This is not a “science and religion” post. There are lots of very good books on that general topic, and the LDS Church gets along with science fairly well these days, at least since the death of Joseph Fielding Smith. A “science and Mormonism” post would be an entirely different post. What I’m talking about is pseudoscience, the many fringe theories and beliefs that followers paint in science-y colors but that are rejected by mainstream scientists and scholars in the field. The primary question to discuss is whether Mormonism or the LDS Church somehow makes followers and believers more susceptible to embracing pseudoscience views. First some background, then we’ll get to the good stuff.
What is Pseudoscience? That’s a tougher question than you might think. No one who embraces a pseudoscience theory considers it to be pseudoscience; that’s a label bestowed by mainstream scientists or scholars who want to marginalize that theory and those who push it. I just read On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (OUP, 2021) by Michael D. Gordin, a short little book that’s a fun read. Chapter One reviews what’s called the demarcation problem: how one distinguishes between a legitimate scientific field or theory and a pseudoscientific one. It turns out there is no definitive definition or rubric to properly make that distinction. It’s sort of a field-by-field exercise, sometimes with a grey area or two. A new theory might initially have very little support from mainstream scientists (for example, “continental drift” when it was first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912) and even be ridiculed, only to later become more widely accepted as supporting data later emerge. Alternatively, a widely supported view (such as the existence of ether, a medium once thought necessary to transmit electromagnetic waves through space) may, over time, move to the margins and be supplanted by a better theory. Gordin calls these mainstream views that are later discredited and move to the margins “vestigial sciences.”
But in most cases it’s not hard to identify a pseudoscience. Here are some examples from the book. Astrology and alchemy, two vestigial sciences. Aryan physics, Lysenkoism, and eugenics, three hyperpoliticized pseudosciences. Phrenology, Creationism, cryptozoology, cosmic catastrophism (think Immanuel Velikovsky), aliens and UFOs, and flat Earth theories, all examples of fighting establishment science. Mesmerism, spiritualism, and parapsychology (which initially found a home in some universities) are “mind over matter” pseudosciences. You could generalize this beyond pseudoscience and just talk about “science denialism” that seems to be on the rise everywhere these days, but a pseudoscience field generally has a theory, an argument or two, and some data. Not enough to convince mainstream scientists or scholars, but at least there is a proposal to consider. Science deniers, for example anti-vaxxers, generally don’t even have a proposal, they are just rejecting the mainstream scientific view.
Now let’s look at some Mormon examples.
Mormonism and Phrenology. Phrenology is the idea that the contours and bumps and shape of the skull provides objective insight, data if you will, into the mental capabilities or personality dispositions of the subject. It was really big in the 19th century before becoming a vestigial science in the 20th century. And Mormons were really into it. There’s a long Wikipedia article, Phrenology and the Latter Day Saint movement. Included are phrenological readings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Willard Richards, all published in the Nauvoo Wasp. It will be the most interesting ten minutes of your day. But phrenology has few adherents today and is not a present-day pseudoscience problem for Mormons. Let’s get more contemporary.
Mormonism and Mound Builders. Who were the Mound Builders, you ask? They were the people who built the archeological structures referred to as mounds, which were found all over the Eastern United States as settlers moved west in the 18th and 19th centuries. Modernly, it is undisputed that it was Native Americans who built them. But early American settlers simply could not accept that ancestors of the American Indians they encountered could possibly have built such large and elaborate structures. Instead, those early Americans hypothesized that an earlier highly civilized race had inhabited the continent, built the structures, then disappeared, possibly annihilated by the savage ancestors of the American Indians. That’s the story they told. But it was an entirely misguided story. It was, in fact, ancestors of the American Indians who built them. There were no Mound Builders. That was a piece of fiction, created by early Americans because of their prejudice against American Indians. You can read the whole story in the Wikipedia article “Mound Builders.” If you’re really serious, you can go find a copy of Robert Silverberg’s book The Mound Builders (Ohio Univ. Press, 1986). I thought it was simply coincidence that the author shared a name with the famed science fiction writer. When I found and read a copy of the book, I discovered that it actually was Robert Silverberg the science fiction writer who wrote The Mound Builders.
It shouldn’t be hard for the reader to connect the dots here. Most Mormons believe, as taught by the Church, that Israelites crossed an ocean, developed a civilization in the Americas, and built all kinds of structures all around the continent. Joseph Smith never came across a native artifact or read an account of Mesoamerican or South American ruins that he did not attribute to Nephites. So it’s hard to escape the conclusion that 21st-century Mormons and the LDS Church continue to accept the Mound Builders theory, except we call them Nephites. Of course, at the same time the LDS view is that the Lamanites, cousins of the Nephites, were, in fact, the ancestors of the American Indians, so one might argue that the LDS view is, in some sense, congruent with the modern view.
Few Mormons would agree with the statement, “I believe in the Mound Builders.” But that’s how pseudoscience works. No follower of a pseudoscience would say, “Yes, I believe in pseudoscience.” A Mormon would say, “No, it wasn’t Mound Builders who built the mounds and other ruins, it was the Nephites, who were overcome by the Lamanites and disappeared from history. The Lamanites were the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” I think a fair summary is (1) in the 21st century, the Mound Builders theory is plainly regarded as an example of pseudoscience; and (2) that most Mormons subscribe to the Mound Builders theory without recognizing that’s what they believe or even knowing about the earlier Mound Builders theory and its later rejection. Of course, FAIR has an article explaining that the Mound Builders theory and the Nephite theory are two totally different things. And there’s a nice article at the Deseret News from 2007 about the change in the Introduction included at the front of LDS editions of the Book of Mormon, when the claim that the Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians” was downgraded to “among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
Is the Word of Wisdom a Pseudoscience? You could write a book on this topic, so I’ll keep it short and let readers weigh in. The LDS Church maintains that “the Word of Wisdom” is the Lord’s law of health. That’s the title of a 2021 article in the Liahona (that’s what we call The Ensign now) by a Seventy: “The Lord’s Law of Health.” So coffee and tea are bad for you. But candy and ice cream, no problem. I remember visiting China and going out to dinner with a large group, where tea is what you drink at a restaurant with dinner if you’re not drinking beer. Nope, can’t drink tea, that’s bad for me. How about a Coca-Cola? [If you’re a milk-drinking American, you won’t find milk, but if you ask for yogurt you’ll get a drinkable glass of yogurt that is a pretty good substitute. Next time I’ll ask, “How about a yogurt?”]
Of course, modern apologists will note that tobacco is certainly bad for your health, but not recommend (as noted in D&C 89) that it’s good for some things, as “an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.” So D&C 89 is sort of hit and miss. Given how much of D&C 89 is simply ignored or intentionally misinterpreted in the present, I think it’s a mistake to talk about The Word of Wisdom and D&C 89 as the same thing. D&C 89 is an LDS text written in 1833. The Word of Wisdom, as required by members of the Church in 2021, is whatever LDS leaders say it is. The two (the text and the WoW) don’t have very much in common.
Is the Word of Wisdom an example of a pseudoscience? It labels some healthy things (green tea) as unhealthy and permits a lot of unhealthy things (twinkies, McDonald’s food). What else would you call a health law that has very little to do with our current medical understanding of what’s healthy and what isn’t?
Are Mormons more susceptible to pseudoscience? This is the big question. Does Mormonism make its followers or believers more susceptible to accepting or embracing various pseudoscience theories? If so, is that just because of Mormonism, or would say Evangelicals or Catholics also have a similar problem? I’m inclined to think yes, to a certain extent being a Mormon opens the door to a lot of strange beliefs, but not every Mormon walks through that door. The LDS approach to discovering or affirming truth (think about it, pray about it, and if you feel good, it’s true) certainly has a role to play in the LDS scenario.
What do you think? Do Mormons have a weakness or fondness for pseudoscience? Or does the gospel light of truth guide Mormons to avoid falling into pseudoscience traps that ensnare other folks? Or is there no correlation at all?