ABSTRACT: Eyeballs. Science. News. Revelation/Inspiration, in no particular order.
However, note that we all must question and verify every source of knowledge. For instance, if you hear someone emphasize the word “unbiased” regarding a public-domain news source, you should become deeply suspicious: why would the purveyors feel they even need to say that? If you hear someone making a distinction between science vs. religion, it is usually prima facie evidence that the speaker doesn’t understand either. Our modern social electronic world is as full of nontruth as our world was a thousand years ago – Surprise! Well, what can we do about this? The short answer is that we should start with what we are reasonably certain of.
There are really just four distinct sources of knowledge available to all human beings. By knowledge, in this case I mean information that is true. Just like a thousand years ago, all of them, including our own eyes, must be verified – all of them must be “truthed.” That sometimes requires looking for an underlying motivation behind something that seems… off. Seems wrong.
The first source of information for all of us starting with infancy is our own eyes and our own ears: direct observation. This seems simple, but it is very important for two reasons: First, because we compare or scale all other sources of information against what we are certain we know. And second, because witness rules and procedures in courts of law make it clear that we cannot always rely on eyewitnesses. Or even our eyes. As Richard Pryor said, “Do you believe me – or your stinkin’ eyes?!??” We should at least think about what we saw with our eyes; quite a few innocent men have been executed because of faulty or biased eye-witness reporting. There is a compelling reason why any good scientist takes copious notes of her/his observations – our memories are the weak link here, not our eyes.
Let’s begin by considering in detail the first source of knowledge: our own personal observation. It is very rare in science to be able to conduct direct observation, believe it or not. If it were easy, the Greeks, Maya, Chinese, and others without instrumentation would have already answered all our scientific questions. Examples include the fact that the Earth is not flat; Greeks by the 5th century BC noticed a curved shadow on the Moon during Lunar eclipses, and even reported an observation of sunlight penetrating to the bottom of a well in Southern Egypt – and noting that it didn’t do this in Greece. Eratosthenes is believed to be the first person to determine the size of the Earth – through measurement – in the 2nd century BC. A century later, Posidonius, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, calculated the circumference of the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon. Greek observational science was not perfect, however: even Aristotle, revered for millennia as a brilliant scientist, thought hummingbirds did not have feet. Really.
Now let’s consider a second source: science. In order to “do” science, we must depend in almost all cases on indirect observation through carefully controlled experiments, and then the use of inductive and deductive reasoning. A rare exception from my personal life: I was in Northern Saudi Arabia after one of the terrible seasonal sandstorms called a Shamaal. There was so much dust in the air that initially we could not even land at the town of ‘Ar-‘Ar – the pilot could not see the ground! Many hours later, after waiting at a Saudi military airbase to the west in Tobuk, we returned and started our borehole logging experiments. I was leading this effort to determine if we could indirectly map the huge phosphate deposits in the region using caliper and gamma-ray logging. Late that first afternoon, I realized that with my unprotected eyes I could see a huge sunspot cluster on the upper left quadrant of the setting Sun. I diagrammed it in my field notebook. I did this again the second day, missed the third day for some reason, but got it again the fourth day. I realized that with direct personal observation – with my own eyes – I could determine the axis of the Sun with respect to where I was standing, and its approximate rotation rate at the equator (I roughly calculated at least 20 days – it’s actually 27 at the Sun’s equator). In my internet research, I do not see any evidence that the ancient Greeks, Chinese, or Maya were able to do this. I saw this with my own eyes and recorded it. I know it absolutely to be true.
For the purposes of the following discussion, you do not need a science degree or even use the word “science” if you are talking about sources of verifiable information guiding you. You could say “knowledge” or “data” or “understanding” when it comes to explaining what you are reasonably certain is correct based on the reliability of the source. I carefully added that qualifier “reasonably” to that sentence – because much “information” available in the public domain is not fact-based. Someone just pulled it out of their ear and yelled loudly about it to get advertising credits. It’s a sleazy business model: to monetize anger. It has also led to the unnecessary deaths of many mentally susceptible people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Elsewhere I have made a separate distinction between truth, and Truth – the latter with a capital “T” – to distinguish between information that is ephemeral, and information that will not be revised in the future but is always that same information. The Sun will rise tomorrow, for instance, though you may not see it. Also, the nature or existence of God is something that should be unchanging, essentially by definition. It really should not be something that changes with temporary human fashion or culture or group opinion-swings. Fundamentally, if there is a Creator God, and He isn’t just a Transcendent God but an Imminent God who cares about His creations, then He should, by definition, be far beyond our comprehension. Similarly, the detailed evolution of the universe around us is permanently beyond our comprehension, though as scientists we get tiny, enthralling glimpses of it. We just do not have the wherewithal in the way of synapses to encompass a full understanding of either. To suppose otherwise is an incredibly arrogant assumption that implies that we are equivalent to God or the Universe.
I will here also make a distinction here between short-term correct information (for instance, a weather report) and long-term correct information. The latter I will call Important Information. By this I mean long-term things, things that you would consider or think about if you or a loved one are/is approaching the end of life, for instance. Weather reports are an important source of useful information that we often consider as we go about our daily lives. My wife and I drove through a Sky River on November 12, 2021 – we had not checked the weather reports – and it was terrifying. The time scale is important here, however. On November 9, 2021, there were gale warnings for Port Townsend, WA, which we were visiting. The next day it was calm and sunny in Port Townsend. However, a weather report is well below the threshold of Important Information in terms of what is meaningful ten years from now – or 100 years from now. Is something important to you – or even relevant – 100 years from now? If so, then it fits in the category of Important Information.
Let’s continue to consider science as a source of information to help guide our decisions, and improve our lives. In science we acquire data, but we must also process and interpret it – data generally don’t explain themselves to the non-specialist – and then report our findings. As scientists, we think through our research results carefully, and then decide what it means. I’ve published over 300 books, maps, and scientific papers while working as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey – and they all must go through technical review. This means that at least two other people – whom I do not choose – must read through my draft papers and vet them for consistency and correct logic. A science manager then reads through all the reviews and the revised draft to make sure that the final result is true. Do cigarettes improve your digestion after a big meal? That was the public consensus until 1965. By then however, enough data had been gathered to make a reliable interpretation that no, the cigarette company ads were incorrect at best. By 1965 science knew that any benefits beyond addiction-management were outweighed by the irreparable damage that cigarettes did to your lungs, your heart, your face, and your brain.
But for scientific data to be reliable, you must first ascertain that you have enough of it to even make a judgement or interpretation in the first place. In science, this is called the sampling number, or “n” in an experimental investigation. A single experiment with a binary outcome (for instance just a yes or no) on a single parameter is not science. One of my uncles chain-smoked for 85 years and lived to the age of 97. That’s just a single data-point in a nicotine-benefits study. The second-hand smoke gave his mother-in-law, my grandmother, terminal lung cancer by age 88, however. These are just TWO data-points, and there are a lot of additional unseen variables.
You need a large enough “n” to even carry out a reasonable statistical analysis of the data you acquire. A state-level cancer dataset would qualify. Which state has the lowest numbers of cancer deaths overall, for instance? Would you be surprised to learn that it is Utah (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/cancer_mortality/cancer.htm)? Then can you suggest why? This raises an even more fundamental issue, however: is something even testable or “experimentable” in the first place? The philosopher Carl Popper (1902-1994) gave to the world the concept of “falsifiability”: can something even be tested in the first place? The existence of a God, the existence of a multiverse, what preceded the Big Bang, why is the Anthropic Principle… these are not things that can be tested in the ordinary meaning of a scientific investigation. These belong in another domain sometimes called meta philosophy: sort of thinking about philosophy. They are just big ideas that make us feel warmly smug that we can think about them, but otherwise (unless there is an application) they are useless to humans and their well-being. These things constitute Important Information, but science cannot help us here.
The concepts of a large enough sample (that “n” number), along with falsifiability, are profoundly important. But there is another almost hidden issue: any large number of data points will always include noise: systemic noise, random noise, instrumental noise, as well as experimental design biases. There is no such thing as a perfect experimental approach, no matter what some NSF grant proposal might assert. In a simplest case example, let’s consider a single variable set, for instance adult height vs. weight. In simplest form, this can be represented as y = a + b*x. The variable “a” is how much one weighs when X (one’s height) is zero – and is just included for general completeness here. One would think that the result would be a straight (upward-tilting) line, but we’ve all seen skinny and obese individuals, so it’s more complicated than that. Data points collected can easily be scattered all over an X-Y graph. If you have sufficient data, there will be data points that are “outliers” – well off the beaten path of what we think might be reasonable results. This could be a morbidly obese individual or someone suffering from anorexia. If there are enough sample points, we can do a quick statistical analysis and determine if a suspicious point is more than, say, two standard deviations away from the average trend of the rest of the data. Some immature scientists might even just discard a data point that they don’t “like” – but this becomes “cherry picking” and is no longer science. That scientist has introduced a new variable – personal sampling bias – into the data analysis.
We can arbitrarily decide to throw out data points on a graph that lie more than two standard deviations away from the rest of the data… but this is an arbitrary decision also. Why not one standard deviation? Or three? Depending on how we carry out one of these arbitrary data-discard exercises, a “regression” – drawing a line (generally but not necessarily straight) through the data-points on that simplest X-Y graph – could tilt the function curve upwards (increasing weight with increasing height) or downwards (decreasing weight with increasing height). In this example (see figure 1) I am only talking about a very simple, two-variable system. You can represent it on a 2D graph, on a single piece of paper.
Another simple example from our recent trip to the Hoh Rainforest: How many seagulls show up if I throw crackers out into a parking lot in Forks, WA? This seems like an example of a simple scientific experiment. Or is it? Perhaps the final greatest problem with any scientific experiment is to isolate variables. Dependent variables are the nightmare of any scientific study. Toss out too many crackers and all sorts of birds (and perhaps squirrels) will show up, for instance. Throwing out just saltine crackers only, where a Western Gull only is likely to see it, is a personal experimental design bias in the form of several assumptions that may not be justified. Are there crows or scrub jays around? How would I even know that since they generally don’t want to be seen? These are examples of hidden, or missed, or dependent variables. When there is a lot of “scatter” in experimental data it almost always means that there are additional variables or biases affecting our data – complicating things that we may not even realize are there. Gravity, or wind, perhaps in this case. Different bird types that we do not see, perhaps. Some weirdness or blind spot in our data-collection system, or our electronic recording devices, or the species of surrounding trees, even. A more accurate solution could be a 4-D (or 19-D) graph (figure 1).
Related to this is the issue of accuracy vs. precision. If I keep shooting arrows at a target and they consistently land around a single point on the ground, well, I have precision here. If they end up consistently in the center of the target, then this is accuracy. Precision or repeatability in measurements or data-gathering does not lead to Important Information, because the results may not be correct. The trick, then, is to assess accuracy.
Figure 1. Regression analysis involves fitting a straight line (or sometimes a simple curved function) to a scatterplot of data. One or two noisy data-points can dramatically shift the result. Image from Gonick & Smith (1993), "The cartoon guide to Statistics" Collins Reference.
All of this is a long way around saying that science is always imperfect, just like news (see figure 2). Science is a growing, organic thing, very dependent on human or data-gathering limitations, and biases. Science must be constantly tested, self-checked, and compared against older data – and technically reviewed. Those who worship science as the be-all, end-all of creation, do so at great personal risk. This actually has a name: it’s called Scientism. Another way of putting this: you think you’re smarter than the universe.
As an example of how this imperfect scientific process might affect our very lives and health, consider the science we all saw unfolding in how to deal with the SARS-COV-19 virus in 2020-2021. The virus in its many manifestations, social contexts and variables including different spike proteins, social isolation, age, health, and the wealth of human victims is an experimental scientific nightmare. Stopping the Pandemic so far still seems so… incomplete... after nearly two years of evolving and expensive medical and governmental responses to it. Grotesquely amateur political interference made things worse, of course, but the nature of science is that there are always too many variables and internal biases to realistically take them all into account.
In a way, the progression of data-gathering, and the evolving analyses we’ve seen during the Covid-19 Pandemic are characteristic of the very nature of good science: it is a growing, evolving thing. It is being conducted by very fallible human beings but keeps getting better. Science is approaching the Correct Answer(s), and every month the recommendations are more reliable, more useful. Masks? Different vaccines? Boosters? Lockdowns? Confronting self-serving, deliberate misinformation? These changing issues are just science happening in public view, self-correcting (ideally) and advancing in the right direction (hopefully). To make the assumption that an early interpretation of that data must never change is unrealistic – and profoundly uninformed. Science approaches truth as a final product. Except in very limited and simple systems, it never actually quite gets there. It’s far better than rabid, uninformed opinion, however. It’s like the famous Winston Churchill quote:
“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” – Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947
Let’s next consider sources of publicly available knowledge – the hope here is that all the research has already been done for us. Let’s start with, ahem, “news.” Many consider the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal to be reliable sources of information. There are some people who prefer Fox or InfoWars or MSNBC or the Daily Kos as their source of information because it complements something that they already believe to be true or correct (usually of a political nature). In logic, this is called a “confirmation bias.” In some cases, it is the akin to pouring gasoline on a dangerous fire.
The Pew Charitable Trust finances studies on polling and biases. It has had an unbiased reputation itself for decades because it is in their mission statement to avoid bias. Ad Fontes (“to the source”) is related and does the same. They are both careful in their assessments, and deliberately apolitical. Pew ranks the NYTimes and the Associated Press as sources of reliable facts and information. It considers Fox News, and especially InfoWars and the Daily Kos, to be well outside of a green box (below) surrounding what Pew considers reliable sources of data, and far to the right or left politically. In other words, Fox, InfoWars, and the Daily Kos are not sources of reliable information according to Pew, but sources of wildly skewed opinion that is generally not fact-based. Fox TV personalities, for instance, rail against vaccines on air. Yet it is established fact that every one of them is vaccinated. There are sources on both ends of the political spectrum that Pew and Ad Fontes consider to be unreliable (figure 2).
Figure 2. Ranking of news sources according to political bias and reliability. The green box is the place to trust. The orange, and especially the red boxes, include sources to avoid if truth is important to you. Image from Ad Fontes Media, Inc. (2018).
In general, we should carefully avoid basing major life decisions (like vaccination) on anything political and/or not fact-based – on sources outside the Green Box in the figure above.
Now let’s take a significant jump and consider a fourth source of information: revelation. Another way to say this: otherwise-unexplainable information from a completely outside source, a Source we may already realize is committed to not violating our personal agency so usually doesn’t explain itself. We all know examples of people who somehow “know” something important without an obvious reason why. In one type of example, we even have a name for this: a mother’s intuition. My own mother once put my baby sister in a highchair out in the backyard of our house. She wanted Barb to get fresh air and sunlight (before UVA/UVB was understood to contribute to skin cancers). Suddenly (I remember this) she rushed out of the house. She said later that she had a “bad feeling” about the baby being out there but didn’t understand why. As she picked up the baby and started to dismantle the highchair to bring it back inside, she saw something move on the underside of the table part: a huge black widow spider. It had been within centimeters of my little sister’s legs.
Unexplainable, outside source, un-asked-for information.
Two Different Depths
An analysis of revelation as a source of Important Information must be done at two separate depths or scales: personal revelation, and revelation at a much larger scale: from someone we implicitly or explicitly trust. This could be a parent, a teacher, a prophet (ancient or modern). If you are paying tithing, it strongly implies a belief and acceptance in a prophet or leader of a church as a reliable source of truthful information and guidance. I personally know people who fiercely object to vaccines and masks, though they claim to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ and say that they follow its prophet. If you don’t agree with that leader on, say, vaccination or masks, and you still pay tithing and attend that Church, then you are suffering a serious rational disconnect in your life. This is the equivalent of gross hypocrisy in conversation – or even schizophrenia. What else don’t you agree with him on?
Reading Scriptures & Prayer
Perhaps the most consistent way to receive personal revelation is by reading the scriptures, and in personal prayer. It’s unsurprising that prophets for millennia have encourage the human family to study the scriptures available to it. There is a downside to this approach, however: the revelation you want may not be the revelation you get. If you do as modern prophets have suggested – “search the scriptures” – instead of just reading them from start to finish, you may be able to improve the efficiency of the want/get convergence here. Of course, if you have not read the Standard Works through a few times already, you won’t really have any idea what to even search for, Topical Guide notwithstanding.
There is another issue here that is perhaps the most important of all: being in tune. In short, worthiness is critical. Years ago, I worked with Venezuelan geology teams in the deep jungle of the Amazonas Territory (now Amazonas State). It was incredibly dangerous, where things like Bushmaster snakes were the least of our worries. One Venezuelan friend fell on his machete and sliced open his right radial artery. The USGS geologist that I had assigned to work with Henry said he saw a 2-meter spurt of arterial blood shooting out. He managed to stop the bleeding and together they called for an emergency medevac on their HF camp radio. There was someone listening on the frequency we used, and that someone called for a rescue helicopter. Henry Sanchez lost perhaps a third of his blood (he went into shock if he wasn’t upside down in the aircraft) but he lives in Tucson today. Another American scientist working in a different jungle camp came back to our base a week later and told me that they could listen to the rescue, but that their radio could not transmit. Gary had no idea that Henry had even survived. This is a long way of saying that you need a means to communicate that works in both directions, you need to have someone listening, both ways, and you need to be using the right frequency.
In the radio world there is a lot of information floating out there. You must tune into the transmission you seek. If you are not in tune with the Holy Ghost, because you are living a lifestyle dissonant with Him, then you can’t really expect that He will be terribly encouraged to even deal with you. You are not working on the same frequency. You cannot just yell “SAVE ME!” Or perhaps say, “I really like that flashy car – I need it. What? Well, no, I don’t have money – I don’t even have a job! You, God (somehow) owe it to me.” This sort of discordant thinking almost never works, the Prodigal Son being a notable (and for many of us, encouraging) exception.
You must also consider the data reliability issue for personal revelation, just like in science, news, and even personal observation. Revelation must be testable, and this part can be frustrating because the process takes a long time to verify. Here there is yet another advantage to arriving at an advanced age. If you have received “understandings” (or whatever you wish to call them), and they are self-consistent and pan out over time, then you will have steadily increasing confidence in those understandings – revelations – if they arrive the same way. You have a growing database, so to speak. This often means in my personal experience that you are not thinking about the subject when the understanding arrives. With age, you will begin to note that the understanding or revelation does not even come into your mind in English or whatever language you tend to think in… but arrives as an instantaneous understanding. More commonly, the understanding is just a peaceful feeling in the midst of a personal disaster or general chaos. This even has a specific name: “The peace that surpasseth understanding.” I first experienced this after I had passed the written physics qualification exam at the University of Illinois, an exam to decide if you could go on to work on a PhD. That year, however (1970) there were over 1,500 graduating physics PhDs – and available jobs for just 236 of them in the United States. It’s amazing how I can still remember those specific numbers, many years later. The University of Illinois had decided to drastically cut back on their physics graduate student population: the post-atomic-bomb era was officially over: the country no longer needed hundreds of thousands of physics PhD’s. So, the Physics department that year added an oral component to the Quals, as we called them. This I failed miserably, meaning that I could not stay at the university beyond that semester. I faced a real personal disaster that also affected my wife, who had a year to go to finish her BA degree. As we stared into the sunset through the window of our little apartment, however, I had an incredible feeling of peace, of not-to-worry. This, I now realize, comes from the Atonement. Peace that mitigates suffering. That sense of peace is always remarkably devoid of details – it “…surpasseth understanding.” In other words, it usually makes no logical sense. Only four years later did I finally understood that sense of peace.
It works. It’s very real. I’ve experienced it many times.
Less commonly, a revelatory understanding arrives with very specific information. In another personal example, which happened on June 7, 1995, the message to me arrived at the most comically illogical time. It came in the middle of a contentious meeting between the Saudi Deputy Ministry for Mineral Resources, the US Geological Survey, and the French counterpart of the USGS in Jeddah called the Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières. Angry words were being exchanged and I was just keeping my head low to avoid being drawn into what I had earlier realized was just another example of Saudi paranoia… but which my French colleagues had yet to realize was not even a rational discussion. Suddenly, a diamond-hard, instantaneous understanding hit me. The message: “The time to leave Saudi Arabia is in October – Do not worry about this. This is in answer to your prayers for the past 18 months concerning your wife’s declining health.” When this bright and very sharp understanding arrived, I nearly fell out of my tilted-back chair.
I walked home and unpacked that understanding, converting it to English to share with my wife. To us it made no sense initially… because our children would normally start school in August. This particular revelation arrived four months before our departure from the Magic Kingdom, as we called it. Months later we realized that the specific timing saved me from a Reduction in Force in the US Geological Survey… that took place with almost no warning in August 1995. It also meant that one son could finish his senior year in his Swiss boarding school, and not in a Virginia high school where he knew no one. He ended up totally fluent in French as a result. Five hours after that revelation arrived, I learned that the Saudi Deputy Minister had sent an order down through the chain of command: “Order Jeff Wynn to stop practicing his religion.” From the context, I realized that the Mutawa, the Saudi religious police, had been following us to our at-that-time-illegal Church house-meetings on Fridays.
This was actually part of a larger Kabuki Theater exercise where an Assistant Deputy Minister was trying to mess with the mind of the Deputy Minister – whose job he wanted. However, that Deputy Minister was not stupid, and had already anticipated that his deputy would trigger a mass arrest of the LDS people in Jeddah at that time. This would have meant that half our Jeddah Ward population – Filipino brothers and sisters – would have been beaten and then deported with a massive loss of an annual income. However, with five hours of warning, I was prepared. When I got the Stop Practicing Your Religion message, I immediately offered my resignation from the USGS mission to Saudi Arabia… and requested reassignment to my former job in the United States. About 40% of the USGS Geologic Division was RIF’d in August 1995, and I returned in October.
To recap the revelatory patterns: revelation usually but not always arrives unbidden, though you may have been thinking and praying about the subject off and on for months or even years beforehand. It arrives sometimes as a profoundly peaceful feeling that makes absolutely no sense considering the circumstances. Sometimes it arrives as a sharp, clear, instantaneous Understanding that must be unpacked and converted to English in order to share it with others.
When you find yourself suffering through one of the many Bad Times in your life, be prepared: sometimes it takes 2 – 4 years to even see the Light at the End of the Tunnel. Pain and sadness don’t turn off like a faucet with a magical prayer. I got my PhD in Geosciences with an Electrical Engineer as a thesis advisor four years after failing the physics oral qualifying exam in Illinois. It was in a different field (I became a geologist, geophysicist, hydrologist and oceanographer, with publications in astrophysics and archaeology). It opened up huge opportunities for my family – they have all lived in multiple countries on diplomatic passports and are all multi-lingual.
Sometimes revelation arrives in response to prayers about how to fulfill an aspect of a Church calling – it usually arrives as a quiet, clear idea about what to do. When this fourth and most common revelation happens, it almost always arrives for me, at least, as a clear understanding before I can even kneel down to pray for help… and I generally smile, get down on my knees anyway, and just say thanks.
Thus, knowledge comes to us, imperfect human beings, in at least four different ways, with many variants and complexities in each of the ways or sources. I think it’s reasonable to say that there are probably as many variants as we are each different people. Note, however, that if we don’t make a sincere effort to verify – truth out – our sources of knowledge, we run the risk of making life-changing decisions based on incorrect information, decisions that we may regret.
If not done carefully, we could regret those decisions forever.