A recurring question in intellectual Mormonism involves what we should do when we disagree with advice or theology taught by the General Authorities. Two extreme answers to this question — what economists describe as “corner solutions” — are the most frequently considered in the ensuing discussions. Neither is sensible. The first corner solution involves always accepting what the General Authority says and disregarding our own moral sense or reasoning. This approach is unreasonable because it makes our own moral sense and spiritual insights unnecessary, or even dangerous. If we believe that God gave us these faculties for a reason, then it is uncomfortable to adopt a rule that totally disregards them. The second corner solution involves always accepting our own beliefs or preferences and disregarding the comments of the General Authority. This is unwise even if we believe that the General Authority has no special moral insight — because that leader does certainly have some moral insight, and it is always irrational to discard information for no good reason.
One of the most intelligent arguments in favor of either of these corner solutions that I know of is Frank McIntyre’s oft-repeated argument that, adopting a mathematical model of moral reasoning and inspiration, believing only that the General Authorities are marginally more inspired or morally wise than we are justifies disregarding our conflicting beliefs or moral sense and adopting a General Authority’s position. (I cannot immediately locate one of Frank’s presentations of this argument, but I trust that he will be willing to provide a link in the comments thread.)
This position represents an enlightened Mormon version of what might be described as 20th-century decision theory: find the best expert you can and rely on him or her. More recent research on decision-making has cast doubt on this perspective in the secular world. A readable and very informative popular-press presentation of much of this research is James Surowiecki’s 2005 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Under a wide range of circumstances, the studies discussed by Surowiecki show, the aggregated judgment of many fairly uninformed individuals can be more reliable — often far more reliable — than that of one or a small number of highly informed experts.
Another fairly recent, and highly readable, book that addresses these issues is Philip E. Tetlock’s 2006 Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? In this book, Tetlock shows that the quality of expert judgment is often surprisingly low, and that judgment quality does not have a strong connection with intelligence or with experience. Instead, the quality of expert judgment is closely connected with a distinction between two cognitive styles: that of the hedgehog, who knows one big idea extremely well and uses it in all circumstances, and that of the fox, who knows a lot of different little things and is most experienced in bringing seemingly divergent concepts, facts, and theories together. The hedgehog-type expert performs poorly, while the fox performs well.
We cannot, of course, generalize safely from these studies of secular experts to the more spiritual expertise ascribed to General Authorities. Yet one can perhaps be excused for asking whether the new overall perspective that trusts collectivities more than individuals and jack-of-all-trades reasoners more than single-approach specialists casts doubt on the wisdom of allowing General Authority advice or perspectives to totally determine our conclusions.
In fact, the answer on this point depends in substantial part on our assumptions. So let’s make those assumptions as clear as possible. To do so, let’s follow Frank’s lead and adopt a simple mathematical model of moral/theological reasoning. Suppose the issue under consideration is one-dimensional, so that different positions can be represented as points on the number line. Let us adopt the further assumption that, for this issue, there is a single correct answer — which is some number known to God but not to us. Let us call that number TRUTH.
Through moral reasoning, inspiration, or some combination of the two, we each receive a signal on the issue, which we can label as BELIEF_i (with i varying from individual to individual). We can, with perfect generality, write a formula for this individual perspective: BELIEF_i = TRUTH + ERROR_i. After all, we are all mortal. Inspiration is thus, to greater or lesser degrees, a noisy channel for us. So also our moral reasoning is prone to error.
How reliable our perspectives are as a reflection of the underlying truth is fully determined by the amount of error in those perspectives. Unfortunately, we never observe that error. So we will have to make assumptions about how large we expect it to be. Our expectations regarding the magnitude of error for a given person involve two components. The first is bias: over a very large number of independent moral or theological issues, do we expect the person to be correct on average, or is the person’s perspective systematically distorted? For both General Authorities and rank-and-file members, there is good reason to expect some bias. People are products of their time, and that inevitably colors how we think and what we believe. As is well documented, for example, Brigham Young was systematically prone to distort theology and moral decision-making in the direction of denigrating people of African descent. From the perspective of the present, we can recognize that distortion as the bias that it was; at the time, classifying it as systematic error may have been more difficult. No human is ever exempt from these kinds of biases.
The second component of error is variance: even if an individual is correct on average over a large number of independent issues, she may still be off by some extent on any given issue. Variance is related to the average amount that an individual is (randomly, not systematically as with bias) off-target for a given issue.
One of the best available summary measures of error is the “mean squared error,” which is just the sum of the variance and the squared bias for a given individual. If we expect a General Authority to have a smaller mean squared error than we personally believe ourselves to have, and we are forced to choose only one or the other, then it is sensible to prefer his judgment to our own. A General Authority may have smaller mean squared error compared to us for a variety of reasons. He may have the same biases as us but a smaller variance, due either to experience or better inspiration. Or, perhaps, the divine guidance he receives reduces the degree of bias in his judgments and beliefs, compared to our own.
However, it is evident that we have a range of options other than simply accepting our personal perspectives or those of the General Authority. In fact, for a huge range of assumptions about error structure, it is possible to construct a perspective that totally disregards the position of the General Authority but is nonetheless superior to that of the General Authority. Suppose that there is a large group of non-General Authority individuals. Furthermore, suppose that the the difference between the squared average bias among those individuals and the squared bias of the General Authority is not larger than the variance of the General Authority’s error. In this scenario, the simple average of the perspectives of all the non-General Authorities will have effectively zero variance, and will therefore be mathematically preferable to the point of view of the General Authority.
A simple average of all the non-General Authority perspectives and the insights of the General Authority — i.e., a composite position that treats the General Authority as just another voice — will really be no different from the non-General Authority perspective discussed in the previous paragraph. However, if the General Authority is assumed to have unusually low mean squared error, then a weighted average of the General Authority and non-General Authority perspectives may sometimes be better than the General Authority perspective alone, or the simple average of rank-and-file perspectives alone, or (certainly!) our own individual perspective alone. (Mathematically, a large enough sample of rank-and-file perspectives will always, and indeed should always, totally swamp a single General Authority perspective, given the assumption above about biases. But including a higher-quality General Authority perspective may substantially improve a perspective based on an average of a small or moderate number of rank-and-file perspectives.)
It is never wise for us to trust that we individually have the right answer to an important question. But it’s also rarely wise to trust that any other individual has the right answer, either. Safety lies in numbers — in bringing together the insights of many, many people. As Joseph Smith’s revelations teach us,
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.
The Lord’s voice is the Lord’s voice, whether found in the words of canonized texts or the insights of the person sitting next to us in Sunday School. Our best route to truth is to respect our own judgment and inspiration, that of our fellow rank-and-file members ,and that of the General Authorities. Perhaps this is one reason that we worship as a community, rather than solely individually: we need other people, beyond just the leadership in Salt Lake, to find divine truth.