Guest Post: An Invitation for Meg Stout

An active LDS reader sent me this, as he was frustrated in not being allowed to respond over on Millennial Star. As I’ve mentioned, I have a very open comments policy: I don’t block anything that isn’t spam, obscene, or grossly insulting to other commenters (obviously, people are quite free to insult me at any time, and they do.)

I’m continually impressed with the education, wisdom, and intellect of people who read this blog. I think Millennial Star missed out in not posting this. But, I need to make clear that I did not write this post, I don’t take any credit for it, and the opinions expressed are its author’s.

An Invitation to Meg Stout

On her blog, Meg recently posted an essay, “Joseph’s Wives – an Algorithm,” which was in response to something I said to her first in a private email discussion, and then again publicly in the comments on John’s blog.

TDLR: Sexless marriage arguments based on lack of DNA-proven children are weak and need a probabilistic model to become persuasive. Meg’s algorithm/model isn’t; it’s junk science, a table of made-up numbers that mean nothing. If she would like assistance with the math, formulating a real model, happy to help.

Context

First I should set the context for all this. By email Meg said to me:

Yeah, Hales and the Prices aren’t known as the most objective historians. As for me, I went into my journey presuming that Joseph had been a full-blooded sexual partner to many of his wives. But it was the scientific data that persuaded me that he likely wasn’t.

Quick aside: For those unfamiliar, she is referring to Ugo Perego, an LDS biologist, who has tried to find children fathered by Joseph Smith through DNA analysis. So far, no conclusive DNA proof has been found which links Joseph to any of the children born to his polygamous wives.

My response to this was:

As I understand it the DNA evidence hasn’t ruled out Joseph having fathered any children, it simply hasn’t been able to prove that he conclusively did. A notable data point but I don’t really find this very persuasive. It’s not evidence of absence. We could speculate quite a large number of good reasons why there aren’t any children. Actually, I think in terms of probability it’s unlikely Joseph would have gotten many, if any, of his plural wives pregnant.

Meg then said to me:

The instances that can be tested have all yielded proof that Joseph could not have been the father except for the case of Josephine Lyons, where the data makes Joseph’s paternity unlikely but not conclusively disproved (Josephine’s descendants have common ancestry with Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr.). There is a reason Sylvia Lyons would have told Josephine Joseph was her father, which I have laid out. Ugo Perego is attempting to definitize that answer one way or the other.

It isn’t just Joseph. None of the polygamists in Nauvoo produced children with plural wives prior to Joseph’s death except:

Joseph Bates Noble (child born in Feb 1844)
William Clayton (child born in Feb 1844)

Things are starting to get interesting at this point. She’s arguing that not only did Joseph not father any children, but neither did any of the other polygamists. This is something I had never heard before. What’s interesting about this to me is that, if true, I think this would undermine her scientific evidence and underlying argument that the relationships didn’t involve sexual relations based on the lack of children.

I responded to this argument by saying:

I’m not sure some of your claims can be made. You say, “It isn’t just Joseph. None of the polygamists in Nauvoo produced children with plural wives prior to Joseph’s death except:” What you really mean is, “Other than this guy and that guy, we don’t have hard evidence to conclusively prove that any of the other polygamist unions produced children.” These are two very different statements.
For the lack of children, or more correctly the lack of proof of children, to be a persuasive argument, one would have to prove that children should be expected in the first place. Which hasn’t been done.

For instance, women have a relatively narrow window during which they can conceive. And even with consistent and regular tries, most women take months to get pregnant, and that’s by modern health standards. The environment during early polygamy was such that Joseph didn’t likely have many opportunities to engage in intercourse with his wives. With all the secrecy and such, keeping things hidden from Emma, liaisons would have been very infrequent.

Moreover, in general, polygamous wives were not in the best of spirits, sacred loneliness and all that. It’s a well established fact for instance that polygamous unions resulted in fewer children per woman than monogamous unions. That being the case, even when opportunities existed, it’s a fair bet the women might not have been “in the mood.”

All this makes for a situation where frankly I wouldn’t expect many children to be conceived, if any at all. And then of course we can also toss in miscarriages and infant mortality which would eliminate testable evidence of a child. A fun exercise might be to try and develop a probabilistic model to predict how many children we would expect Joseph to produce if unions had been sexual. Something like this would be necessary to persuasively argue that children should be expected in the first place.

Meg didn’t have a response to this. Until now.

Meg’s Algorithm

Taking me up on my suggestion to “develop a probabilistic model,” Meg created what she calls “an algorithm” to assess the importance of Joseph’s wives. She says:

I think we should establish guidelines for the importance we attribute to different women as wives…I’d like to start, then, with each such woman having a score of 100% (or 1.0). Then as we consider various factors, that score may be decreased. If there are mitigating factors, a “penalty” may be reduced. Thus, as I go forward to talk about the various women, we can focus on those individuals whose “score” gives us greatest confidence that she is of import. This scoring matter can also give structure to the discussion of each woman.

Here’s a proposed structure:…By this scoring system, Emma would score 100%.

Meg then treats us to a table of values that weight different things with a score, for instance “DNA negative” is given a score of -0.25, “Motive to lie” is given a score -0.06, and so on.

It’s important to note here that her “algorithm” is not meant to directly answer my question, “How many children should we reasonably expect if the unions were sexual?” Instead this “algorithm” is meant to give Joseph’s wives a kind of relevance score, from which I assume the history related to these women is then going to be ranked and weighted.

In other words, this is meant to be a mathematical justification for ignoring historical evidence, or something. This is how I’m interpreting what she’s doing here. Yikes.

My Motivation

Let me start by saying my motivation here is not to belittle Meg. I want that to be clear. I fear this may come across that way, though, because I am pointing out what should be obvious. Perhaps let the ramifications of that speak for itself. I am taking Meg at her word that she is, per her claim, a scientist and engineer. And maybe I misread her; perhaps she only meant that she has worked in the “science/engineering” industry, in which case I wouldn’t expect her to understand any of this. Either way, I do not presume to give her remedial math lessons. I don’t believe she needs such instruction.

I have two objectives.

One, I fear that lay readers (who don’t understand math) won’t understand what’s bad about her arguments. I assume that Meg knows her arguments are bad, but all this is fun for her. That’s my impression. In general I find Meg’s arguments (double-standard, logical fallacies) and behavior (censorship) to be dishonest.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt (no pun intended) I don’t think she’s being intentionally deceptive. I think she’s mostly just having fun, like a nerdy fan at a science fiction conference (see Galaxy Quest) engaging in wild speculation that isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. The debate is fun, and I sincerely appreciate that mindset.

At the same time, I think she’s a hypocrite. And I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited, name-calling kind of way, but a very calm observation that in my opinion she is not thinking critically or being introspective. However noble her intentions, she’s leading people astray, in my opinion. People are reading her material and taking her seriously. In its current form, her “algorithm” is pretty silly, and I have to believe Meg knows this, but I see this going in a bad direction.

Two, I’m genuinely interested in an answer to my question, a real and unbiased answer. A serious and credible answer. I’d like to see a legitimate model developed that can reasonably answer the question, “How many children should we expect Joseph to produce if the unions had been sexual?” Such a model might be completely inconclusive and results entirely flip based on assumptions that nobody can agree on. It could be, though, that even if we’re using the most faith-promoting of assumptions, children either weren’t likely to begin with, or they are unlikely enough that it amounts to the same, and the “no children = no sex” arguments immediately become irrelevant. My hunch is those arguments are (unfortunately) irrelevant.

If the opposite is true though and there’s a truly high probability of children, then that’s worth noting, and I would find it personally persuasive that Joseph didn’t have sex with these women. I am not biased towards a particular answer. I want the actual truth, whatever that may be. But, as a member of the LDS church who’s trying to be faithful, I would be very happy to learn that Joseph wasn’t as bad a guy with respect to polygamy as it’s currently reasonable to conclude. At a superficial level, I truly love Meg’s argument that the sexual dynamic of polygamy was a perversion mistakenly created by the ignorance of Brigham Young. If such a conclusion could be reasonably arrived at, I’d love it. Think of all the problems that could be solved by plucking section 132 out of the D&C and setting it on fire.

All that said, Meg’s “algorithm” is horrible.

Math Lesson

First, I would like to point out that Meg’s “algorithm” isn’t an algorithm at all. What Meg gives us is a table full of probabilities literally pulled out of thin air. That’s not an algorithm. I’m not sure what it is, nonsense mostly. An algorithm would be a step-by-step process for deriving the probabilities listed in her table. I would in fact love to see the algorithm she used to come up with those numbers. It could come in the form of a math equation, a description in English, or a programming language.

Wikipedia defines an algorithm as “a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed. Algorithms exist that perform calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.” Pulling one of my engineering textbooks off the shelf, it describes the word “algorithm” as a “term used to in computer science to describe a finite, deterministic, and effective problem-solving method suitable for implementation as a computer program.” and then goes on to use Euclid’s algorithm, which computes the greatest common divisor or two numbers, as an example.

For example, an English-language description of Euclid’s algorithm is:

Compute the greatest common divisor of two non-negative integers p and q as follows: If q is 0, the answer is p. If not, divide p by q and take the remainder r. The answer is the greatest common divisor of q and r.

A Java-language description is then:

public static int gcd(int p, int q)
{
if(q == 0) return p;
int r == p % q;
return gcd(q, r);
}

That’s an algorithm. What Meg created is not an algorithm by any reasonable definition of the word. She has given us the output of some unknown algorithm that I assume exists only in her mind. It probably goes something like this: Make Joseph Look Good ==> Make Up Numbers.

Next I’d like to give a very simple example of what an actual probability problem looks like. This seems appropriate, as her table is listing probability values, and my original suggestion was that a probabilistic model should be developed in order to answer the question. This may seem off-topic, but just bear with me for this simple problem.

OK, so here’s my simple example:

Suppose 1% of a population has cancer. A new test for cancer shows positive 90% of the time when a person actually has cancer, and correctly indicates “negative” 95% of the time when run on someone who do not have cancer. This test is conducted on a person at a doctor’s office and the results come out positive. What is the probability that this person actually has cancer?

Baye’s rule is:

image00

The theorem is also sometimes referred to as the theorem on the probability of causes because it allows us to find the probabilities of various events A1, A2, …., An that cause event A to occur.

image03

From the problem we are given the following:

P(cancer|population) = 0.01

P(positive|cancer) = 0.9

P(negative|notcanter) = 0.95

From which we can then derive:

P(notcancer|population) = 1- P(cancer|population) = 0.99

P(positive|notcancer) = 1- P(positive|cancer) = 0.1

P(negative|cancer) = 1- P(negative|notcancer) = 0.05

So, if you go to the doctor and test positive for cancer, what is the probability that you actually have cancer? The answer might surprise you.

[+] = positive test result

image01

image02

8.33%!! No, that’s not a typo. So, for this particular population, if you get tested positive, your chances of actually having cancer are 8.33%. In other words, don’t freak out just yet. This may seem strange, but it’s not, if you think about it. In the case of this cancer test, even though our test is highly accurate (90%), there will still be a lot of false positives. So the probability of a false positive also has to be weighted, which makes the likelihood of a true positive quite low.

My point with this exercise is to demonstrate what an actual probability problem looks like and also to show how probabilities can be counterintuitive, especially for those who don’t understand mathematics and probability theory. Most people who get a positive cancer test are likely to freak out. Even understanding probability theory, I’d probably feel my stomach hit the floor upon hearing such a result. Calming down, however, and taking a moment to think about things critically, we shouldn’t be freaking out just yet. The result tells us we should do more testing, that is all.

For anybody interested in a deeper treatment of probability theory, here’s a link to one of my undergraduate textbooks which is available for free in PDF format.

http://www.faculty.jacobs-university.de/poswald/teaching/ESM2B/handouts/ProbabilityRandomProcessesBook.pdf

Here’s a chapter from the textbook Computer Analysis of Human Behavior, which will give you an idea of what probability theory looks like when applied to human behavior. This is more about gesture interpretation, but similar principles would apply to historical observations.

http://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/9780857299932-c2.pdf?SGWID=0-0-45-1214740-p174133703

Now, back to the original problem and question. Meg has not given us an algorithm or anything that even remotely resembles a probabilistic model. She has a table of made-up numbers. Behind each of those numbers should be a mathematical proof justifying how the number was arrived at. Why is motive to lie -0.06 for Emma Smith? But, what she has might be a useful starting point to come up with a list of features that should be included in a proper model. I’m sure if we ask a psychologist, the observation of lies is indicative of something and we could factor that into our model. Counting lies within a period of time could be a method of determining a trustworthiness feature, maybe. Then, based on that, we could reasonably add less credibility to the testimony of untrustworthy individuals we’re relying on. Meg might not like how these results turn out, though.

Invitation to Meg

If Meg is interested, I’d be happy to work with her (and/or any others) on developing a credible model that attempts to answer my question. I’m not used to applying probability theory to social science or history, but it should be an easy shift compared to what I’m used to, and I would find the prospect quite interesting. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised a model like this doesn’t already exist. I would have expected someone like Ugo Perego to have already created one, and maybe he has, if we ask him.

My starting approach would be to do some journal searches and see what kinds of models already exist with respect to fertility and what-not, and also seek out any relevant data I can use in my model. I think what I’d do is start out by just developing a model that determines the probability of a random male getting a random woman pregnant today from having intercourse once. P(child|sex) = ?

And then from there add relevant features which would alter the probability given the environment of polygamy, frequency, potential mindset of Joseph, etc. (such as, how well did people understand the calendar method back then?). What would result is a model that could be run based on varying assumptions. So the assumptions being fed into the model by someone like Meg or Brian Hales would likely be different than the assumptions of Richard Bushman or Dan Vogel or Grant Palmer.

One assumption might be that Joseph didn’t want the women to get pregnant and acted accordingly. Perhaps he was concerned about pregnancy for the single sisters, but not the already-married polyandrous ones. What is the probability that an average male in the 19th century could successfully employ the calendar method if he wanted it? What is the probability that Joseph would be the father of a child if a woman is having sex with two men at the same time? Even if Joseph didn’t care about getting anybody pregnant, what are chances he’d get them pregnant based on frequency of sex?

We could run the model based on different assumptions and see how the probability distribution changes. In the course of this, though, I’d want to consult with some bona fide experts on the history of polygamy so they can guide feature selection as well as tuning constants that we arrive at. For instance, how many opportunities for intercourse would Joseph have had per woman? I’m hoping the history buffs could come up with a calendar, and block out times when we know he’s not even in town, etc. I think we could come up with a model that could be applied individually to each plural wife and come up with a probability of children per wife, then sum those together to arrive at an overall likelihood of no children at all assuming that sex took place. How “impossible” is it that he fathered no children despite sex?

As I said earlier, it might be completely inconclusive, but it could tell us something. The results might be surprising, just as with the cancer test. Meg seems to think it’s intuitively obvious that if Joseph were having sex there should be children, but that has not been demonstrated to be true. It might also just be a useful exercise to see how reasonably we can employ mathematics as a tool for historical analysis. Putting together a proper model is something that will take time and a lot of consideration. I think starting out by developing a list of features is a good idea though.

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14 Responses to Guest Post: An Invitation for Meg Stout

  1. Jeff Seaman says:

    I know a guy married to a friend of mine that cheated weekly (sometimes several times weekly and with different women) on his wife all 16 years of their marriage. He doesn’t use protection and chooses women who themselves get around a bit. So you’d think he’d have given his wife an STD at some point in 16 years. Nope. No STDs and no bastard children. So it happens. Also he only got caught at the end. 16 years and all loose ends pretty tightly managed,,,except for his email. Joseph’s results aren’t impossible.

    • yaanufs says:

      I know another guy like that too. He uses no protection. Same results, no STDs for his wife, and no kids produced.
      I’d guess the time frame for the guy I know is 12 years of doing this.

    • runtu says:

      But did anyone actually see him have sex with those other women?

      • yaanufs says:

        LOL, that is funny.

      • runtu says:

        I just find it odd that someone can say repeatedly that they slept with him, cohabited with him, roomed with him, had carnal intercourse with him, spent the night in the same bed with him, and so on, and yet someone else can, with a straight face, say it’s only a presumption that they had sex.

      • yaanufs says:

        While having a canonized ‘revelation’ from the perpetrator himself, that states polygamy is only legit when used to raise up seed. How does that happen without a bit of good old fashioned meat commerce?

  2. yaanufs says:

    My peep stone in my hat has a 1.00 probability reading on that question.
    Oh wait, new revelation coming in, it is from from a current prophet and trumps my revelation. He says 0.00. That is what is going in the correlated lesson manuals.

    Choose who you want to believe.

  3. Steelhead says:

    When arguing with some one who ad hoc invents facts/un supported theories/weird algorithms…… I am reminded of the adage about wrestling pigs in a mud hole.

  4. CAB says:

    Then please delete my comment, Runtu. I’m not very good at “nice” anymore–I got too much of it in RS and YW.

    • runtu says:

      I understand. These issues arouse passionate opinions, and it’s sometimes hard to keep things civil in talking about a subject like this.

  5. Andrew says:

    I’m the one who wrote the OP. I really think Meg is a nice lady. I have a number of friends who are really into fantasy and science fiction literature, as well as RPG games (both real-action and video-game). They are great people, and I love their friendship, but I sometimes observe that their perception of reality crosses over into the fictional realm. I love science fiction myself, but shows like Star Trek can be taken just a bit too seriously.

    A well-known example of this might be Orson Scott Card. Brilliant man, excellent writer, but based on articles he’s written related to the gospel it seems obvious to me that his creative thinking has reshaped his perception of Mormonism into something that more closely resembles science fiction than reality. And I think that’s fine, so long as we’re honest about it.

    I enjoyed this article that described Mormonism as the “sausage makers” religion.

    http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2015/03/mormonism-sausage-makers-religion.html

    I would argue that this is one of the good things about the church. Where it becomes a problem though, at least for me, is when this process isn’t allowed to happen, castigating “doubters” as sinners, etc. If the church were simply honest about what it does and doesn’t know and be flexible about, even encouraging of, nuanced approaches, it could be a cool place. I’ve noticed here lately that there seem to be a lot of “conferences” hosted by the Community of Christ. They let people come right into their chapel and speak about something. Bill Reel has something like this on his FB page right now. I find this fascinating and refreshing.

    On our end what do we have though? That guy Kirk Van Allen being threatened with excommunication because he publicly denounced D&C 132… lol. Let me just take this moment to say I agree with Allen. As I said in the OP, I’d love to set D&C 132 on fire. It’s utter rubbish and that’s where it belongs, in my opinion. The history of it is very suspicious, coming onto the scene many years after Joseph died. Given all the things we acknowledge that Brigham Young got wrong, racism, adam-god, blood atonement, etc., it seems quite reasonable to question the legitimacy of D&C 132. The bad fruit compounds the problem. I find noting inspired or redeemable about the history of polygamy. Disgusting how Joseph treated Emma and very hypocritical for us to act like he was a model husband. Same can be said about Brigham Young, referring to women as cattle. I say set D&C 132 on fire, and if God doesn’t like this he should send us some actual, real, tangible revelation to set the record straight. Is that not reasonable? If anybody wants to haul me into a disciplinary council for saying that, just email John and he’ll get you my contact information so you can properly identify me.

    This is all so ironic given what Meg argues. I’m genuinely curious how the church would like her arguments but not Allen’s?? Either way you have a “prophet” that screwed the pooch, so to speak. Either D&C 132 is bad revelation, or everybody misinterpreted it by thinking it meant sex. Meg is arguing Brigham Young messed up in a huge way and completely vilifies his character. She says Elder Perkins is a fan of hers. I truly don’t get it. Vilify Brigham Young and get praised. Vilify Joseph Smith, get excommunicated. This seems to be the unofficial rule. You can nuance however you like, so long as the end result is praising Joseph and chanting “follow the [current] prophet.”

    • runtu says:

      I would like to publicly say again I have no personal animosity towards Meg. She does seem like a nice person. My disagreement is with her speculative and, IMO, baseless narrative of events.

  6. AM says:

    I put together a very simple model just to see what sort of numbers it gave. I found a source that said a single act of unprotected sex had a 2.5% chance of resulting in pregnancy. If we assume Joseph Smith had sex twice a month taking no precautions with women other than Emma for four years, that probability indicates that there would be an 8.8% chance of getting no one pregnant. There would be a 21.7% chance of getting exactly one woman pregnant, assuming he only had sex with unpregnant women. There would be a 26.4% chance of getting two women pregnant. There would be a 21.2% chance of getting three women pregnant. So, there would be a 56.9% chance of having two or fewer children and a 78.1% chance of having three or fewer children.

    Of course, a more sophisticated model would give a better idea. I would guess that the probability of having few or no children would be higher than what I calculated, if Joseph took some precautions and/or did not have sex for periods of time. However, as the OP notes, surprises are possible.

  7. Meg Stout says:

    Hi folks,

    I’m not sure I’d ever noticed this before today. In the mean time, if you want to engage me in dialogue, many random people have found that contacting me via my website (megstout.com) is effective.

    The idea that each sex act only carries a 2.5% probability of resulting in pregnancy is based on a rather simplistic model.

    With respect to the likelihood of becoming pregnant, we have to determine what numbers can both support what happened during Joseph’s lifetime and what happened subsequent to Joseph’s death.

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