Question: Did Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley fake or distort most of his footnotes?

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Question: Did Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley fake or distort most of his footnotes?

Any claim made by Nibley should be assessed on the basis of its logic, rigor, and accuracy

Nibley was a gifted scholar, but like all scholars he had his weaknesses and lapses. Any claim made by Nibley should be assessed on the basis of its logic, rigor, and accuracy—just as with any author. That Nibley made a claim is not, in itself, evidence for or against an assertion.

Critics are often under the apparent impression that Nibley is the sum total of LDS scholarship. Nibley's influence cannot be overstated, but his work is not the final word. In fact, the greatest legacy of Nibley's work may be the influence which he had on the rising generation of LDS readers and scholars. Nibley showed how insights from a variety of disciplines could be brought to bear on issues of particular interest to LDS teachings and scripture.

Nibley led the way, but in many ways the debate has moved beyond the territory he sketched out.[1] Even if Nibley was completely wrong—a claim not supported by the evidence—this would say nothing about the truth of the Church, merely about the truth of Nibley's scholarly claims. But, if critics wish to demolish the Church on scholarly ground, they have more recent and serious targets with whom they must engage besides Nibley.

Nibley's footnote accuracy was very good: The notion that he just made up his footnotes is simply ridiculous

In any case, Nibley's footnote accuracy was very good, and all footnotes have been checked and corrected where necessary in the Collected Works. Only those using out-of-date editions need have concerns.[2]

There is no question but that Hugh Nibley was an absolutely brilliant scholar. He was also very creative and sometimes overagressive in his use of sources, and sometimes he was wrong about things, as are all scholars and indeed all human beings. But the notion that he just made up his footnotes is simply ridiculous.

One footnote checker for Nibley's republished works said:

We never found anything that Nibley made up or intentionally misquoted. I would characterize his use of sources as sloppy but certainly not dishonest."[3]

This was echoed by other checkers that Nibley's son-in-law and biographer, Boyd Peterson, contacted:

I have contacted many of the note checkers and editors of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley...and they all confirm that, while Hugh has been sloppy—at times mistranslating a text or overstating his case—he does not make up his sources.[4]

Kent P. Jackson critiqued Nibley's errors in a BYU Studies publication[5] (hardly a sign of the Church trying to suppress criticism of Nibley's work), and later wrote:

In 1989 I published a review of one of Nibley's books in which I pointed out what I felt were major problems in his scholarship, particularly in the book I was reviewing. It may be the most critical review of Nibley ever written by a believing Latter-day Saint.... Among my critiques was that Nibley often generalized excessively, saw "things in the sources that simply don't seem to be there," let his "predetermined conclusions set the agenda for the evidence," and misinterpreted authors he cited. Others, including some of Nibley's greatest admirers, have found the same problems in his scholarship. But the academic transgressions committed by Nibley (hardly unique to him) were the products of carelessness and wishful thinking, not of fraud and deception. Nibley's greatest skill as a scholar was his ability to see the big picture, not his ability to finesse the fine details. Nowhere in my own examination of his research and writing did I find any hint of his making up sources for fictional references. I do not believe it happened.[6]

John Gee, another note checker, tested Nibley's notes as described by Peterson:

John Gee recently completed a statistical analysis of one of Hugh's articles chosen at random to establish the accuracy of the footnotes. In looking at Hugh's essay "Victoriosa Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else" as it appeared in its original form in Western Speech 20/2 (1956): 57–82 (reprinted in The Ancient State [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991], 243–86), Gee discovered that "87% of the footnotes were completely correct, 8% of the footnotes contained typographical errors, 5% were wrong in some other way (e.g., frequently right author, right page, wrong title). In no case could I determine that any of the errors in the footnotes were intentional or that any of the footnotes were fabrications" (John Gee, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 13 January 2005).

In a later study, Gee analyzed the footnotes in one of Hugh's Egyptian works, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Selecting a chapter from the book at random (chapter 3, the second-longest chapter in the book), Gee found that "94% of the citations were correct, 4% were typographical errors, and 2% were wrong." It was Gee's determination that "the results seem to show that Nibley was more accurate when dealing with a Mormon topic, that his Egyptian work was more accurate than his classics work, and that his work on Message was better than normal, not worse." Further, Gee stated that "I have never seen any case where Hugh Nibley ever fabricated or made up a source. After looking up thousands of citations, I have seen him make just about every mistake I think one could make, but I have never seen him make up anything" (John Gee, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 14 March 2005).[7]

Said Gee:

As one who has probably checked as many or more of Nibley's footnotes than anyone alive, I think that it is important to say up front that the vast majority of his footnotes are correct and that only a few are questioned, even fewer would be seen as questionable.

Second, before I did my statistical study I did an impressionistic estimate of the accuracy of the footnotes based on my personal experience. The estimate was 70% accuracy when in reality it was over 90%. Those of us checking footnotes spent more of our time dealing with problems (a correct footnote takes only a minute or so to check, while fixing a problem may take hours) and that makes us inclined to vastly overestimate the number of problems.

One also needs to compare Nibley's accuracy with other authors, although here I have been less systematic. Compared to other scholars whose footnotes I have checked, Nibley does very well.

[Furthermore] With the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, the issue of footnote accuracy is essentially moot. All the footnotes were checked (at least since volume two). The issue of the footnotes is essentially only relevant in works before they were published in the Collected Works.

In the end, however, Nibley's articles and arguments are not gospel, and we do not always have to follow them or defend them.[8]

For a new article that addresses the issue of Hugh Nibley's footnotes see: Shirley S. Ricks, "A Sure Foundation (A review of "Hugh Nibley's Footnotes")," FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): 253–291. off-site wiki


Notes

  1. For a discussion in this vein by an author who is not shy about describing problems with Nibley's scholarship, see Todd M. Compton, "Review of Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites; An Approach to the Book of Mormon; Since Cumorah," FARMS Review of Books 1/1 (1989): 114–118. off-site.
  2. Shirley S. Ricks, "A Sure Foundation (A review of "Hugh Nibley's Footnotes")," FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): 253–291. off-site wiki
  3. Terrence L. Szink, personal communication, 8 April 2005 cited in footnote #8 of Kent P. Jackson, "Leaving the Facts and the Faith (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 107–122. off-site
  4. Boyd Jay Petersen, "Response to Leaving the Saints (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 217–251. off-site, citing Todd Compton, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005; Glen Cooper, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 25 December 2004; John Gee, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 27 December 2004; William Hamblin, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 24 December 2004; Stephen Ricks, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 9 January 2005.
  5. Kent P. Jackson, "Review of Old Testament and Related Studies, by Hugh Nibley," Brigham Young University Studies 28 no. 4 (1988), 114–119. A rebuttal to Jackson was published in Louis Midgley, "Hugh Winder Nibley: Bibliography and Register," in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 1:lxxi–lxxiii. ISBN 0875793398. Vol. 1 off-site Vol. 2 off-site
  6. Kent P. Jackson, "Leaving the Facts and the Faith (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 107–122. off-site
  7. See footnote 25, in Boyd Jay Petersen, "Response to Leaving the Saints (Review of: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 217–251. off-site
  8. John Gee, personal communication to FAIR wiki editors, 10 August 2007. Cited with permission.