Whose Side Is It Anyway?

Last week Josh and I talked about the Dreyfus Affair on The Podcaster’s Guide to the Conspiracy, and we asked “Would we have been pro or anti Dreyfus at the time” A day earlier I had been talking with Martin Butler about the North Head tunnels conspiracy theory, and expressing some of my reasonable (I would like to think) concerns with Martin’s most recent evidence for the existence of a conspiracy.

All of which has got me thinking. It’s very easy – after the fact – to say “I would have believed there was nefarious goings on up in that there castle!” when you look back upon some adventure. Hindsight is wonderful, after all. “Of course,” we all like to think, “I would have been appropriately sceptical about the utterances of some government authority, and I surely would have seen the inconsistency of the case for what it was: a cover-up!” However, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that during the course of an adventure that would be the case. For example, I know plenty of people who thought the October Raids of 2007 were likely justified at the time despite their scepticism now, and there are still political commentators who – to this day – maintain that “Dirty Politics” was no big thing.

The North Head case is particularly vexing for me. I’ve modified my views on the idea something fishy might be going on up/under there over the years; whilst I don’t know that there is an overt cover-up going on, I think there might be something suspicious happening with regards to the powers-that-be not telling us the full story of North Head.1 I like to think I’m changing my views according to the balance of probabilities, based upon new evidence or interpretations of that evidence as it comes to hand. But, it’s quite possible that my views are not tracking the new evidence but, rather, lagging behind it. Indeed, I might well be expressing less scepticism than I should be because I feel some attachment to the views I originally formed, or because changing my views requires me to change my opinions of some of the people involved in covering up or uncovering the real story of North Head and those pesky tunnels.

I guess the fact I’m aware of this possibility is good; it means I’m thinking about my views and testing them from all sides. I, for example, changed a lot of my views on the New Zealand Police in the wake of the October Raids, and I think my new views track the historical evidence much more accurately than my old ones. Then again, I also likely thought that “Dirty Politics” was a really big story simply because of my existing views of Cameron Slater and the National Party. My views on North Head are predicated on growing up in Devonport, and being aware of just how much scepticism was expressed by long term residents throughout the 80s and 90s to the claim that there were hidden tunnels under the mountain. Knowing not just my priors but also what informed them makes it easier to understand what evidence I would require to change their values. Yet I worry that even given that information, it’s possible I would explain it all away. After all, that is a symptom of being a philosopher: I have been trained to look at a problem from multiple angles, and playing Devil’s Advocate is second nature to me.

Which is to say that I am aware of a potential problem for my views, yet not aware whether it is an actual problem. Or maybe I am aware it’s an actual problem, but I do not want to admit to it. I keep thinking this is good, because it means I am testing my views. However, I just don’t know whether it is good enough, because the fact I am testing my views does not necessarily mean I still won’t regress back to views which are comforting rather than confronting.

Meanwhile, somewhere a conspiracy rumbles on.

Notes

  1. I.e. It’s quite possible the Army and Navy are not telling the full story of what exactly they know about North Head, but that does not necessarily mean they are hiding Boeing Seaplanes or missing ammunition; they might just be keeping information back because they have decided it’s not that important.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.