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.

Another update on North Head: Am I in danger of changing my mind?

A few years ago, Martin Butler provided me with a copy of his book, “Tunnel Vision”, which I reviewed here. Last year Martin updated his book (The front cover calls it “An Explosive Update”) which I’ve now read and am in the process of reviewing. I think it’s a better book now than it was a few years ago, although I’m not entirely convinced by all of Butler’s claims. That is by-the-by, however, because earlier this week I met Martin at the Torpedo Yard cafe, at the base of North Head, and I came away from that meeting a little swayed in my thinking. I’m not saying I’m now a firm believer in the existence of a cover-up to hide decaying ammunition in one of the country’s most expensive suburbs. I am, however, willing to go so far as to say there are some anomalies in the public record which suggest there is more to the North Head story that certain authorities would have us believe.

I’ve been mulling this over the last few days. My good friend and colleague, Lee Basham (of South Texas College) has long argued that I should not have closed my book with a declaration that the best conspiracy theory about the events of 9/11 is the “Al-Qaeda was responsible” theory. Rather, Lee thinks I should have just provided the methodology for the analysis of conspiracy theories and left the generation of conclusions to those who would employ my analysis. His argument was that my analysis does not need to be hitched to any particular claim to be useful. The North Head issue is a good example: when Martin and I met in person for the first time one of the first things he said to me was “So, you’ve been a skeptic about all of this for a very long time, haven’t you?”

Being known as a skeptic of something has, in the past, been something I’ve celebrated and shouted to the rooftops. However, now I think that it can be a bit of a millstone. I have no issue in changing my mind; I went from being a very devout theist to an atheist (of the “There’s no good proof for the existence of the gods, so I’m not going to believe in them until there is” variety), and I went from being a racist to a non-racist. I even started out writing a PhD on the warrant of conspiracy theories believing that we had grounds to claim said theories were prima facie unwarranted, and we’ve all seen where that got me.

So, being known as a skeptic of the view there might be something more to the North Head story can be a bit of problem. This is because sometimes people take skepticism to mean “Here is my view on x, and you are stupid to believe otherwise.” However, my skepticism of the Hidden Tunnels conspiracy theory has always been about a lack of good evidence (and there’s a phrase which needs careful unpacking). Meeting with Martin and seeing and hearing about some of the new evidence he has brought to light, has shifted my thinking.1

Here’s a quote from the end of my book.

When inferring to an explanation, ordinary reasoners might fail to consider:

1. The extent to which the available evidence that the phenomenon being explained renders the hypothesis probable (the posterior probability),
2. The degree to which the hypothesis is independently likely (the prior probability),
3. The likelihood of the hypothesis, relative to the other hypotheses being considered (the relative probability) or
4. The possibility that there are some worthwhile hypotheses which have not been considered.

Three of these issues are to do with how we consider the probability of a given hypothesis. The fourth is about the failure of ordinary reasoners to consider other worthwhile hypotheses.
(Dentith, M. R. X. ‘The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories’, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 147)

Martin’s research, at least for me, means there is new evidence to consider. His new evidence consists of additional information about the military use of North Head and how North Head fitted into the military command structure across Aotearoa. Not just that, but he also has some interesting examples of inconsistencies in official correspondence. Some of this evidence changes the posterior probability of some version of the non-official, conspiracy theory because it not just opens up holes in official reports and statements from Ministers and senior personnel, but it also shows that people where either very lackadaisical with the truth or that they lied to either the public or members of the Government.

Now, I say “some version of the non-official, conspiracy theory” quite deliberately; if I can going to concede that it seems there is more evidence for a cover-up than I initially thought, that doesn’t require me to believe a specific conspiracy theory that says, for example, that there is decaying ammunition deep within North Head. I can believe there is evidence for a cover-up about something without having to believe something about what is being covered up. But, and this is important, I think Martin’s research increases the likelihood that some version of a conspiracy theory about North Head is true. The question is, does it change it such that it is the most probable explanatory hypothesis?

Obviously there is a tension between the posterior and relative probability of a set of hypotheses; as the posterior probability of some version of, in this case, the conspiracy theory goes up you should expect it to become relatively more probable than some other hypotheses for the same event. This is where I am at right now: the new evidence certainly increases the posterior probability of some conspiracy theory about North Head, but has the relative probability of the rival, official and non-conspiracy theory been lowered, such that some version of the conspiracy theory is now the most likely explanation? For the moment, I have no concrete answer. My gut tells me that the official theory is still the most likely explanation, but it’s not as likely (to my mind) as it was a week ago. But why trust my gut on this, rather than go back and re-examine the evidence?

Which is what I am going to do. More on this soon.

Notes

  1. I keep wanting to say things like “a little bit” and I’m honestly not sure whether that’s because I’m simply resistant to changing my mind on some of the issues.