Off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada lies Oak Island. Near the southern tip of this island lies a special little tourist destination called The Money Pit. In 1795 the then-16 year old Daniel McGinnis discovered an odd depression in the ground, and convinced that something special must be buried here, he enlisted the help of his friends John Smith and Anthony Vaughan to excavate the pit. As they dug down they discovered a layer of flagstones, and a few feet below was a layer of logs. Convinced that these logs were evidence that treasure from pirates must be buried underneath, the three boys removed the logs and dug another ten feet, finding a second layer of logs. Undeterred, they removed these and dug yet another ten feet… to find a third layer of logs.
The boys decided that whatever the pirates buried here, they didn’t want it walking off, and pirates obviously had a great deal more resources than three sixteen year old boys, so they gave up. But they never forgot about their treasure, and made a point of sharing the story. Some 8 years after this incident, in the early 1800s, the Onslow Company heard of this “money pit” and decided to sail out with some excavation equipment out to claim the treasure for themselves. They managed to dig 90 feet, finding another “marker” layer of logs every ten feet. At around the 90 foot mark, just as the company was about to run out of money, they uncovered a stone that read “forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried.”
Elated at this discovery, the crew retired to bed for the night, only to find the pit full of water the next morning. The men bailed water out as quick as they could, but found that it rose and lowered with the tide. Bailing it out would do nothing. Word of the tablet spread, however, and in 1849 the Truro company came to try their hand at the dig. They dug the pit back down to the 86 foot level, where it quickly flooded again. They then ran a drill into the water-filled hole to see what they could expect to find should they continue digging, and managed to drill through more layers of wood and encountered metal, which they were certain meant they had drilled into a treasure chest.
The next team arrived in 1861 and used heavy pumps to keep the water out, but soon their boiler exploded killing some of their workers and collapsing the cavern below. When paint was lowered into the pit and emerged out into the ocean at three points around the island, the men concluded that the flooding was due to elaborate booby trap meant to keep treasure thieves out. Something really good must be buried here to justify not one, but three flood tunnels!
These booby traps drove wild speculation as to what must be buried behind such elaborate protection. Pirates wouldn’t go to this length for treasure because the only reason for them to bury treasure is for temporary storage to free up room in their ships. They would intend to reclaim it. This must have been something that no one was meant to find, such as the Arc and the Covenant, or even the Holy Grail! Surely a wonderful treasure must be hidden down there to go to all this effort. Afterall, flood gates like this would be quite a technological feat.
More companies tried their luck at digs in 1866, 1893, 1909, 1931, 1935, 1936, and 1959, none of which was successful. In that time they did manage to dig 134 feet down and even take blurry pictures of a chamber at the bottom, but little more.
The entire area in and around Nova Scotia is made of limestone, carved with cave systems and peppered with sink holes. It is very common for a sink hole to drop ten feet or so every few hundred to thousand years, nearby trees fall in, then debris piles on top of that and it’s forgotten as the forest regrows. Hundreds of examples of this phenomena can be found in the mainland and on many of the hundreds of neighboring islands. Cave systems that are capable of flooding the money pit are also normal and expected for this area. The digging companies, including the one running the island today and who are poised to fund yet another dig, are all aware of the geological surveys; but they will not hear any of it. They are convinced that there is treasure at the bottom of the money pit, even while the rest of the world has come to use that phrase to refer to throwing money away.
Self delusion is very much part of human nature, and the more we have invested in that delusion the harder it is to accept the reality that all our efforts and invested money was for nothing. The escalation of commitment bias, also known as the Sunken Cost Fallacy, is one of the most powerful driving forces of delusions. I had the opportunity to witness this in a class at BYU using the popular Dollar Auction experiment. Wikipedia describes the experiment thus:
The setup involves an auctioneer who volunteers to auction off a dollar bill with the following rule: the dollar goes to the highest bidder, who pays the amount he bids. The second-highest bidder also must pay the highest amount that he bid, but gets nothing in return. Suppose that the game begins with one of the players bidding 1 cent, hoping to make a 99 cent profit. He will quickly be outbid by another player bidding 2 cents, as a 98 cent profit is still desirable. Similarly, another bidder may bid 3 cents, making a 97 cent profit. Alternatively, the first bidder may attempt to convert their loss of 1 cent into a gain of 96 cents by bidding 4 cents. In this way, a series of bids is maintained. However, a problem becomes evident as soon as the bidding reaches 99 cents. Supposing that the other player had bid 98 cents, they now have the choice of losing the 98 cents or bidding a dollar even, which would make their profit zero. After that, the original player has a choice of either losing 99 cents or bidding $1.01, and only losing one cent. After this point the two players continue to bid the value up well beyond the dollar, and neither stands to profit.
When I witnessed this experiment, the entire room was shocked when the bidding continued to rise. The instructor stopped the auction as it was about to approach $20. By the time it got this high, both students knew full well that they would not profit from this at all. The more they invested the more they would lose. Yet they could not convince themselves that their best move would be to stop bidding and cut their losses; in fact one of them protested when the instructor stopped them. This is the same psychology that drove people to the money pit despite the geological survey, the absurdity of the claim about what’s at the bottom, and the fact that there’s more evidence suggesting that the stone tablet pulled from there was a hoax than that supports it.
This psychology is taught to anyone studying business, and many students in business classes likely have seen dollar auction or at least heard about it. Being run almost entirely by business men, the Mormon church is all too aware of this, a fact which is brutally apparent with their missionary program. Missionaries are instructed to get investigators (or doubters) to commit to one little thing. Just one, like saying your prayers every night. It’ll just take five minutes out of your day, and what could it hurt? There’s blessings to be had! Then on their next visit they’ll ask for a little more. Read just a few verses in your scriptures every night. Then on the next visit they’ll ask for a little more. Give up your coffee, read a chapter each night instead of a verse, start attending church, and so forth until you wake up one morning a full tithe payer with two callings and a strong testimony in something you previously knew sounded fishy.
From this it’s abundantly clear that the leadership of the church has done their research and knows full well what they’re doing and why it works. If you are asked to do even a little thing by the missionaries, like praying every night, my advice is to take a rain check on that and investigate the truth of their claims—all of their claims—before committing to anything.