The Observer Effect Applied to Church Doctrine and Conference Talks

We’re really glad to have Kacy Faulconer back with us, in time for General Conference.

Writing about something helps me figure out what I think about it. More specifically, figuring out what I want to write about something is usually a good way to think more carefully about it. You know how it is in an English class when you get assigned to write a paper on the role of the hero in contemporary children’s literature and you find out—when you dig into writing this paper—that you think Professor Snape is the true hero of the Harry Potter series. Or something like that.

For sure, writing is a useful tool in exploring ideas.

But there’s a different kind of writing that is less careful and, I would argue, a less productive way to process ideas. It’s the kind of writing that sometimes happens when I’m looking for blog fodder. I skim and scan and just look for headlines I can react to. I don’t always write like this, but I have written like this. So I know how it feels. Because I write a lot about parenting I can tell when I’m doing something with my kids just so I can write about it. Maybe you’ve done something similar: Ever worked a bit harder on your dinner presentation because you’re planning to Instagram it? We all do it. It’s part of living with social media. But sometimes it feels gross and I know it’s not the right way to approach, for example, parenting my children.

I’m also not sure it’s the right way to approach the gospel. Don’t get me wrong. I live-tweet General Conference. I blog and post and Instagram my church activities and make jokes and am sometimes even irreverent. I think social media is as good a place as any to do missionary work, to discuss the gospel, to reach out to like-minded people, to be validated, to pick fights, or to do whatever we need it to do. I also think the Spirit can be present (or absent) in an online setting. I’ve certainly read or watched things online that ring with a spirit of truth and inspire me. I’m not advocating a separation of church and Slate.

But I do feel that our understanding of spiritual things—talks, for example, suffer when we read them looking for something to blog about. And I think that happens often, with more and more frequency.

The observer effect is a scientific term that refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. Something akin to the observer effect happens when you approach material with the intent to blog about it. I know from experience that if I go to my kids’ kindergarten graduation thinking I’m going to write an outrageous post about it I will experience the event differently. Nothing, necessarily, wrong with that but you can get into a place where you are exploiting something to further your agenda. Sometimes it’s harmless.Sometimes it results in super clickable blog posts.

Church talks and doctrine can hold its own online. I’m not saying this in defense of, for example, Bonnie Oscarson’s talk. I heard it and it meant something to me. I latched on to different parts of the talk than other people have latched on to, as is our inalienable right to do, AMIRIGHT?

Sister Oscarson’s admonition to men and children as well as women to be homemakers struck me as quite groundbreaking and wonderful. It speaks to personal things that I think and wonder about. I don’t love how it feels to hear that someone else hated her talk and thinks she’s unhelpful and bad, even though I understand it is their prerogative to do so. Part of why I don’t like how it feels is because I know Sister Oscarson personally (not to brag or name drop, but I do happen to know her) and I consider her not just a really cool lady but one of our (and by “our” I mean forward thinking, fair-minded women) best allies among the general authorities. When I hear her speak I listen with charity because I know and like her. As a result, I heard something inspiring in her talk.

There’s a little lesson here for me because among church speakers I certainly have my favorites. And I listen with much less charity to my not-so favorites. Extending this charitable reading and listening beyond those I know and like personally might make a difference in my study of the gospel (and in my life in general) and could help explain the phrase that Henry B. Eyring says he still doesn’t comprehend the full meaning of, depicted on a pin his mother wore, “Charity never faileth.”

But beyond giving speakers the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to be more thoughtful in my approach to spiritual things. I’m going to be careful about listening to conference in that mindset of trying to find some blog fodder. It’s contrary to everything I’ve ever learned about religious study. The whole search, ponder, and pray technique leaves NO ROOM for funny Facebook statuses, AMIRIGHT? But probably it’s a better way to get serious questions answered.

So you’ll see me on Twitter with one-liners and tie jokes. Of course you will! But I’m going to approach what I hear with the discipline to listen, rather than skim, and to be open to the spirit, rather than on the lookout for hot-button issues. At my core, I’m Mulder. I want to believe. Approaching spiritual matter with time and careful thought might leave me with nothing outrageous to blog about, but it is to my own benefit and enrichment.

“Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

I’m going to do everything I can to help thou help mine unbelief. Bring it, Boyd K. Packer.

*I realize I just said all of this in a blog. That’s Schrodinger’s cat for you.


  1. Kacy, you’re giving voice to something that has been weighing heavily on my mind lately. Thank you for this.

  2. You had me at “separation of church and Slate”, but you really sold me when I realized what an uncommonly thoughtful, challenging, and charitable post you’ve written. Truly, thanks so much for this!

  3. I thought about that too. Being able to tweet about/during Conference with an official hashtag is pretty cool, but letting it become the center of your Conference experience would probably make it… less edifying than it could be. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Paul Reeve says:

    Thank you for such a balanced and thoughtful approach.

  5. Jason K. says:

    I’ll also join the chorus praising this excellent post.

  6. “best allies among the general authorities”

    So who are you allied against then?

  7. Thank you. I’ve noticed myself having a harder time accepting the good counsel that is given at GC because I was concentrating too much on the weird stuff that bothered me–because it’s so much easier for me. But that’s just me being a lazy thinker, and I resolve to do better.

  8. I really like this post. Can someone make a meme poster of it for me to distribute on fb? I’m thinking of the phrase “Defending the Family Against the Observer Effect” superimposed over an image of the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg from Great Gatsby.

  9. it's a series of tubes says:

    Excellent post. Thank you for these thoughts.

  10. Aces, aces.

  11. Oh, yay, you’re back! This is excellent. Fresh and inspiring. And I like what Layne said ^^^up there. If we sit down to conference waiting to be offended, making notes and posts about the offense and other uncool stuff, we miss out on so much good. And now Ima subscribe to your twitter feed.

  12. nice to read some clear headed maturity once in a while. Thank you.

  13. This is one of the best things I’ve read lately. Thanks for your thoughts on this. It reminds me of some of the ideas in President Uchtdorf’s talk “Lord, Is it I?” We can get a lot more out talks if we are using them as a way to continually repent and take the beam out of our own eyes.

    While I like social media and online blogs a lot I worry about its effects on us. I talk about it with my high school students a lot. It has a tendency to gratify our pride and our vain ambition if we aren’t careful with how its used. It’s an easy way to try and satisfy our desire for attention. Blogging can be a great thing but it has its landmines to avoid.

    It also reminds me of Sean Penn’s character on the “Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. He’s a photo journalist always seeking the best photographs but when a picture that he had been seeking shows up he chooses not to take it so that he can “live in the moment” and experience it for himself.

  14. Carrie Ann says:

    Kacy, I’m a fan of your thought process and your restraint. People can like or dislike whatever or whomever they wish, but I appreciate your efforts to examine your personal motives. I can relate. I stopped blogging years ago and stopped offering to photograph friends’ weddings because I found I could not fully enjoy the experience if I was observing too closely or looking for an angle in order to find “material”.

    In response to Sister Oscarson’s talk specifically, I too heard something “groundbreaking” and elevating, and was surprised by the “bandwagon” backlash. But we all know, you get more hits being controversial. So I was happy to find other progressive Mormon women who caught the vision.

    As I continue to enjoy social media and the thoughts and views of a diverse group of contributors, this post will remind me to look for and recognize substance and tune out the obvious self-promotion and the desperation for hits.

  15. “Sister Oscarson’s admonition to men and children as well as women to be homemakers struck me as quite groundbreaking and wonderful.”

    This is something that really struck with me as well.

  16. Even though I tweet through events, esp #ldsconf or church, I try to keep my heart open for what I need to hear. This is a good reminder. Every #ldsconf can be difficult but I always find in there somewhere a message delivered straight to my heart. Like when I meet with priesthood holders, I recently renewed my TR and despite my issues with the institutional organization, I can testify of the Spirit felt there while receiving counsel from my leaders who hold priesthood keys. Look for the uplifting. Thank you!

  17. Marilyn Bonnett says:

    Thanks, Kacy! Very well said! Too often we do listen not with the Spirit, but with the intent to “tell a story” to others and not just on social media! We do it all the time and you’re correct that we do miss gaining the spiritual message Heavenly Father intended for us to receive. I plan to listen to conference this weekend with a different perspective as well!

  18. Thank you Kacy for your thoughtful post.
    I felt uplifted after last weeks Women’s session. I thought it was one of the best meetings I had attended in a whille. (and then I had to do some soul searching to figure out why I had not liked the last couple of meetings, and I realized I had finally changed my attitude about taking my young daughter with me. I had not been a fan of the 8 and up change.)
    I realized how much my attitude influenced what I took away from the meeting. I went ready to be taught and spiritually fed and I was! I think that is why I was saddened by negative comments I read online.
    Thank you for the suggestion to listen to our not as favorite speakers with charity. I will be applying it as I listen to conference in the future.

  19. Our religious heritage challenges us to be both institution-members and thought-leaders. It’s easy to slide to either extreme: 1) the convenience of absolute conformity; or 2) the thrill of rebellion. Neither extreme is where I want to be.

  20. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Kacy.

  21. I miss living in your ward. You and Christian are just the right kind of people.

  22. As one who found certain parts of said conference talk disagreeable, I find your thoughts an important consideration. Well done.

  23. Job's Second Friend says:

    Excellent, thank you.

  24. I really appreciated these words. Thank you!

  25. I’m reminded of a phrase from the opening of Chaim Potok’s _My Name Is Asher Lev_:

    “The fact is that gossip, rumors, mythmaking, and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a causal chain…”

    But this piece is more hopeful than Potok’s novel, I think. Maybe with observers committed to charitable and careful readings the problems of religious experience as news event can be avoided and the promise of participatory media better fulfilled.

  26. Mama Lynnie says:

    Thank you, Kacy! This is both beautiful and insightful.

  27. Thanks for this, Kacy. And JTB’s comments. I loved Pres. Oscarson and was out off by much of the language she used (except the homemaking stuff that was exactly the kind of thing I think we could fruitfully work on). And I was disenchanted with myself for being put off and tired of being weary of GC language that doesn’t match my own little particular favorites. I came out of the meeting determined to pray more to become more charitable and believing. And your post was the perfect and insightful reminder.

  28. Sidebottom says:

    I get what you’re trying to say, but it insinuates that ‘listening charitably’ means that the listener is not allowed to disagree with the style or substance of the talk being given. In my own life, my most negative reactions to conference talks came during my missionary service – when I was perhaps at my most teachable. I agree with the suggestion above that we should look inward when we have a negative response to a conference talk, but we should also accept that the answer to the question “Is it I?” might well be “no.”

  29. Listening charitably might mean “not allowed to disagree,” but it could also mean that you accept an obligation to at least imagine what positive motives might lead someone to say something you disagree with, or to engage with the fairest or even strongest version of an offending phrase rather than the most easily mocked/attacked.

  30. sidebottom says:

    Sure, but it also means assuming positive motives for the “angry blogger” rather than assuming that they were looking for blog fodder.

  31. Where does this author mention an “angry blogger”? This seems like a pretty charitable read of any other post that was critical of a general conference talk.

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