Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Observer Effect Applied to Church Doctrine and Conference Talks

Writing about something helps me figure out what I think about it. More specifically, figuring out what I want to write about something is usually a good way to think more carefully about it. You know how it is in an English class when you get assigned to write a paper on the role of the hero in contemporary children’s literature and you find out—when you dig into writing this paper—that you think Professor Snape is the true hero of the Harry Potter series.  Or something like that.

For sure, writing is a useful tool in exploring ideas.

But there’s a different kind of writing that is less careful and, I would argue, a less productive way to process ideas. It’s the kind of writing that sometimes happens when I’m looking for blog fodder. I skim and scan and just look for headlines I can react to. I don’t always write like this, but I have written like this. So I know how it feels. Because I write a lot about parenting I can tell when I’m doing something with my kids just so I can write about it. Maybe you’ve done something similar: Ever worked a bit harder on your dinner presentation because you’re planning to Instagram it? We all do it. It’s part of living with social media. But sometimes it feels gross and I know it’s not the right way to approach, for example, parenting my children.

I’m also not sure it’s the right way to approach the gospel. Don’t get me wrong. I live-tweet General Conference. I blog and post and Instagram my church activities and make jokes and am sometimes even irreverent. I think social media is as good a place as any to do missionary work, to discuss the gospel, to reach out to like-minded people, to be validated, to pick fights, or to do whatever we need it to do. I also think the Spirit can be present (or absent) in an online setting. I’ve certainly read or watched things online that ring with a spirit of truth and inspire me. I’m not advocating a separation of church and Slate.

But I do feel that our understanding of spiritual things—talks, for example, suffer when we read them looking for something to blog about. And I think that happens often, with more and more frequency.

The observer effect is a scientific term that refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. Something akin to the observer effect happens when you approach material with the intent to blog about it. I know from experience that if I go to my kids’ kindergarten graduation thinking I’m going to write an outrageous post about it I will experience the event differently. Nothing, necessarily, wrong with that but you can get into a place where you are exploiting something to further your agenda. Sometimes it’s harmless.Sometimes it results in super clickable blog posts.

Church talks and doctrine can hold its own online. I’m not saying this in defense of, for example, Bonnie Oscarson’s talk. I heard it and it meant something to me. I latched on to different parts of the talk than other people have latched on to, as is our inalienable right to do, AMIRIGHT?

Sister Oscarson’s admonition to men and children as well as women to be homemakers struck me as quite groundbreaking and wonderful. It speaks to personal things that I think and wonder about. I don’t love how it feels to hear that someone else hated her talk and thinks she’s unhelpful and bad, even though I understand it is their prerogative to do so. Part of why I don’t like how it feels is because I know Sister Oscarson personally (not to brag or name drop, but I do happen to know her) and I consider her not just a really cool lady but one of our (and by “our” I mean forward thinking, fair-minded women) best allies among the general authorities. When I hear her speak I listen with charity because I know and like her. As a result, I heard something inspiring in her talk.

There’s a little lesson here for me because among church speakers I certainly have my favorites. And I listen with much less charity to my not-so favorites. Extending this charitable reading and listening beyond those I know and like personally might make a difference in my study of the gospel (and in my life in general) and could help explain the phrase that Henry B. Eyring says he still doesn’t comprehend the full meaning of, depicted on a pin his mother wore, “Charity never faileth.”

But beyond giving speakers the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to be more thoughtful in my approach to spiritual things. I’m going to be careful about listening to conference in that mindset of trying to find some blog fodder. It’s contrary to everything I’ve ever learned about religious study. The whole search, ponder, and pray technique leaves NO ROOM for funny Facebook statuses, AMIRIGHT? But probably it’s a better way to get serious questions answered.

So you’ll see me on Twitter with one-liners and tie jokes. Of course you will! But I’m going to approach what I hear with the discipline to listen, rather than skim, and to be open to the spirit, rather than on the lookout for hot-button issues. At my core, I’m Mulder. I want to believe. Approaching spiritual matter with time and careful thought might leave me with nothing outrageous to blog about, but it is to my own benefit and enrichment.

“Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

I’m going to do everything I can to help thou help mine unbelief. Bring it, Boyd K. Packer.

*I realize I just said all of this in a blog. That’s Schrodinger’s cat for you.


  1. thank you. i really appreciated this post. i think it's a super great outlook on how to get the most out of not only conference but all our religious study. (and i loved sister oscarson's talk! she's teaching a training meeting i'm attending this week and i'm really excited to hear what she has to say.)

    1. I'm excited that you get to hear from her!

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  3. Thanks for your blog post. I really like Sister Oscarson, and I like when I learn something new and smart from the internet. I'll be thinking about The Observer Effect today. Fascinating.


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