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.

A Tale of Two Conspiracies

A colleague of mine congratulated me on reading a book the other day. That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot in my particular research area. Not because my “reading a book” is considered to be an unusual state of affairs for me (although, to be honest, in the last two years of finishing off the thesis I became someone who eschewed books for the most part and relied entirely on the pleasant brevity of articles1) but rather because some of the books I read are of the kind you wouldn’t want people to know you spend time with or just wouldn’t want to read, period.

I am, of course, talking about conspiracy literature written by conspiracy theorists. The book in question was “Tunnel Vision,” by Martin Butler. It covers the North Head Tunnels conspiracy theory and argues that some set of conspirators are hiding something (which might be Boeing seaplanes or it might be discarded ammunition). As conspiracy theory tracts go, well, it’s not bad (which is not to say it’s any good); indeed, compared to Maxwell C. Hill’s “To the Ends of the Earth,” (another recent read) “Tunnel Vision” is wonderfully level-headed (but, as I say, only as a contrast to a book which really stretches the limit of what can be called “research”).

Both “Tunnel Vision” and “To the Ends of the Earth” are self-published books and they have the kinds of problems you’d expect of vanity-pressed historical accounts. Both books are revisionist histories of Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand): Hill’s radically revises the history of our nation (the Greeks and Egyptians got here first and the M?ori came later); Butler proposes what is, in the end, a minor rewrite of New Zealand’s aviation and military history (the first two Boeing seaplanes probably weren’t destroyed in Mission Bay and the North Head military complex may well have a hidden ammunition storage depot deep in the heart of Maungaika, containing undisposed off, decaying ammunition stores).

Both books challenge our accepted history by calling into question the veracity of archival material and proposing that parts of our oral history, suitably interpreted, should be taken more seriously. Like all revisionist histories, there are a number of intellectual fancies in the narrative which are never really admitted to, but end up colouring the analysis. Butler’s book contains a fair number of the things but Hill’s book is a treasure trove. He puts forward claims like “Maui and Rata are the names of ancient Greek and Egyptian navigators” and “The Greeks taught the indigenous peoples of South American how to piles rocks on top of other rocks” as if they are in no way controversial. Hill, like Butler to a lesser extent, never gets round to signalling that his argument rests upon hypothetical claims and radical reinterpretations of the evidence.

Indeed, neither author really ever bothers to deal with the existing literature. Butler’s book attacks a Department of Conservation report and investigation into North Head for, basically, not doing the dig the way Butler (not-an-archaeologist) would have done it and then he calls into question the reading of the evidence by a High Court Judge because he has his own “balance of probabilities” calculation going on (Butler is also not a member of the judiciary). He fails to talk about archaeological methods and whether the work of Dave Veart, the principal archaeologist on the dig, is consistent with current practice and he never deals with the concerns Justice Elias expressed about the collection of eye-witness statements put forward by John Earnshaw. Instead, he relies on his own common sense (without ever asking whether his common sense is something which should trump the work of suitably qualified experts).

This, though, is nothing in comparison with Hill, whose project is so breath-taking in scope (his thesis does not just challenge the history of this place but the histories of Polynesia and South America) that it means, if we were to treat it seriously, almost everything we know would be called into question. Butler’s claim of conspiracy, if true, would not require us to reassess our recent history all that much; Hill’s claims, would. The mythology of Polynesia would become the hazy recollection of a two-year Greek/Egyptian voyage to circumnavigate the globe. The polity structure of South America and the stone temples that made up that complex: borrowed from the Greek and Egyptian sailors who lived and taught among those people for over a century (before being driven out).

Butler’s book is a quest narrative, which shows him inspecting archives and poring over old reports. Where Butler questions recent history he is either pointing out the lacuna historical explanations always seemed doom to have or he points towards inconsistencies in the written record.

Hill, however, pulls together a host of largely unrelated material and creates his own narrative from it. Butler’s work is a quest you too could undertake: if the subject material was religious rather than historical, then you could imagine the “Adepts of Butler” starting out towards Wellington, and its National Archives, to follow in his footsteps and read the sacred texts that pertain to North Head. Hill, though, engages in a project that requires more than just a mastery of library catalogues and a determination to track things down. Hill brings together seemingly unrelated articles (mostly not peer reviewed) and books ranging from the work of Thor Heyerdahl to Gavin Menzies to question everything we think we know and put forward a new theory (presumably located in a ringbinder to rule them all2). Hill can find an association, it seems, between any two (seemingly-unrelated) things.

For example, Hill brings together theories about Melanesian and Polynesian petroglyphs looking (vaguely) like Egyptian hieroglyphs (apologies to the makers of the original petroglyphs but, if they are meant to look like their Egyptian counterparts, well, they really do look like very shoddy replicas. Obviously, when away from home standards slip), badly-drawn maps, words that sound like other words and similarities between myths of different cultures to create a conceptual space where all these things make sense (street sense) only if we accept that a postulated circumnavigation by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians not only took place but, very importantly, a second lot, several decades later, was sent out to find out what happened to the first.

Hill’s evidence about these matters is not evidence in the sense that you can point at historical discrepancies, lacuna and the like. Hill’s thesis requires that we just sweep away orthodox history. Butler’s claims are, at the very least, theoretically testable. If certain new evidence came to light it could confirm his or refute his view. Hill’s claims… Any refutation of them would just be more evidence of the conspiracy (a PC one at that) which denies the true history of this place.

In my next post I will look at the kinds of argument and evidence Maxwell C. Hill uses to advance his radical reinterpretation of human history, which will then be followed with a post on contrasting this with Butler’s much more modest, much more reasonable (but still quite problematic) claims.

Notes

  1. Anyone who reads articles will know that reading articles is rarely pleasant nor brief: I was undergoing some psychological hardships at the time.
  2. That was terrible and I apologise.

Field-tripping

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before (and I’m hoping the magical automatic post recognition function at the end of this post proves that), but every semester, rain or shine, we take the Critical Thinking students of PHIL105 to Maungaika/North Head in Devonport for a field-trip devoted to the conspiracy theories of discarded ammunition, old Boeing seaplanes and the like.

Sunday saw me lead about ninety students around North Head. Usually we have Dave Veart from the Department of Conservation as our tour guide, but due to an illness last year and his being on a dig at the moment, I’ve become the (temporary) replacement.

As a sometime lecturer of the PHIL105 course, and one of the people responsible for coming up with the notion and implementation of a field-trip for a Philosophy class, it is rather fun to talk about the conspiracy theories in a far more relaxed way than I would in the classroom. I don’t like to boast1 but I do enjoy public speaking and I have a certain talent for it (trained rather than natural); ninety-two (or so) captive souls and a chance to talk about the theories that got me thinking about the issues that now make up my thesis… Glorious.

In completely unrelated news, I made another video. There is method to this video-making madness; once the thesis is finished I plan to do a lot more interactive and video-related content in my lectures and presentations. Because I seem to have no impulse control whatsoever when it comes to staving off future events (or not worrying about them), I’m doing little tests here and there. The following video is representative of experimentalism. If you find it a) boring and/or b) derivative, then that is entirely my your problem.

Notes

  1. Not strictly true.