Tunnel Vision Review – Part 3

The Ammunition Theory

The big question for any conspiracy theory which seeks to explain the decision by the Government and the New Zealand Defence Force to deny or hide the existence of additional tunnels within North Head is “Why?” Whilst some conspiracy theorists start out with “The planes!” it does beggar belief to think that there is some large-scale, state level conspiracy to hide the existence of two dilapidated Boeing Seaplanes.1

The most common, contemporary version of the North Head Tunnels Conspiracy Theory focuses on what I like to term “The Ammunition Theory”. The claim of conspiracy in this group of theories is the New Zealand Defence Force and the Government are trying to keep secret/hide that when the Army decommissioned North Head’s defences, they did not properly dispose of the ammunition.

The stock version of the Ammunition Theory is that the discarded ammunition is slowly rotting away in some hidden tunnel, and the reason why the Powers-That-Be won’t allow said tunnels to be found is because rotting ammunition is highly explosive and sensitive to vibration. Pop the tunnel open and up blows the Head.2 However, Butler’s version of the ammunition theory is all about Mustard Gas.

There is a little mystery about our nation’s stock of Mustard Gas3: what happened to it? The mystery is due to what looks to be a discrepancy in the accounts: we have a list of how much mustard gas we had and we have a list of how much mustard gas we disposed of, and the numbers don’t match. Butler argues that one plausible reason as to why the tunnels are being kept secret/hidden from us is that the missing barrels are deep within North Head.

The only real link Butler provides between the North Head installation and the missing canisters of mustard gas is a vague account from Ken Bartum, who claimed to have seen “sinister canisters” in a now lost tunnel inside North Head and a newspaper report. In re the first piece of evidence, it’s hard to know what to make of Bartum;s report: seeing sinister canisters is neither here nor there, since I’m not sure that thinking a canister seems sinister in any way tells you the contents are actually sinister.4

The newspaper article is more interesting, but I think Butler infers too much into it. He links a report of man getting his hands burnt by mustard gas with the fact he did his chemical weapons training at the Narrow Neck training grounds. He thus infers that the burn occurred at Narrow Neck. However, to do this he has to infer that the description of the chemical burn in one paragraph is linked to the discussion of where he undertook weapons training in the next. Whilst that’s a possible reading of the article, it’s not actually entailed and, given the paragraph break, doesn’t even seem to be what the writer intended to convey.5. Even if that was what the writer intended to convey, there is still the problem of North Head and the Narrow Neck installation not being the same place, and there is no evidence to say that any the alleged canisters of mustard gas being held at Narrow Neck were shipped to North Head. If there is more evidence, it’s certainly not presented in the book.6

The presence of chemical weapons within North Head would be a fairly dramatic discovery, and if said weapons are there, you can understand why the Government and Military might be trying to keep their existence secret. Not because we might need them for some future war but because, well, chemical weapons are not the kind of thing Nuclear Free New Zealand should have access to.

The mystery of the missing barrels of mustard gas is a known problem in our military history and there are various theories to explain it, all of which explain away the discrepancy as essentially being an accounting error. However, even if there is no accounting error and there are stocks of mustard gas somewhere in the country, the evidence that they might be in North Head presented by Butler is so vague and speculative that it’s hard to credit it as plausible.

Indeed, reading through the last half of the book, I really did wonder why Butler pushed the conspiracy line at all, other than that he seemed to be looking for a conspiracy to explain why the received history of North Head is so bitsy, and thus has a number of gaps. We know there’s a lot about the history of North Head we still don’t know and might never do, although the work undertaken by the Department of Conservation in reconstructing that history has shown that, given sufficient resources, we can learn a lot. Butler, however, treats the Department of Conservation record as suspicious because he thinks the people behind the investigations were out to obscure the truth, rather than reveal it. As such, he throws away evidence from the investigations as being irrelevant and relies, instead, upon masses of what seem to be problematic witness accounts.

I’ve read the reports of the archaeological investigations, and the investigations seem sound. I’m talking here from a point of relative expertise, since my undergraduate degree was in both Philosophy and Archaeology (well, Anthropology, but specifically Archaeology as a sub-discipline of Anthropology). However, Butler doesn’t just take issue with the investigations, but also the way in which they were funded. He thinks more could have been done and that the amount of money spent on the investigations was meagre, thus showing that the reports would be a whitewash.

Butler calls the Department of Conservation investigations “beer and chips” parties because he thinks they were done on the cheap. However, he fails to contextualise the “cheapness” of the investigations. The Department of Conservation spent $140,000 on the site investigations of North Head, looking for the additional tunnels. That $140,000 was the entire Auckland archaeology budget that year. By Department of Conservation standards, the investigation of North Head was not just incredibly well-funded but it also meant that no other investigations could be undertaken elsewhere in Auckland that year.

Butler thinks the investigation was a “beer and chips” party because he thinks more money could have been spent. He says something like: “This seems to not have been as well-funded as it could have been (thus they must have decided the verdict from the beginning)” but you have to compare like with like. The Department of Conservation investigation was, by their own standards, incredibly well-funded. The only way to decide that the Department of Conservation investigation was lacklustre would be to compare it to similar archaeological work in New Zealand undertaken and then compare the costs of the investigation and the methods used. That might tell you that the investigation of North Head by the Department of Conservation was slipshod. The money, by itself, tells us nothing.

In the next, and final part, I sum up and, probably surprisingly to those reading, give my support to Butler to engage in a new archaeology dig on North Head.

Notes

  1. Even if you think the treasure trove on them is mighty, the cost of running the conspiracy is probably mightier
  2. And down comes all those property prices in Cheltenham.
  3. Yes, we had chemical weapons.
  4. This is a bit like the “But he seemed like such a nice man” response people give when told their neighbour is a serial killer. Judging books by their covers, blah blah blah (secret plan!).
  5. The other issue here is that the Narrow Neck base was the general training academy, so, of course, chemical weapons training would occur there but that doesn’t actually tell us much, if anything, about chemical weapon stockpiles in the vicinity.
  6. In correspondence I have challenged Butler to provide more evidence if he had it for a number of his claims. He has assured me that he has more more evidence but he won’t present it for the time being. Indeed, he seemed to think I should just assume he has more evidence and thus take it on trust his arguments are well-grounded. He didn’t seem to understand why I might think this is a problem.

“Tunnel Vision” Review – Part 2

Issues to do with Testimony

In the first half of the book, Butler argues that we should accept that the Boeing seaplanes, Mallard and Bluebill, made it to Devonport because George Bolt and Leonard Isitt said they did. Both Bolt and Isitt, if we take them at their word, though, were indirect witnesses, rather than eye witnesses to the moving of the seaplanes from Mission Bay to Devonport. Their testimony is that they were told by others that the planes were moved rather than claiming to see the move itself. Isitt’s testimony in particular–as Butler reports it–vacillates with respect to what he thought happened, and so he comes across as an increasingly unreliable witness as time passes. Bolt is much more forthright about the claim the planes were shipped to Devonport, but, once again, he was not an eye witness to the alleged move.

Butler defends the testimony of both Isitt and Bolt by saying “Look, these are respectable figures, honest and sincere” but, in the end, that is only part of the story we need to tell with respect to how we evaluate testimony: given they are not eye-witnesses we have to ask “How well were they able to appraise the quality of their sources?” Even people with impeccable personal honesty or integrity can make lousy judges of character.

This issue is compounded in the second half of the book, when Butler analyses the testimony of those who claim to know about the existence of a hidden tunnel complex deep within North Head. For example, he makes a lot out of a claim by former Minister of Defence, Bob Tizard, who said “There is ammunition in those them missing tunnels”1 (not a direct quote, I’m afraid) which Butler takes to be proof positive Tizard knew about the tunnels and the ammunition inside of them. Now, maybe he did, but it’s also possible it was something he was told by someone under him, which leads to the question just how well informed everyone in that particular Ministry is, or was.

Some of Butler’s assumptions about how government works, particularly the relationship between Ministers and Ministries is startling and naive.2 He seems to think that Ministers are particularly well-informed about their portfolios, as if they have direct oversight into the workings of their particular ministries, as opposed to people who take advice.

An apt analogy for this was the respective American and British governments’ claims about those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the ones which justified the invason. Now, it turns out that no CIA or MI5 field operatives in Iraq actually believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but some of the managers/directors of those agencies, back home in Washington and London did. So when Bush and Blair said “We have received advice that…” they were acting on the advice of the executive members of the CIA and MI5, members who had failed to actually report accurately what the field operatives said, rather than reporting something they directly knew.3.

Testimony is only as good as the chain of testifiers, so if we can’t identify who said what to who, then it’s hard to know whether the Minister, in this case, Bob Tizard, was well or ill-informed on the matter of tunnels and discarded ammunition.

Butler uses Tizard’s testimony and the fact that subsequent Ministers of Defense have said otherwise to both claim “Conspiracy!” and to suggest there has been some loss of institutional memory about what is, or is not, inside of North Head. Of course, there is another possibility, which is that Tizard took or received advice from one person and other Ministers took it from another; the different sets of advisors might well have known or believed different things, given the evidence, or lack thereof, they had at the time.

Still, the evidence Butler finds to be the most persuasive, and is the basis for his claim that something very fishy is going on, is the collection of eye-witness accounts John Earnshaw collected in his search for the two Boeing Seaplanes. Butler presents a small selection of Earnshaw’s collection, which is certainly very interesting, but this testimony has been subject to a lot of analysis by the Courts. The judgement, of Justice Sian Elias, was that the testimony was suspect; not because it was false but because the testimony was the result of both unwitting coercion by Earnshaw and contaminated. Butler’s only response to Justice Elias’s claim he doesn’t believe it.4 Well, he goes one further and tries to make out that Justice Elias suggested that the witnesses were either lying or Earnshaw deliberately set out to train them. However, charitably, what Justice Elias was concerned about was that:

a) Some of the eye-witness testimony lacks what we call “independence”, in that many of the witnesses knew one another and had corresponded with one another well before the trial. As such, you would expect there to be a certain amount of corroboration in their stories. Sometimes this is good but if most or all of the testimony lacks indepedence, then it’s not as good as a selection of evidence where the witnesses had little to no contact with one another.

b) We can’t get around the fact that Earnshaw, when interviewing witnesses, in many cases coaxed the kind of answers he was looking for out of his subjects (this is not particularly contentious: the recordings the court had access to show this behaviour). Whilst, I don’t think Earnshaw deliberately engaged in this behaviour, I do think his drive to find both the planes and the tunnels meant that he pushed interview subjects for answers. If the answers they gave weren’t the ones he was looking for, he would push them again and again, until such time the testimony matched the kind of answers he was looking for.5

These are all issues that Justice Elias was aware of when she decided that the expert testimony should be taken to be more reliable than the collection of eye-witness testimony; Butler doesn’t don’t grapple with these issues other than be incredulous that someone wouldn’t take witnesses at their word.

In the next part, the rationale for the conspiracy is revealed.

Notes

  1. I’ll come back to the ammunition thing in the next section.
  2. Has he not seen “Yes, Minister”? It might be a comedy but political scientists agree it’s also pretty accurate as a description of how things work.
  3. Well, the story is a little more complex: Blair, it’s plausible to claim, actually lied. Bush… Bush might well have thought he was acting on good advice.
  4. He suggests that Justice Elias might well be a dupe of the conspiracy but, by-and-large, he’s just incredulous that the Justice did not take the witnesses at their word.
  5. There is quite a lot of psychological literature on this subject which shows that witnesses like to give the kinds of answers their interlocuters are looking for (which is why modern interview practice is quite a studied affair, mostly to control for this particular effect).

“Tunnel Vision” Review – Part 1

Max Hill’s “To the Ends of the Earth” is a book that, if its central thesis were true, would require a complete rewrite of human history. It is a big book (literally) in which the author makes bold claims, none of which stand up to scrutiny. Martin Butler’s “Tunnel Vision” is also a largish tome but it is not a bold one: if Butler’s thesis were true, then a small part of New Zealand’s aviation history would need to be revised-and we would have to question the conduct of the New Zealand Government, the Navy and Air Force and the Department of Conservation-but it wouldn’t be world shattering in its scope.

I’m talking around the subject, I realise, but the point I want to start out by making is this: Hill’s book is bold and, because the evidence does not support it’s central wacky caper, it is all the poorer for it (especially given just how badly written it is). Butler’s book in no way rewrites the entirety of human history and thus the evidence he amasses for his claim of conspiracy seems, on the face of it, much more plausible. Whilst I think Butler fails to make his case, it’s a much better book than “To the Ends of the Earth” and it does contain some new evidence worth following up.

Long time readers of this blog will be well aware of my interest in the conspiracy theories about North Head, a military installation in my home town of Devonport. Since the early Eighties, stories about a hidden complex of tunnels deep within North Head have been reported both in the local and national press. The story became so big towards the end of the Eighties that the government launched a series of enquiries which came to the conclusion that there was no hard evidence of additional tunnels deep within the Head. This didn’t stop the stories and it certainly didn’t stop the conspiracy theories about why said tunnels were being hidden from us. If anything, the denial of the tunnel hypothesis by the various investigative bodies (the New Zealand Defence Force, the Department of Conservation and a judicial review by Judge Sian Elias) just amplified the size of the conspiracy. The entire government seemed to be in on it.

Over the years people have talked about writing the definitive book on the subject (even I’ve thought about it). Butler’s book, charmingly titled “Tunnel Vision” has managed to be published first and it’s… Well, “interesting” is one way to put it. “Conspiratorial” is another.

Butler’s interest is in what happened to the two Boeing and Westervald Corporation seaplanes, Mallard and Bluebill, which, legend goes, were placed into storage in a tunnel in North Head.

Mallard and Bluebill were purchased by the Walsh Brothers Flying School in the early 20th Century before disappearing after the flying school was closed and its assets shipped off to Torpedo Yard in Devonport. The first half of “Tunnel Vision” is an attempt to work out whether there is sufficient to evidence to counter the official theory that the two Boeings were deliberately disposed of over in Mission Bay. Butler amasses some circumstantial evidence which he says makes it plausible to claim that the planes made it to Devonport after all, and with that in hand, claims of conspiracy come into play.1

One of Butler’s rationales for thinking that the planes were surely saved is that they are not just valuable artefacts now but they were highly valued and famous back then. However, whilst there are a whole host of meanings for “valuable” which span from “are famous (valuable in a social sense)” to “valuable (worth something to the current owners)” and really the only sense of valuable which the military are likely to have been interested in was “Have these any value to us now.” It seems the answer in the archival material is a simple “No.” Indeed, on page 40 Butler even describes them as being obsolete by 1921, well prior to the move.2

Still, Butler’s account of what might have happened to the planes is nicely written and features a lot of interesting details about the life of the Walsh Brother’s Flying School. As such, “Tunnel Vision” ends up being two books. One is an historical narrative about the fate of two planes. The other is a lengthy diatribe against the holders of the official theory, that the planes were destroyed and that North Head is not riddled with hidden tunnels. Whilst elements of the author of the second half of the book appear in the first few chapters of “Tunnel Vision,” the first half is (relatively) measured and historically focused in tone. It is in the second half, where Butler moves away from the investigation of the archival record to eye-witness testimony and speculation, that the book becomes didactic. Butler admonishes those who hold to or promote the official theory that the planes were destroyed and slams those who claim there is insufficient evidence to support the notion of a hidden tunnel complex deep within North Head. As such, in the next part I want to focus on the second half of the book, because it’s there that I think most of the troubles arise.

Notes

  1. I’m not sold on the notion that the two Boeings ever left Mission Bay in part because what I’ve read of the archival evidence seems to indicate that the Boeings were likely destroyed. There’s no one piece of documentary evidence that states this either way, so we have to rely upon inferring to the best explanation, given the available evidence.
  2. I also find it interesting that Butler doesn’t talk about what happened to the engines of Mallard and Bluebill, since the fact that we know the engines were sold (and where they ended up) seems to strongly suggest the planes were deemed surplus to requirements and thus disposed of. This seems like important, but inconvenient evidence and it just gets glossed over.

Paper Review – Counterfact Conspiracy Theories (Susan Feldman)

Susan Feldman’s paper, “Counterfact Conspiracy Theories,” (International Journal of Applied Philosophy 25:1, 2011) is an examination of a particular kind of conspiracy theory, the “counterfact theory.” As she writes in the introduction to the paper:

In this paper, I highlight and explore a subgroup of conspiracy theories, which I call “Counterfact Conspiracy Theories” (CFCTs). Like all conspiracy theories, counterfact theories assert the existence of a conspiracy. Unlike most conspiracy theories examined by philosophers and social scientists, the assertion of a conspiracy is not provided as an explanation of historical events. The distinctive feature of counterfact theories is their assertion of counterfacts, claims of fact which run contrary to accepted factual claims and their evidence. (p. 15)

Feldman is focussing her discussion on a subset of conspiracy theories in general (which she describes as a kind of explanation about historical events; I don’t think it’s unfair to say that she thinks conspiracy theories are a kind of historical explanation). However, there are some odd points to her discussion of the more general definition of “conspiracy theory.” She states that we should not add to such a definition that the conspirators have malign motives (p. 15), which I agree with, but as she then goes on to state that conspiracy theories can never be examples of official theories because conspiracy theories are counter-narratives (under her definition) (p. 15).

However, what I find contentious about Feldman’s paper is that she borrows some terminology from Michael Barkun to distinguish three kinds of conspiracy theory. “Event theories,” which explain a well known event through the actions of a hidden conspiracy; “Systemic theories,” which assert the existence and activities of hidden, powerful, long-term and often large groups of conspirators, whose activities might well be responsible for large chunks of world history and “Superconspiracies,” which are a mix of systemic and event theories. Event theories are explanatory but systemic theories need not be, apparently, as they should be seen as being an attempt to establish a set of what she calls “hidden facts” about the existence of a set of conspirators. Systemic theories can be explanatory but it is not their primary goal.

I’m not all that familiar with with Barkun’s taxonomy, so my comments on this will be brief1. As I’ve stated several times before though, I’m just not convinced that we need to use a size criterion to distinguish between types of conspiracy and whilst Barkun’s distinction is not entirely size-based, I still think it’s problematic to assert that the kinds of conspiracy theories which assert large groups of conspirators/large conspiracies are somehow automatically less credible than small ones; I’m perplexed by the claim such a difference means that the bigger ones are somehow epistemically suspicious or inadequate as explanations.

Notably, Feldman doesn’t defend Barkun’s taxonomy but, rather, uses it to advance her own argument. I would have liked to see some defence of it, because I’m not convinced by the taxonomy and thus I’m suspicous of its use in Feldman’s argument. I’m especially suspicious because Feldman then goes on to add a fourth type of conspiracy theory, the “counterfact theory:”

However, there are some non-explanatory conspiracy theories which do not fit the systemic pattern. These non-explanatory theories assert counter- facts—they claim facts which run contrary to accepted and authorized beliefs and maintain that knowledge of these counterfacts is suppressed by conspiracy. By ‘counterfacts’ I mean claims of fact contrary to what is accepted or assumed. To call a claim of fact a “counterfact” carries with it no implication as to its truth value.

Let us call these theories counterfact conspiracy theories. The aim of CFCTs is to establish counterfacts and uncover the conspiracy hiding them from general view. As previously noted CFCTs, like systemic theories, assert hidden facts rather than explain already accepted events. However, the hidden facts that systemic theories assert involve the existence of conspiracies, while counterfact theories invoke conspiracies as the means of hiding counterfacts. (p. 16)

Feldman claims there is a:

rough two-step schema typical of any counterfact conspiracy theory:

(i) assertion of counterfacts, and (ii) invocation of a cover-up conspiracy. (p. 17)

and, like systemic theories, such counterfact theories can be explanatory but “the primary purpose of the counterfact theory is not to explain but to put forward the counterfacts.” (p. 17)

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this addition to Barkun’s taxonomy is; Barkun’s systemic theories assert the existence of a hidden facts whilst Feldman’s counterfact theories assert the existence of what she calls a “counter-history” but surely the one dovetails into the other?

Feldman’s examples of such counterfact theories, the Birther conspiracy theory (about President Obama’s supposed illegitimacy to be president of the USA) and claims about the covering up of evidence which suggests that UFOs are alien spacecraft, are, I think, problematic for her account precisely because these theories seek to explain both some contested phenomena (Obama’s reluctance to release the long-form copy of his birth certificate; various unexplained sightings in the skies) and the conspiracy which exists to suppress such information.

A lot, I think, rests upon the notion of contested evidence. Feldman, on page 18, talks about how event theories work with uncontested facts whilst systemic and counterfact theories challenged the uncontested facts and argue for different facts to be accepted within the scope of the argument. Feldman seems to think this is a problem for such theories, but surely this is a problem for theories (especially explanations) of all stripes because sometimes the evidence really is interpretated differently and thus what is considered factual to one theorist is controversial to another.

In the end, though, Feldman’s more sophisitcated definition of a counterfact theory, which she puts forward in the last half of her paper, seems close to her description of a systemic theory:

A CFCT is a counter-narrative account about a significant portion of reality, asserting counterfacts, knowledge of which has been suppressed by a conspiracy of powerful actors usually for their own sinister purposes. (p. 19)

In this definition such counterfact theorists are asserting the existence and activities of hidden, powerful, long-term and often large groups of conspirators, whose activities might well be responsible for large chunks of world history, in this case a set of counterfacts. Thus, it looks to me that Feldman has simply elaborated on Barkun’s thesis, rather than added a new category of conspiracy theory to it.

I’m also not convinced, even if we grant that systemic theories and counterfact theories are different, that such theories are not primarily explanatory. Surely, if Feldman and Barkun are correct, they explain both the existence of a set of conspirators and the reason why such conspirators and their aims remain (largely) unacknowledged by the general populace? Yes, they do this by asserting reasons as to why the conspiracy is not well known, but the assertion of the hidden facts or counterfacts is part of the explanation. Most conspiracy theories are of the type “You don’t know this, but…” where the explanation of the clause after the “but” also explains why you do not know it.

Indeed, Feldman, I think, acknowledges this when she writes:

In practice it may be hard to draw clear lines between ECTs and CFCTs, since the latter do provide some explanation and the former do put forward some counterfacts. (p. 20)

Feldman admits to this but goes on to talk about “idealized” forms of these explanations (p. 19), which suggests to me that she is working with a spectrum here rather than hard-and-fast types of conspiracy theories. Indeed, I think it turns out that what she is talking about is not types of conspiracy theories at all, but rather the kind of strategies conspiracy theorists might use to try and persuade non-conspiracy theorists:

It is useful to pay attention to distinctive strategies that proponents of conspiracy theories deploy. ECT proponents turn their guns on the explanatory adequacy of the official account. In contrast, proponents of CFCTs attack accepted facts in order to clear the field for their counterfacts. To do so, they target the evidence supporting accepted facts by disputing its legitimacy and then doing the same with any additional evidence provided in response to the earlier challenges. Few if any of the accepted facts in the relevant range are left unchallenged on the grounds that proffered proofs or evidence for these facts are defective. (p. 19-20)

I think her argument just shows that the dialect of conspiracy theorising is multifaceted. I don’t think it shows that some conspiracy theories are not primarily explanatory and I don’t think it shows that there is a difference between so-called “systemic theories” and “counterfact theories.” Rather, it shows that some conspiracy theorists want to assert claims of conspiracy that link multiple events, cite the existence of disinformation and are (often?) inferences which are not warranted by the actual evidence.

The last third of her paper supports my contention, I think. Feldman describes how counterfact theorists put forward and argue for their views and what she describes is the strategy of particular conspiracy theorists rather than something which is unique to their particular conspiracy theories. I don’t even think the process she describes is one that is unique to conspiracy theorists (let alone her counterfact theorists).

Maybe the problem (at least to my mind) is not recognising that the process of coming up with a conspiracy theory (conspiracy theorising) is not the same thing as analysing the merit of a given conspiracy theory? There are lots of ways to generate a conspiracy theory (and to defend it) but that doesn’t necessarily tell us that process by which the theory was generated makes the theory itself good or bad (yes, there is going to be some connection between vapid conspiracy theorising and the merit of the expressed conspiracy theory, but it isn’t so tight a connection that we use it to dismiss particular conspiracy theories, let alone conspiracy theories in general). Lots of good scientists come up with inadequate scientific hypotheses; some conspiracy theorists generate warranted conspiracy theories (and might, in some cases, stumble quite accidentally, upon the truth).

Feldman ends with this:

Diagnosing a theory as a counterfact theory goes a significant distance in suggesting the futility in engaging the theory as evidence based, and indeed presumptively supports assessing it and its proponents epistemically defective. Epistemic evaluation might be beside the point, however, when dealing with CFCT proponents. Epistemic considerations relate to the way beliefs connect to evidence and at least indirectly, truth or likelihood of truth. While counterfact theorists purport truth, perhaps the kind of truth we should take them to mean is not factual but expressive—the theory is “true” because it expresses a deeply held world view, a subjective set of connected associations, values and meanings. It is possible to take notice of the expressive truth of the theory without engaging in futile exchanges about facts and counterfacts. The point of engaging such theorists is therapeutic rather than epistemic. By engaging sincere counterfact theorists on their underlying expressive truth, perhaps the roots of their views can be exposed, allowing them to the opportunity to understand what they are expressing through their views, and allowing outsiders to understand the meanings and values roiling the body politic. (p. 22)

Once again, I think this points towards Feldman’s analysis really being on the strategies certain kinds of conspiracy theorists use to argue their views, which does not, I would argue, necessarily tell us anything about the merit/warrant of such views. Yes, the way that we come up with and support our theories has some bearing on the merits of our theories, but I think we should be cautious and not dismiss particular conspiracy theories (or conspiracy theories in general) because of the way in which the conspiracy theorist theorises.

Notes

  1. Barkun’s book “A Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America” is on the reading list; I had it once before but it got recalled before I was able to read it