 50 men. Blog post #8. 0.5
  2. A sober, factual account of an earthquake/volcanic event from the point of view of an observer. Post #13.  0.1
  3. Use of heavy clothing as armor in Mesoamerica and in the Book of Mormon. Post #15. 0.02
  4. Use of metal plates to record sacred and secular histories. Post #2. 0.5
  5. The Book of Mormon plates were an alloy of gold and copper, much less dense and much more durable than gold. We now know that a gold/copper alloy was widely used in ancient Mesoamerica. Post #2. 0.1
  6. The Mayan writing system used a glyph meaning “and then it happened”, which a good Hebrew would read “and it came to pass”. The Book of Mormon uses that phrase hundreds of times. Post #1.  0.5
  7. Nephi used a steel bow. This is a real zinger, with very little chance of it being a simply a lucky guess, as I explained in Blog #3.  Who on earth would make a bow out of steel in 600 BC?  0.02
  8. Sacred artifacts and sacred books are buried in boxes made of stone slabs, joined by cement, as was the Book of Mormon, see Post #3 and Post #15. Another home run for Joseph. 0.02
  9. The Book of Mormon has over 300 chiasms. I have read them all several times and even found a “new” one I think has been missed before (Alma 15:5-11). There are numerous other Hebrew literary styles and devices in the Book of Mormon.  How did Joseph Smith know to include chiasms and other Hebrew literary styles in his book? Another zinger.  I think this one is an impossible guess but I will count it as a one in fifty likelihood.  Post #4.  0.02
  10. Even if you knew about chiasms, could you write over 300 of them in your 531 page book in so subtle and integrated a way that no one noticed the chiasms for about 150 years after the book was published? I have a very hard time writing one simple, plain vanilla chiasm, let alone 300+ chiasms. One of them (Alma 36) is a particularly beautiful chapter-long chiasm on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Another home run for Joseph. Post #4. 0.02
  11. Matter is eternal—it cannot be created nor destroyed. I am going to be tough on Joseph here and assume that he could have read an English translation (from 1790) of Antoine Lavoisier’s French textbook on chemistry and then made the big intellectual jump from mass being conserved in the chemical reactions Lavoisier studied to the much more comprehensive and universal principle that matter cannot be created or destroyed.  Post #5.  0.1
  12. The existence of matter that we cannot see with our eyes. Science now tells us that about 95% of the mass of the universe is composed of matter/energy that we cannot see with our eyes or detect with existing instruments. But that matter/energy is undeniably there. (Deny it if you want, but the evidence for dark matter is very strong, and there are also neutrinos which can be detected today but had not even been conceived of in Joseph’s day.) Another real zinger, Joseph. Post #6. 0.02
  13. Joseph Smith gave the answer to the terrible question “Is this all there is?” when he said that God had revealed to him that human beings are coeternal with God (“man was also in the beginning with God”), thus solving the problems of conscience, consciousness and the human tendency to blame God for the existence of evil that have eluded human philosophers for thousands of years. This is not physical science but, at least for me, a real zinger in a human sense.  It is a rational, compelling, consistent and very liberating doctrine. Post #7.  0.02
  14. How many is “a few”? In the Book of Mormon and the Bible it is eight.  Post #9.  0.5
  15. Mormon’s military background keeps popping up everywhere in the Book of Mormon, almost unconsciously. Well if you had been a warrior and the commanding general of your people since you were 16 years old, you might let that background creep in also, but Mormon seems to do it unconsciously, as he should if he were in fact the editor/compiler. Post #11. 0.5
  16. Deep ditches, with high earthen banks, breastworks of timbers and parapets on top of the breastworks, all of this surrounding a city with a single narrow entry way are constructed as defensive works, noted in precise detail in the Book of Mormon among their warring peoples by Mormon and also observed exactly among the Maya by Conquistador Hernan Cortez. This is another real zinger.  Post #11. I give it a likelihood of 0.02
  17. In Posts #13 and #15 I mentioned a number of correspondences between the Book of Mormon and what actually happened in Mesoamerica. Point 16 above is one of them: deep defensive ditches.  In the next few points, am going to pick just a few of the other correspondences that seem particularly strong to me.  Here I mention the existence of detailed calendars among the Maya and in the Book of Mormon, with days, months and years. Careful, accurate calendar keeping was very rare in the ancient world, let alone ones accurate to days, months and years. Score a biggie but not quite a zinger for the Book of Mormon. Post #13.  0.1
  18. Millions of people in the Book of Mormon among the Jaredites and then the Nephites and Lamanites in their wars. That is a lot of people, but Mesoamerica could support that many. Post #13.  0.1
  19. The Book of Mormon peoples had writing and so did the Maya. The Indians Joseph Smith knew did not have writing, another rare technology in the ancient world. I think this is a biggie.  Post #13.  0.02
  20. The Book of Mormon peoples were “civilized”; meaning that they had cities, state institutions, large-scale public works, temples, record keeping, and means of keeping time. So did the inhabitants of Mesoamerica—correct on every point. But the Indians where Joseph lived did not have all these institutions, at least as far as I know. Post #13.  0.02
  21. The Book of Mormon peoples built with cement, and so did the Mesoamericans. But the North American Indians did not. How did Joseph know? Why would he put this far out (?) idea in his book?  Post #15.  0.02
  22. Domination of a subject or captive people by an external elite through marriage ties among their rulers, an institution found in the Book of Mormon and among the Maya. This is a very subtle point and right on culturally.  Post #13.  0.02
  23. Maize (corn) is the primary grain in Mesoamerica and among the Book of Mormon peoples. Posts #13 and #15  0.1
  24. The Book of Mormon people built roads and so did the Maya. North American Indians did not. How did Joseph know?  A biggie. Post #15.  0.02
  25. Deforestation, protection of trees and trade in timber among the Tikal Maya and also among the Book of Mormon peoples. Wow!  What a specific, testable point of evidence.  (Also, it looks like modern industrial society is not the only environmentally-destructive culture that has ever existed, we just do it bigger, faster and more thoroughly.)  Post #15.  0.02
  26. The Maya had baptism and so did the Book of Mormon peoples. Post #15. 0.1
  27. The political rulers were a class structure with power in the hands of a hereditary elite group of people, so knowing your genealogy was critical to your social position. The Book of Mormon peoples had both of these institutions and so did the Maya.  A biggie. Post #15.  0.02
  28. Abundant gold and silver which was used as money in the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica. But not among the Indians of Joseph Smith’s day. And there is very little gold and silver in eastern North America. A zinger. Post #15.  0.02
  29. The Mayan spiritual leaders use a crystal to seek revelation, and so do the seers in the Book of Mormon. Very cool and unusual, but not quite a zinger in my mind.  Post #15.  0.1
  30. There are “worlds without number”; many worlds have “passed away” (eg, supernovae and black holes), as taught by science…and by the revelations to Joseph Smith. “Mormonism” is truly a faith for the Space Age (and for science fiction addicts like me). 🙂 See Post #16.  0.02
  31. All eleven witnesses to the Book of Mormon remained true to their witnesses even though some suffered and died for it, and others were cut off from the Church in disgrace. Why would they do that for a fraud? Post #18.  0.02
  32. Emma Smith would certainly have known if Joseph were a fraud. But she remained true to her testimony to the end of her life. Emma endured through great suffering, poverty, the death of one of her children, the loss of all their property (several times) and her expulsion from at least four homes because of the persecutions she endured. Why would she do that?  For me the only reason she would do that is the reason she herself gave all during her life and then very forcefully near the end of her life: because she really did know Joseph was a prophet.  A real biggie. Post #19.  0.02
  33. Joseph remained true to his testimony in the face of multiple attacks on him and his family by mobs, the threat of castration, being imprisoned 43 different times, the longest for 6 months, and a life of persecution and poverty followed by the martyrdom he knew was coming…and so much, much more. Why would Joseph do that if he knew he was a fraud?  What did Joseph gain from his fraud but an early death and a life of troubles?  Another zinger.  Post #19. 0.02
  34. Two completely independent lines of evidence indicate that the Book of Mormon was written on about 135 individual plates, containing roughly 50% of the total surface area of the modern Book of Mormon in English. A lucky guess? I really doubt it. But not quite a zinger.  Post #20.  0.1
  35. Many, many important parallels between the experiences of Joseph Smith and other early Church members and Christ and his early followers of Christ, as detailed in two books written by non-Mormons. Is this just dozens and dozens of coincidences, or a case of the servant Joseph being treated as his (and our) master Jesus Christ?  Good evidence, but also not a zinger. Post #21.  0.1

OK, that’s it for now.  Perhaps I will add more of these likelihoods later, but for now, let’s multiply all these 35 different Bayesian factor likelihoods together and see what the resulting probability is that all of these were lucky guesses or coincidences on the part of Joseph Smith.

So we multiply 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.02 x 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.5 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.02 0.02 x 0.1 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.02 x 0.1 x 0.1 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.1 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.1 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.1 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.1 x 0.1 =  3.28 x 10 to the negative 46 power. This is an exceptionally strong body of evidence against the possibility that Joseph Smith was just guessing.

We multiply this number by our prior skeptical assumption of a billion to one (1 x 10 to the 9 power) that Joseph was a fraud.  The resulting number is about 3.3 times 10 to the minus 37 power, or less than one in a billion, billion, billion, billion.  In Bayesian terms, these are our “posterior odds”.  The accumulation of the total body of evidence is extremely strong, and therefore changes our opinion from being very confident that he was guessing to being very, very confident that he is a prophet.

OK, someone might point out here that I am “cherry-picking” the data, that is, I am only selecting data that agree with my point of view.

Fair enough.  That is true. It is also exactly what the critics of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon have always done. They never, ever consider any of the contrary evidence; the evidence that Joseph Smith was indeed a true prophet.  Not once have I seen any of his critics do that.

When we are fair to Joseph, and also consider evidence for his prophetic status, I think that the total body of the evidence paints a very different picture of the prophetic credentials of Joseph Smith.

The very specific, testable statements of fact in the revelations Joseph received are true precisely because he was a real prophet.  The Hebraic structures such as chiasmus that are found throughout the Book of Mormon are there precisely because it is indeed the record of a people with its linguistic and cultural roots in Jerusalem in about 600 BC.  Likewise, Joseph’s behavior in the face of persecutions and certain martyrdom and the behavior of those who knew him well is best explained by this fact: he knew and they knew that he was a prophet.

Now, anyone can assign any likelihoods they want to these events that I have listed above.  I have given numbers that satisfy my need for evaluating evidence in a skeptical, careful way. But none of us is actually convinced by piling up zeros or nines in odds—except in relatively unimportant things like whether or not airplane wings are going to fall off in a storm of a particular severity (high wind shear).

As far as things of eternal importance, we do not decide by calculating odds. Human beings are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures. That is to say, we usually make a decision first for all kinds of motives, both rational and irrational, and then we wait for or look for or make up evidence to support that decision.

We are also intuitive creatures.  We make intuitive leaps…we see a few pieces of evidence and our minds/spirits leap the gap and come to conclusions based on those few pieces of evidence. We fill in the gaps.

Me too.

I was convinced of the truth of “Mormonism” a long, long time before I accumulated all this evidence. In my case, I was convinced (received my very first strong evidence) when I read 2 Nephi 2:24-25 as I discussed in Post #14.  That evidence satisfied my heart and my mind.

I filled in the gaps between that powerful scripture, something I recognized in my heart and mind as being deeply true, and the fact that Joseph Smith was therefore a prophet of God, and that God was therefore inviting/commanding me to receive Joseph’s testimony as a message from God to me, his son Bruce Edwin Dale.

I think this is perhaps the kind of experience the Apostle Paul refers to in Hebrews 11:1 when he describes faith as “… the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is faith…not having to see all the evidence before making the connections between the different pieces of evidence and then acting on the evidence and connections.

In the intervening 50 plus years, I have received many, many more evidences. This additional evidence continues to satisfy both my heart and my mind.  A very, very, very small part of this evidence is summarized in these blogs.

The result for me is what Mormons refer to as a “testimony”.  This growing testimony keeps me moving forward in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  My testimony motivates me to write this blog, serve in the Temple, pay tithing, participate actively in the church and do many, many more things to advance this cause that I believe it so deeply.

So, why did write this blog if I think no one is convinced by piling up odds?

I did it for four reasons:

  1. I am an engineer, and I simply like numbers. It was fun for me to do this analysis and estimate the odds that Joseph was a fraud.  🙂
  2. Perhaps one or more of these “lucky guesses”, the pieces of evidence I cite above, may speak powerfully to one of my readers, helping them to have something like the same experience I had with 2 Nephi 2:24-25, and cause them to turn their lives to God, as I have tried to do all my life since age 16. I deeply hope and pray it may be so, particularly for my children, grandchildren and other posterity.
  3. I did it so that believing Mormons, wavering Mormons and fair-minded non-Mormons can better appreciate the intellectual strength of the foundations of “Mormonism”.  I don’t have much hope that it will help people, Mormons or not, who are not fair-minded. By fair-minded I mean those folks who are willing to consider all the evidence.
  4. Finally, there are a lot of so-called “experts” and detractors out there who claim the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Dr. Michael Coe, whom I discussed in Posts 13 and 15, is one of them. These experts usually cite one or two pieces of “evidence” that they claim disprove the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But they never, ever cite any of the reams of physical, literary, social or other evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, Joseph or the Church.

This is dishonest and unfair. It is also deeply unscientific.  It is “cherry-picking”. Any real scientist and hopefully any honest person will want to consider evidence both for and against a particular point of view. They will not “cherry pick”.  They will be fair in their evaluations.

Dr. Coe and others like him have turned many against the Book of Mormon. Men and women like him have either kept non-members from investigating the church or have given church members intellectual cover (excuses or reasons) for leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But let’s be fair.  If a person wants to cite evidence against the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith, then in all honesty they should consider evidence for the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith also.  What kind of a juror or fair-minded person only considers evidence against the defendant?

Do you want that kind of person judging you or your works or your life? Then don’t be that kind of person.

Consider some of evidence for the defendant: Joseph Smith.

I am trying to provide evidence for the defense.  I feel no need to advocate for the prosecution, although I expect someday to summarize some of the evidence for the prosecution and evaluate it as I have done here for the defense using Bayesian likelihoods.

So I hope this particular post and my other posts will serve in some ways to “inoculate” church members against the intellectual dishonesty of cherry-picking, strengthen their faith, and help honest investigators see some of the breadth and depth of evidence that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet…so that they can know for themselves that these things are true.

As I know them to be true.

10 thoughts on “Blog Post #22: What are the Odds of That? Bayesian Statistics and the Prophetic Status of Joseph Smith”

  1. That was a fantastic post….as a new convert of a few months it made a difference in my testimony and solidified my beliefs after being attacked by family and friends due to my conversion.

    I’m fortunate to have found you and will eagerly await future posts.

    Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Brother Bossie. Hold fast to your testimony, keep praying and be obedient. And keep searching the Book of Mormon. You will gain further light and knowledge.

  2. Dr Dale

    I read your very long testimony on Mormon Scholars Testify then came to this blog- thanx for your efforts on behalf of Mormonism to defend it. I am not LDS but my family is TBM- I have experienced a Paul on the Damascus Road type conversion in my own life and have a deep convincing testimony of Jesus Christ as my Savior Lord and King of my life. I live every moment of every day for His will to be done in my life.
    I have lots of questions for you but perhaps you can explain why Dr Michael Coe is/has try to discredit the BOM and the claim that Lehi’s family and descendants populated central and south america. I corresponded with Coe years ago and he simply said there is no evidence to back up LDS claims about the peoples and their religions and cultures in that area-he did not “rant and rave” so to speak about Mormons.
    Second what about chairots, steel swords and elephants evidences?
    Third from your testimony whatabout heavenly parents- what dio you believe about pre-existence and procreation of spirits- how would that /could happen from a scientific perspective?
    Lastly have you taken the Letter to the CES director by Jeremy Runnels and rebutted it all or in part- that document has internet viral visiblity and many many ?Mormons have left the chruch because the church or church apologists life Fair and Peterson have not taken it on to disprove?

    Thanx again for you writings though i must say you go into a lot of detail in your proofs.
    frank mcleskey
    fairfax station va

    1. Dear Mr. McLeskey:
      Thank you for your interest in my testimony. Yes, I do write long ones, don’t I? 🙂

      I have no idea why Dr. Coe has tried to discredit the Book of Mormon. I also do not know why he has been content with such shoddy scholarship as he evidences in his treatment of the Book of Mormon. I am planning a scholarly article based on his book The Maya and the Book of Mormon using Bayesian statistics and plan to contact him when I have a draft ready. I hope he will be willing to engage with me on an intellectual basis.

      As for steel, I have already written a post on steel. Here it is.

      I am not going to worry about chariots and elephants for the moment, as I am studying other things. 🙂 But I think there are already some good responses to those questions if you go on the FAIR website and do a search.

      Also, I think that anyone who is being honest about the archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon now has to take into account John Sorenson’s book “Mormon’s Codex”. Wonderful book. I recommend it to you. If a person has not read it and weighed the evidence Sorenson brings to bear on the issue, then in my mind that person is not a real scholar, and is not really interested in the truth.

      I read Runnels letter. It seems like a whiny, superficial rant…and nothing more. Fortunately, I was spared the need to respond when another LDS scholar did a detailed, line by line, humorous and effective response to Runnell. Here is that response. It is excellent.

      People leave the church for all kinds of reasons, some honest and some dishonest. Since I am not anyone’s judge, I will not try to decide which category a particular person is in.

      But I know the Church is true. I know the Book of Mormon is true. And I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet.

      Bruce Dale

  3. “Cherry picking”–one of the many logical fallacies critics use. You may also be accurate when you admit it’s a fair criticism of what you have written. But I think a careful reading will reveal you have given weight to all sides of the argument–something which, as you say, critics do not do.
    One supposed justification they have for doing that is the accusation that we have “confirmation bias” and therefore it is not worth their time to pursue “apologetics”, which they say are cherry-picked. These justifications are also forms of logical fallacy, among them over-generalizations, circular reasoning, and an indication that they are hung up on their own confirmation bias, which they seem to suggest they are immune to or beyond having.
    “When they are learned, they think they are wise…” 2 Nephi 9:28. True learning, as you say, consists of considering all possibilities and testing them out, regardless of the source of the data and the rational method used–which in my view includes exercising faith as described by Alma and not limiting oneself to strictly empirical means as they define them.
    I, for one, am going to accept a spiritual confirmation as every bit as firm as any observation gathered through the five senses. Empiricism has its spiritual counterpart.
    Some will counter, of course, with so-called evidence from certain psychological studies, that other-world experiences are all centered in the brain, as “proven fact” determined by the various studies.
    But as you’ve said in a number of places, they do not explain the “why.” They also cannot verify that the brain is the exclusive or ultimate source. Their conclusions become a matter of extrapolated “educated guessing.”

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