An example of Book of Mormon evidences and the scientific method

One of the goals of science is not to prove theories right, but to prove them wrong. When this happens, a theory must be changed or thrown away. It is important to report the results even if the outcome proved the theory wrong.

If someone does not want everyone to know that the theory was wrong, he or she might not report the results right away. What if the theory turned out wrong so it was thrown away but the outcome was not reported at all?

How does this matter with the Book of Mormon? Look at horses. Science maintains that horses in America had died with the large mammal extinction. They were not in America again until their arrival from Europe. Science does not support horses in the Book of Mormon.

Here is a little story. You decide if the scientific method was followed and if results were witheld or just thrown aside because they were not the desired outcome.

In 1935 a horse skull was found in a Wisconsin mound. In 1936 a college student found out about the skull. He confessed that when he was in his teens he and a friend had buried that skull in the mound. Like teens today, they laughed what someone would think if they found it two hundred years later but as an adult he wanted to make things right. The confession did not get reported right away. In 1962 the former student was now a professor and he wrote a statement of his teen mischief. Another professor identified the skull as a western mustang and noted that rodents had gnawed it, meaning it had been above ground for some time before it was buried in the mound. This backed up the confession.

The Spencer Lake horse hoax was finally exposed in 1964 in the Wisconsin Archaeologist.

In 1967 radiocarbon dating results were published for the mound, showing it to be in the period from 500 to 1000 AD. There are people who need more proof when things don’t agree with what they want to believe. The radiocarbon dates for the mound caused some to wonder if the horse skull was that old too, even after the hoax had been exposed.

In 2001, there were people trying to establish proof for horses in the Book of Mormon.

“Meanwhile, Dr. Steven E. Jones of the BYU physics department has for several years been tracking down horse bones in North America considered to predate the European conquest. Professor Jones’s purpose for this search is to submit the bones to tests by the radiocarbon method (some of that work has taken advantage of assistance from FARMS). So far, one or more finds appear to be possibly of pre-Spanish Conquest date, although definitive results will take more work. Further work is being done by Yuri Kuchinsky, a researcher in Canada who has been pursuing a variety of other evidence, based mainly on Native American lore, about possible pre-Conquest horses in North America.”

The Spencer Lake Horse skull was one of the objects to be tested. What if it really were as old as the mound dates? That type of evidence would vindicate the horse in the Book of Mormon. The outcome proved the theory wrong. The skull was not as old as the mound, it dated in the time period of the teen prank. For some reason the results did not get reported in FARMS publications at BYU, but the radiocarbon results were printed in 2004 in this non-LDS book:

Our Collective Responsibility: The Ethics and Practice of Archaeological Collections Stewardship, ed. S. Terry Childs, Washington, D. C.: Society for American Archaeology, 2004

Page 30 has the radiocarbon testing. Only a portion can be read at the online link. With the paper copy it says this:

In this case those conclusions are testable. In 2002 I was contacted by Dr. Stephen Jones of Brigham Young University, a researcher conducting a project on the antiquity of New World horses. He was willing to provide funds for dating the skull using accelerator mass spectrometery (AMS) in order to settle questions regarding the skulls antiquity. A single sample was removed by MPM staff from the aboral margin of the jaw near the gonion caudale. It was separated into three subsamples, one held as a voucher and the others independently submitted to different radiocarbon labs (Beta Analytic and Stafford Research Laboratories) for AMS dating. The samples were of approximately the same size and yielded results in close agreement. Beta 167209 yielded an uncalibrated date of 110 +- 40 BP; Stafford SR6189 yielded an uncalibrated date of 190 +- 35 BP.”

Mormons did not notice this book and those at BYU who were involved in requesting the testing did not print the results for other Mormons to see. Science worked, a theory was proven wrong but the results were not published by those who had hoped for a different outcome.

In 2005, FAIR made a video that included horses in America and the Spencer Lake Horse hoax was thought of as evidence for horses. Watch closely at 0:50.

In 2008, a post graduate student informed FAIR of the error and provided them with the source for the 2004 radiocarbon results.

Why didn’t the individual at BYU who requested the radiocarbon dating of the skull publish the results? Why is the video is still on youtube? How many Mormon friends and family might see this video and believe it?

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8 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    Interesting analysis, Thanks!!

    One questions for the lay people — what does the following mean?

    The samples were of approximately the same size and yielded results in close agreement. Beta 167209 yielded an uncalibrated date of 110 +- 40 BP; Stafford SR6189 yielded an uncalibrated date of 190 +- 35 BP.

    Also, I’m sure we’ll soon be getting some comments of the variety “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” But I think the point of this article is rather that if you announce that you may have found some evidence for a theory, and it turns out not to be evidence, then scientific ethics would require you to announce the follow-up (negative result) in such a way that people who saw (or will yet see) your first announcement might reasonably be expected to see the follow-up as well.

  2. Daniel says:

    BP means ‘Before Present’. In this case, the “present” refers to 1950, the date that carbon-14 rates were established (and subsequently mucked up by nuclear testing).

    So a dating of “110 +- 40 BP” means about the year 1840, plus or minus 40 years. Not very ancient, that’s for sure.

  3. Daniel says:

    Publication bias is, unfortunately, very real. It’s hard to publish interesting negative results, although a few journals specialise in that sort of thing.

  4. Alan says:

    Sure, absence of evidence doesn’t equal evidence of absence. But it’s likely the case that there’s a theorized taxonomy/ecosystem of the pre-Columbian era that includes organisms other than horses, drawn up from a massive amount of actual zooarchaeological evidence. The Book of Mormon apologists seem to simply be interested in horses specifically (because the Book of Mormon refers to that particular animal), which gives me a sense of too much bias from them on the matter.

    There’s also the apologist argument that “horse” doesn’t literally mean “horse” — but is merely translated that way. That opens up a whole can of worms about translation from a language (“reformed Egyptian”) that there is also no evidence to have actually existed in America.

    *sigh* The amount of thought/words/research put into Mormon apology is mind-boggling. If you read some of the stuff out there, many of these people are highly educated/rational/attentive-to-nuance … and it really is just mind-boggling that they exert their energies this way.

  5. wreddyornot says:

    I enjoyed this entry and discussion. Thank you.

  6. NfAaE says:

    In 2001, The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies published that bones had been submitted for radiocarbon testing. But there were no articles after that showing what those results were. That was the problem. For reasons explained in the next link, it should have been in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.
    “The journal Radiocarbon was begun in 1958, its main function being the publication of radiocarbon date compilations produced by the world’s laboratories. Today, there are many laboratories and few publish comprehensive lists of results, there are far too many dates being calculated for this to be achieved. The publication of radiocarbon dates rests almost totally with the submitter of the material.”

    Additional Reading about horses:

    Sources on the spread of horses after the arrival of Europeans. These will help in understanding the position of mainstream science – no horses before Columbus.

    The Influence of the Horse in the Development of Plains Culture

    Where did the Plains Indians get their Horses

    The Northward Spread of Horses Among the Plains Indians

    Sources on the domestication of the horse. These will help in understanding how people who did have horses domesticated them, as well as the latest DNA studies on domesticated horses. It does not fit at all with the Book of Mormon or ancient America.

    Domestication and Early History of the Horse, Dr. Marsha Levine

    More from Dr. Levine, University of Cambridge, publications on the Early stages and development of the horse

    Mystery of the Domestication of the Horse Solved: Competing Theories Reconciled

    Reconstructing the origin and spread of horse domestication in Eurasian steppe

    A good source by the author of Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond, on independent domestications, why so few species were domesticated and why large domestic animals were mainly Eurasian.

    Evolution, Consequences and future of plant and animal domestication

  7. tapirrider says:

    Here are updates for two links that quit working:

    Domestication and Early History of the Horse, Dr. Marsha Levine

    More from Dr. Levine, University of Cambridge, publications on the Early stages and development of the horse

  8. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    Everyone knows, that Nephite horse isn’t a horse.
    It isn’t a tapir either. This is a Nephite horse and a Nephite chariot–

    Thanks for the interesting links. I’d also want to give a plug for “The Horse, The Wheel and Language” by David W Anthony.
    How we talk about things reveals our culture.
    The spread of various religions can be traced across the Silk Road. But Jesus Christ coming to America establishing a Christian civilization that enters a prosperous 200 year golden-age and leaves no archaeological or linguistic evidence, yeah right.
    Lack of horses isn’t the issue, but I’m guessing it gets focused on cuz some people like to play cowboy.

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