One of the recurring themes among apologists and critics is how to find “Official LDS Doctrine”. The confusion seems to stem over the lack of a clear, authoritative definition, leaving each member (and non-member) to arrive at their own conclusion.
While there are many, many doctrines for which there is no debate over their “official” status (Jesus is the Son of God, everyone will be resurrected, Baptism by immersion is required for everyone, etc.), once we venture outside of the core teachings, things get much murkier.
A recent article in Wired magazine discussed the problem of “status” in the world of scientists. The traditional method of gaining status was to be published in high-status journals. The more publications over time, the better for you. But some scientists were doing work of great value, but for certain reasons, it wasn’t being accepted for publication in the few high-status journals. But it was being referred to and used by other scientists, which would indicate that it did have value.
So physicist Jorge Hirsch developed his own system for “rating” scientists:
After two years of number-crunching in his cluttered office at UC San Diego, Hirsch had it—an invention important enough to warrant publication in the (very prestigious) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In his 2005 article, Hirsch introduced the h-index (named after himself, of course). The key was focusing not on where you published but on how many times other researchers cited your work. In practice, you take all the papers you’ve published and rank them by how many times each has been cited. Say paper number one has been cited 10,000 times. Paper number two, 8,000 cites. Paper number 32 has 33 citations, but number 33 has received just 28. You’ve published 32 papers with more than 32 citations—your h-index is 32.
Or to put it more technically, the h-index is the number n of a researcher’s papers that have been cited by other papers at least n times. High numbers = important science = important scientist.
In its nearly four years of life, the relatively simple, flexible h-index has become the most talked-about metric in the very hot science of rating scientists and their research, a discipline that has flourished in ways Hirsch had never imagined. The h-index was the biggest splash in a flood of Internet-enabled rating systems—growth and decay chronometrics, semiometric measures, hub/authority metrics. Schools and labs use such ratings to help them make grants, bestow tenure, award bonuses, and hire postdocs. In fact, similar statistical approaches have become standard practice in Internet search algorithms and on social networking sites. These numbers do for scientists what U.S. News & World Report does for colleges and Bill James’ Sabermetrics did for baseball: They quantify reputation.
It’s an interesting idea. This quantification process reduces the influence of any single factor in determining the value of a theory or research paper. It is the aggregate, over time, that is important. There is no one, single authority determining what has scientific “value”, and what research must languish in obscurity. It’s a way of saying “This theory or research is used by many different scientists in many different areas of research, so it must have value.”
It seems to me that a similar system could be used to determine the validity of doctrines in the Church. Just as there is no single way for a scientific paper to be determined “valid” (it is tested and used over time, by many different scientists), there is no single way for a doctrine in the Church to be considered “official”. Many factors come into play, including the source of the doctrine, the frequency with which it is taught, its “currency” (how recently was it taught?), who is teaching it, and who is teaching contradictory doctrines?
Each teaching of the Church could be analyzed in such a way, with weighting given to different sources (i.e. it’s in the AoF = very strong, it’s in an article written by a non-GA in the Ensign 25 years ago = not very strong, it’s only found in the JoD = very weak). Some doctrines would be found to be taught and repeated in many places, continually getting reinforced in manuals, publications, conference talks, and rooted in the scriptures. Others would be popular in certain eras, but fade over time (becoming “less official”). Others might have more recent, contradictory statements that would weaken them considerably.
Looking at the aggregate of teachings and citations over time, it could be seen which doctrines have been useful and solid, and which have disappeared or fallen out of fashion. “Jesus = Son of God” could be a 10, “Blood Atonement” could be a 1. Instead of trying to shoehorn different ideas into a box of “Official Doctrine”, it could be understood that a teaching has a doctrinal rating of “6”, which might mean it is frequently found in manuals and certain interpretations of the scriptures, but there are alternate theories which are also acknowledged and it hasn’t been taught explicitly by a latter day Prophet of Apostle from the pulpit.
In order to implement such a system, each type of “reinforcement” would need to be graded, and then for each teaching under consideration, someone would have to do the research to determine when and where it has been taught (or taught against). Ultimately, we all probably use our own version of this system (adjusted for our personal preferences for weighting of sources and knowledge of what has been taught where), but it would be interesting to actually try to codify it, and give some uniformity to these discussions.