Tag: North Head

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. ((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.)) 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.

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. ((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.))

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.

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


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 boast ((Not strictly true.)) 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.

Regrets, I have a few, some which I now shall mention… (Or: Why I Left London, Returned Home and Became a Looney!)

Whilst I was living in London I kept planning to go up to Hempstead Heath. Not because I wanted to say ‘Close to the meat’ but rather because I wanted to find some damned hills in London and clamber all over them. I’m an Aucklander; we don’t believe in going for walks unless they strain the thighs and buttocks. More importantly, my entry point to Conspiracy Theories is all about hills. Well, one hill; it is called North Head and it is the focus of my story.

North Head, more properly known as Maungauika was formed forty-thousand years ago. When the Maori arrived it became a settlement for members of the local iwi, Tainui, and up until the eighteenth century, and the arrival of the Europeans, the only fighting was tribal. With the Europeans came a new culture and they brought with them new ideas and new threats. Whilst the Maori had had only themselves to fight against, the Europeans were at war with multiple enemies.In the 1880s the primary threat to New Zealand was felt to be the Russians. Trenches were built across the face of North Head and over the top of these were placed unused railway irons which then had concrete poured over the top, creating tunnels that lead to a variety of guns. North Head, like many of the volcanic cones in Auckland, became a coastal defence. Over time the Head was modified or rebuilt, first with the Great War of Nineteen Fourteen and then with Britain’s fear that a war in both Europe and the Pacific was a possibility in the Nineteen Thirties, and, of course, during the Second World War. It was held by the Army, then by the Navy and is now looked after by the Department of Conservation, who keep it in its peaceful state.

As a military base North Head played a role in the military history of Auckland, a story that is interesting in its own right. For my purpose, however, we must turn away from the wars themselves and focus on North Head’s other story, a story of planes, a story of ammunition and a story, most importantly, about tunnels.In 1916 William Boeing and G. Conrad Westervelt build two seaplanes, known as Bluebill and Mallard. In retrospect these two planes are important, not only because they are now known to be the first Boeing aircraft but also because these two planes were were also the first example of Boeing selling aircraft overseas, and the place they sold them to in October of 1918 was a flying school located in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Walsh Brothers, Leo and Vivian, bought Bluebill and Mallard for their ‘New Zealand Flying School,’ partly for use in training pilots at the end of the the First World War but primarily for charter work (and joy-riding) . By 1924 the “New Zealand Flying School” was closed down, and the New Zealand Army surveyed the chattels, burning those planes which were no longer thought to be useful . The surviving equipment was shipped across the harbour to Torpedo Bay in the coastal town of Devonport where they spent much time taking up space on the parade ground. Come 1934 most of the surviving remains of the New Zealand Flying School were burnt on a nearby beach and the remaining items were placed in storage somewhere within the military complex built within the hillside of North Head.Time passed.Sometime in the early 1950s it was decided that a memorial to Leo and Vivian Walsh should be constructed to celebrate the pioneers of powered flight in New Zealand. Such a memorial would need to be paid for, and it was thought that if Mallard and Bluebill were still extant then the Boeing Corporation might well pay good money for them. Enquiries made and yes, the Corporation would pay good money for the seaplanes.

Sir Leonard Isitt, the valuer of the assets of the Flying School, along with Major George Salt, who was in charge of the Naval Yard in Devonport both had supporting stories indicating that the planes were sealed up in a tunnel in North Head. Whilst some of the planes had been surveyed were known to have been burnt, an analysis of the remains from that site indicated that the Boeings were not amongst the assets destroyed. The question that remained, then, was ‘Where were the planes now?’

The search stalled when it was discovered that if the planes were found that the Government would take any monies earned from their sale. It was only twenty years later that something was said to make people once again ask questions about the state of the Boeings and where they might be.Around the 1970s a naval rating entered the offices of the “North Shore Times Advertiser,” a local newspaper, and told a remarkable story.

North Head, by this time, was a park that, aside from the summit, which the Navy still controlled, was accessible to the public. According to the story the naval rating told the extant tunnel complex was only part of a far larger, more extensive, complex that went deep within the hill.The naval rating, when first assigned to duty on North Head, had entered the tunnels through a gun emplacement on the summit and made his way through various tunnels and vertical shafts that lead to a horizontal tunnel that lead to the sea level. Within these tunnels were several large iron doored chambers, all closed, and several crates with aircraft markings upon them. When the rating later returned to North Head after being assigned sea duties he discovered that the gun emplacement that he had entered the complex through had been converted into a water tank and that the other tunnel entrances had been sealed with concrete. Despite the fact that the summit (and thus the 8 inch gun emplacement which had, indeed, been converted into a water tank) was still under military control and thus inaccessible to the public, the other entrances should have been accessible to the public, but there was no sign of these entrances at all. Compounding this problem was a complete lack of any proper maps for the complex; the maps had been known to exist but had disappeared enroute to the National Archives in Wellington. If there were more tunnels on North Head than the existing structures indicated, then why were they hidden and what was inside of them? These two quite separate questions became, for many the rationale for a new, and very different story about North Head, a story that differed considerably from the official accounts of the Head and its role.

In 1976 John Earnshaw arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. A documentarian, Earnshaw heard about the Boeing Seaplanes and became interested in their fate. Interviewing not only military personnel but also local residents he collected information that supported the naval rating’s claims. North Head, in their recollection, was a far more extensive complex than had been previously thought. It possibly extended down to below sea-level. It was possible to travel from the summit to the shoreline without ever seeing daylight. It contained within it (at the time of military occupation at least) crates that were thought to contain aircraft parts. If this testimony was accurate, and the stories did seem to corroborate each other, then the lack of access to these tunnels needed to be explained? Why were we being denied access to part of the military base? Could the Boeings still be in storage somewhere within the Head? John Earnshaw was determined to find out and to produce a documentary about their discovery.

In 1986 it was agreed between Mallard Films, John Earnshaw’s company, and the Crown that any relics found in North Head would be shared. Thus the way was opened for an investigation of North Head by 1987, and a set of Army engineers began the task of exploring various possible entry points to the hidden tunnel complex.

This investigation faltered after two weeks for two reasons. One reason was that the engineers did not receive the necessary permissions to excavate a possible tunnel behind the wall of a water tank on the summit, the other being the unusual smell of moth balls that some of the drilling had released.The smell of moth balls is akin to the smell of naphthalene, the scent given off by decaying, or sweating ammunition. Old ammunition, left to decay, becomes unstable and like nitro-glycerine, it is prone to explode if disturbed. Could it be that the reason why the tunnels were no longer accessible was due to the fact that the Army, when they vacated North Head around 1947-1948, left ammunition in the “safety” of blocked up tunnels?

The story was seemingly rendered plausible by the claim that the Army, when leaving North Head, might well have decided that instead of transferring the ammunition to another complex might have decided to sell the brass casings of the shells to scrap metal merchants and left the ammunition itself in the tunnels, which would have then been blocked up, or hidden, to make sure that no one could get access to it.If the Army had left behind ammunition then there could be a plausible reason as to why the additional tunnels were no longer accessible, and this was a matter to do with safety. Such tunnels would not be safe to enter and nor would they be safe to find via excavation, since such explorative work could set off the ammunition, leading to possible extensive damage not only to the hillside but also to the residences built on the lower slopes of North Head.

The Army, of course, denied the claims. Major Reginald M. Nutsford, who was District Officer of the 9th Coast, closed down the various fortifications when the coastal defences (such as North Head) were disbanded. He had audited the ammunition contained within North Head and said that all ammunition was accounted for by the time the Army left. Still, the smell of naphthalene was present when the engineers had drilled holes in the tunnel walls, and this tale of hidden ammunition could also account for some of the anomalies in regard to North Head, like those missing maps.

Things became even more complex: When the story of the other tunnels of North Head first surfaced properly in 1970 enquiries made to the Armed Services indicated that any tunnels not currently accessible on the Head had been lost. A report was uncovered from the flying school’s archives that found that the likely fate of the Boeings was their destruction in 1924 before they got to Devonport, let alone North Head. The planes were said to be in dilapidated condition and of obsolete type and not of interest to the Government of the time. Yet Sir Leonard Issitt and one of the Majors stationed at Torpedo Yard both thought that the Boeings survived the culling of the Flying School and made it at least to Devonport. An analysis of the remains where the other planes were burnt in the 1930s indicated that the two Boeings were not amongst them.I haven’t even mentioned the UFO/Harmonic connection.

I grew up with this furore happening around me. North Head was exciting to me as a child; I remember one visit where I saw workmen walking out of a side tunnel that I had never seen before. I now know that this was part of one of the excavations but at the time I thought I had seen proof positive of a cover-up. It was only natural that, with time, I should become interested in strange events; I know of a lot of other people of my generation who became Forteans by virtue of living in Devonport (which has a fairly interesting history beside that of North Head; first hanging of a Pakeha, bear pits, the location of one of the fabled canoes, et al).

Which probably brings us to the question: Do I believe? To which I answer: Probably not. Logistically, the existence of additional tunnels in North Head is unlikely, for I’ll probably one day express. I know enough about testimony to understand how it can be flawed and I’ve seen the so-called witness reports and the corrobation isn’t as high as some would like to think it is. Still, it is possible that there are tunnels in the Head that are being kept out of sight, whether deliberately or by accident I wouldn’t like to say. I’d like there to be addiitonal tunnels in North Head; the story of North Head would be all the more remarkable if the conspiracy where true. If it blows up tomorrow due to all that decaying ammunition then I will only be slightly surprised.

If that does happen I hope that one of the seaplane carcasses lands on my roof. I’ll be rich beyond my wildest dreams.