When I was very new in my career, I wrote a pamphlet. If I were to rewrite this particular pamphlet today, I would delete a quote I took from a reputable source that stated, “You would have to gain 100 pounds to equal the health risks of smoking.”
I had the best of intentions when I included that quote. Smoking is extremely damaging to the human body and I sincerely believe people should not smoke. Some people are afraid to quit smoking because they might gain weight. The “fact” I included in the pamphlet could encourage them to make the right decision.
However, as I gained more experience in my profession, I learned to dig a little deeper before I accepted facts, even if they came from a reputable source. I later did an extensive search for the original methods used to calculate the “100 pounds” number. The quote had become quite popular and I found it in dozens of anti-smoking materials. I determined that it originally came from a well-respected health organization. However, the organization had offered no explanation for their math. It appeared that they had made that “fact” up.
Today, obesity is emerging as arguably the greatest public health problem facing affluent countries of the world. Although that quote promotes smoking cessation, it also has the unfortunate side effect of minimizing the dangerous effects of obesity. Even well-intentioned untruths are dangerous.
I am not the only person who makes such mistakes. For example, there is a story frequently relayed by General Authorities about how early Mormon apostle Thomas B. Marsh left the Church because of a silly argument about milk. You can find versions of the story in talks by Thomas S. Monson, David A. Bednar, and Gordon B. Hinckley.
I believe that the General Authorities who have told this story have had the best of intentions. They want to prevent people from becoming easily offended; they want to encourage people to stay in the Church. The factual error is an understandable mistake. They are quoting reputable sources, such as previous conference talks by other General Authorities and Church Educational System texts.
However, some extra digging reveals that the original source of the milk story was a person who was not a witness to the incident and who related the story 25 years after the incident allegedly occurred.(Reference 1, 2) In that light, the story sounds more like gossip or hearsay than history. If the milk argument incident happened at all, it was most likely not the milk argument that led Marsh to leave the Mormon Church but more serious issues surrounding the violence of certain early Mormons. At least, that is what Marsh himself said, and he seems a better source for information about his own intentions than an unrelated person who gossiped about him decades later.
Like the smoking cessation fact, this untrue story carries some dangerous side effects. The story vilifies deceased people who were not guilty of the pettiness attributed to them. It does the same for modern Mormons who choose to leave the Church, since the story implies that people leave the Church due to silly offenses instead of legitimate concerns. This attitude can prevent the Church from addressing legitimate concerns that are causing people to leave.
For these important reasons, I would encourage our church leaders to improve their fact-checking. But even if they don’t, there is one side effect of such factual errors that we Mormons can avoid. Some of us base our testimonies on the idea that everything a prophet says from the pulpit is true. If you believe that prophets and apostles channel God directly and never speak with their own, human, fallible tongues, discovering a factual error in a talk by a prophet or apostle can shatter your testimony. It doesn’t have to.
I have accepted that, like me, a prophet can make a mistake once in awhile. I can believe in his prophetic calling while maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism about some of the things he says. My skepticism does not damage my faith; it preserves it from inevitable disappointment.