by Zachary Wright
In the last article in this series, we discussed some elementary ideas behind critical thinking. We showed how critical thinking skills like asking questions and evaluating worldviews may help deal with controversial topics behind LDS theology and history. Now, those skills are essential for approaching a controversial topic. Even so, we still have a long way to go to improve our critical thinking skills and achieve our goal to learn “by study and by faith.” That prompts some questions though: What should we be asking questions about? What worldviews can we practice identifying? The short answer to these questions is “You can use these skills on whatever you want,” but to do that, we need to first go over how to evaluate which sources are good and which ones are not. We’ll be focusing on that topic today. Specifically, I’ll be going over what makes a good source in general, what makes a good source from a historical perspective, and then give an example of how I would deal with a historical source. Let’s get into it.
What is a good source?
You may consider this an odd question to ask, but it’s worth diving into for a few reasons. Last time, we talked about how critical thinkers are not just passive consumers of knowledge. Rather, they are active participants in society that are able to use the knowledge they obtain to accomplish their goals and solve problems. However, there’s a lot of information out there, and just as we would want to use the right tool for the right job (Hammer → Nail, Lawn mower → Lawn, etc.), we want to make sure that we use the right information for the right job. In other words, we need good sources to rely on in order to accomplish those tasks. So when I ask “What makes a good source?” What I’m really asking is “How can I determine what sources are going to help me solve a problem?” Let’s explore that topic.
First, a good source has to be in line with the truth, that is, a good source needs to be in line with what occurred in the past, and what’s occurring right now. Now, this presupposes that there is some kind of objective truth. For example, putting aside the efforts of the wonderful editors of this series I work with, I can’t have both written this whole article and not have written this whole article. One of those events had to have occurred: or in other words, one of those things is true, and the other is not. This also works for more theoretical concepts…as long as we both have the same conceptualization of numbers, 2+2 = 4, not 40. This is a presupposition that I’m bringing to the table: There is some kind of measurement that provides us a sufficient level of certainty about something that occurred in the past or does occur now, regardless of whether or not that method is known to us. That was a mouthful, but it roughly means that events happen, and they can be known with decent certainty and accuracy, even if we don’t know how to do that yet. Good sources are in line with reality.
Secondly, the sources need to be applicable to what we are trying to do. There is a lot of information out there for us to consume, but even if it was possible for us to learn all of it (in this life), it is unnecessary and impractical to do so. Some of our problems are far too important and urgent to forego some kind of discerning process when looking at information. For example, I could explain that the Sun is primarily composed of gasses, but that information in itself isn’t going to be very useful when you’re teaching your kids about basic addition. Does that mean that the Sun isn’t made of gasses? Or that I’m lying when I don’t tell people about what the Sun is made of? I would say “No” to that at face value, and I would hope that you would agree with me.
So there we have it, right? A good source is both true and relevant. Well, a critical thinker would rightfully answer “Yes and no.” As I’m about to demonstrate, picking good sources is a process that is much easier said than done. A lot of the time, and for different reasons, the sources that we read aren’t completely objective or aren’t fully comprehensive in their analyses. This is because we are emotional creatures, and all of our experiences are primarily subjective by nature. Consider the following:
“The subjective is characterized primarily by [the] perceiving mind. The objective is characterized primarily by physical extension in space and time. The simplest sort of discrepancy between subjective judgment and objective reality is well illustrated by John Locke’s example of holding one hand in ice water and the other hand in hot water for a few moments. When one places both hands into a bucket of tepid water, one experiences competing subjective experiences of one and the same objective reality. One hand feels it as cold, the other feels it as hot. Thus, one perceiving mind can hold side-by-side clearly differing impressions of a single object. From this experience, it seems to follow that two different perceiving minds could have clearly differing impressions of a single object. That is, two people could put their hands into the bucket of water, one describing it as cold, the other describing it as hot. Or, more plausibly, two people could step outside, one describing the weather as chilly, the other describing it as pleasant.” (1)
I like this explanation because it’s very realistic. Someone who has transferred their hand from ice water to lukewarm water is going to react (and report) differently than someone who just transferred their hand from hot water to lukewarm water. Neither of them is lying in their report, they just are reporting their experience, which is primarily subjective. In this manner, if the source is primarily human experience (which is the significant majority of both historical and theological discourse), then it cannot be purely objective, which makes our job as critical thinkers much more difficult. This, of course, isn’t talking about all the instances where a source can just be wrong, ambiguous, manipulated by bias, or otherwise difficult to deal with. Please don’t misunderstand me though, I’m not saying that we can’t trust anything or anyone, as this would in itself cause problems for our goals of problem-solving. All I’m saying is that there’s no “perfect way” to determine the validity and reliability of a source. In this sense, the trustworthiness of a source is somewhat subjective because we as people value different things, as we have to choose what to listen to and what to not (more on that later). Even so, each of these should be considered when qualifying what makes a “good source”.
The recommendations I’ll make in the upcoming sections about sources are useful and practical guidelines, but this process isn’t a perfect science. There is a bit of subjectivity here, and this is why I dedicated so much of the previous article to being willing to ask questions and challenge assumptions. Those skills come in handy here when it comes to deciding what sources to value and what sources to not. Sometimes, in this process of evaluating sources, we’re going to make mistakes. I urge the reader to make those mistakes early and be patient with themselves as they learn to evaluate sources in a better way.
To wrap up this section, there are a few things that go into what makes a good source or not. As critical thinkers, we should be looking for sources that are both true and useful for our purposes. Furthermore, we should be careful when dealing with sources by acknowledging the imperfections of the writer’s report, both in terms of their bias and potentially incorrect viewpoints, but also acknowledging that they’re imperfect by how they can’t be comprehensive and entirely objective in their analysis. We have to choose what to believe, taking into account the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of each source, and as critical thinkers, we need to choose the “good sources”, or if nothing else, find sources that most closely approximate what is true. How do we do that? Well, let’s examine some principles that might be helpful for looking at historical documents.
Good Historical Sources
Last time, we briefly discussed the historical perspective, and the goals that historians have while trying to work with what people say. To review, good historians strive to construct a cohesive, accurate narrative using records kept by the participants and observers of certain events. How do they do that? There are a lot of great resources out there provided by universities and historians that provide insights as to what criteria make up a “good source” and I’ll be sure to link them below. Some of the criteria we’ll go over here will be ensuring that we try to find sources that are primary, contemporary, have relatively little bias and that the claims that are there are corroborated by other accounts of the event.
A primary source comes from a first-hand witness of the event that occurred. Primary sources may include letters, diaries, minutes, photographs, artifacts, interviews, or anything else that directly comes from someone who actually saw the event with their own eyes (2). These sources are to be differentiated from secondary sources, where an event told by a primary witness is re-explained by someone else who listened to or read what the original witness wrote (3). Now, primary sources have the advantage of having less filtered information, but can often be hefty and difficult to parse through. Many of them have also not been digitized yet and may take more effort to find than many secondary sources (4). Secondary sources often are easier to access and can be more direct than primary sources, but are considered to be less authoritative and authentic (5). In my experience, secondary sources struggle to maintain every detail present in the primary sources and are more susceptible to manipulation than primary sources as a result. It’s important that you make sure that the secondary sources that you use are well-informed and relatively unbiased (6). As you can imagine, there’s a bit of subjectivity here, but generally speaking, primary sources are far more reliable, and provide the most accurate information compared to their non-primary counterparts.
However, critical thinkers can’t stop there when evaluating sources, seeing as the timeliness and contemporaneousness of a source are also important factors that help determine whether a source is good or not. This is likely because the passage of time distorts memory in a variety of ways (7). However, such distortions can be minimized if an event is recorded within a short period of time (the sooner, the better). A diary entry, for example, would have fewer memory distortions than an interview given 30 years after the event occurred. Again, this doesn’t mean that late remembrances should be dismissed altogether, it just means that the critical thinker needs to be more careful when analyzing them, even if they’re dealing with an eyewitness to the alleged event (8).
Relative bias can also play an important role in discerning whether or not the source is reliable or not. We talked a bit about bias in the previous article, and I define bias as being a prioritization of one worldview over the other. No one is completely immune to bias, especially when dealing with controversial topics such as religion or politics. It’s normal to find bias (both positive and negative) in many of the sources that a critical thinker encounters, but extreme bias can either misrepresent information or simply avoid details that may go against what the author says (9). A critical thinker is able to look at the bias of a source, noting if the bias affects the conclusions of the source (10).
Making sure that the claims of a source are corroborated by other sources may also be helpful in establishing a credible source. If you find that multiple sources are affirming the same details of an event, it’s likely that those details did actually occur (11). This aggregation of sources can also provide a broader scope of information that may or may not be contained in a singular source, and also eliminates potential bias (12). Now, this does not mean that sources that have lots of unique material are untrustworthy…it may just mean that they witnessed something that no one else did (as many of us do). Still, corroborating your sources can provide a great deal of strength to support that an event did actually occur.
Much more can be said about how to analyze good sources (for example, we’ll talk about putting sources in their proper context in a future article), but these principles are definitely a good place to start. In short, you just want to make sure that you’re learning about events from people who were actually there, who talked about the events quickly after they happened, who aren’t extremely biased in their views, and that the details of a source are (mostly) corroborated by other sources. As I said before, this isn’t an exact science and it’s likely that the criteria that people use will differ somewhat by the individual. Perhaps some people will care more that a source is early than they’ll care whether or not a source has details that are corroborated in some instances. Still, following these guidelines can help ensure that the sources that we work with are as accurate as possible so that we as critical thinkers can use the information therein to solve problems.
Evaluation in Action
That was a decent amount of content, and I hope I haven’t lost you yet. I wanted to take some time now to show how I would evaluate the validity of a source. Let’s practice with one that I think would be useful: Joseph and Hiel Lewis’ account of how Joseph Smith met Moroni. Consider the following:
“He [Joseph] said that by a dream he was informed that at such a place in a certain hill, in an iron box, were some gold plates with curious engravings, which he must get and translate, and write a book; that the plates were to be kept concealed from every human being for a certain time, some two or three years; that he went to the place and dug till he came to the stone that covered the box, when he was knocked down; that he again attempted to remove the stone, and was again knocked down; this attempt was made the third time, and the third time he was knocked down. Then he exclaimed, “Why can’t I get it?” or words to that effect; and then he saw a man standing over the spot, which to him appeared like a Spaniard, having a long beard coming down over his breast to about here, (Smith putting his hand to the pit of his stomach) with his (the ghost’s) throat cut from ear to ear, and the blood streaming down, who told him that he could not get it alone; that another person whom he, Smith, would know at first sight, must come with him, and then he could get it. And when Smith saw Miss Emma Hale, he knew that she was the person, and that after they were married, she went with him to near the place, and stood with her back toward him, while he dug up the box, which he rolled up in his frock.” (13)
So here, we have a claim that Joseph Smith was actually dealing with a spirit who “appeared as a Spaniard”, whose throat was cut from ear to ear. There are a few historical aspects at play here, chiefly we have Joseph and Hiel Lewis trying to tie Joseph Smith to treasure-digging practices, but let’s look at the claim itself: That Moroni was a mere treasure spirit with bloody features. Is that possible? Well, let’s use the tools we have to analyze the quote in question.
Well, right off the bat this isn’t a primary source. This source is, at best, a second-hand source, seeing as it is someone else describing an experience that someone told them. We can also tell from the date that it was written in April 1879, over 50 years after the events of Moroni’s visit occurred. What about bias, is there bias here? Joseph Lewis was a cousin of Emma Hale, Joseph Smith’s first wife, and was a devout methodist and antagonist of Joseph Smith throughout his life. In that same journal, he accuses Joseph Smith of being a “practicing necromancer”; in other words, Joseph prophesied by communicating with the dead (14). I trust the reader can associate how necromancy would’ve been viewed negatively in the Bible-based culture of 1800s New England, and Joseph and Hiel Lewis didn’t want any association with him for his association with Moroni (15). Do other sources corroborate Joseph and Hiel Lewis’ account? Well, one kind of does…Fayette Lapham reports a story about Moroni having bloody clothes (16), but it suffers from similar problems of being a third-hand, late source with some very incorrect details (17). As we can see, comparing this source by Joseph and Hiel Lewis with the historical criteria outlined in the earlier portions of this paper shows that this source may have some problems with it. It may not mean everything is wrong with it, but it shows that a critical thinker should exhibit serious caution when dealing with the source.
To wrap up the article for this week, it’s clear that there are some sources that are better than others, and that we can have a general idea as to what a good source is and what it is not. First, a good source is one that is both accurate and able to help us answer questions about what we’d like to find out. We can help establish the accuracy of a source by analyzing whether or not it is a primary source, a contemporary source, whether or not it is significantly biased, or whether the details in it are corroborated by other accounts of the event, in spite of the human error that inevitably creeps up in just about every document. While this model isn’t perfect, and there is likely going to be some disagreement about what makes one source better than another, the tools and questions embedded in this model of evaluating sources can help us gain insights into the value of a historical record. Practice using these guidelines as you study LDS theology and history. What you find might just surprise you.
- The Amboy Journal, April 30, 1879
- The Amboy Journal, June 11, 1879
- Introduction to Historical Study I: Analyzing Primary Sources (This is a professor/historian walks through how to analyze primary sources)
- Evaluating Sources: Asking Questions About Sources (This is where Pace University Libary helps walk through how to analyze more modern sources, like websites, news articles, etc.)
- https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2017/02/understanding-church-history-by-study-and-faith?lang=eng (This article by the director of the church’s historical research department is very well done, and provides additional insights that may be useful)
- https://rsc.byu.edu/vol-21-no-3-2020/method-evaluating-latter-day-saint-history (this paper proffers another similar way of evaluating historical information)
- https://www.chicagohistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/QUESTIONS-TO-ASK-OF-YOUR-SOURCES.pdf (this helps provide questions you can ask about sources that may help you make decisions about the source’s validity)
- https://www.carleton.edu/history/resources/history-study-guides/primary/ (This also helps provide insights into what makes a good source)
- https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/ (This is one of the best collections of primary, contemporary sources out there when it comes to LDS history)
Zachary Wright was born in American Fork, UT. He served his mission speaking Spanish in North Carolina and the Dominican Republic. He currently attends BYU studying psychology, but loves writing, and studying LDS theology and history. His biggest desire is to help other people bring them closer to each other, and ultimately bring people closer to God.