Historic Doubts Concerning HORansome

Bishop Whately’s ‘Historic Doubts Concerning Napoleon Bonaparte’ is a funny and fascinating book. Written whilst Napoleon was alive, Bishop Whately casts doubts as to the existence of the Corsican by running the scepitical line that a) Napoleon’s life seems extraordinary-qua-miracluous, b) there has been no historical figure like him in the past and c) the reports of his exploits are consistently inconsistent. The first point is a veiled attack at the accepted wisdom of Hume on miracles whilst the second point relates to the problem of induction and the German view of what qualifies as historical fact. The entire book is reductio ad absurdum which could all too easily be read as being serious in tone when it is, in fact, a (still) apt reminder that dogmatic scepticism is just as bad, if not worse, than credulism.

The third point, the inconsistency of the reporting of Napoleon’s life, is the cornerstone for the first third of the text; what the English said about Napoleon’s failures made no sense given the fact that he, by less nationalistic standards, was so successful, whilst what the French said about Napoleon’s victories made no sense given the fact that he did keep losing those armies. Whately focuses his attention on newspaper reporting very early on and argues that what papers report as unquestionable facts are usually the things we should question most.

It is true they [the English] often speak contempuously of such “newspaper stories” as last but a short time; indeed, they continually see them contradicted within a day or two in the same paper, or their falsity detected by some journal of an opposite party; but still whatever is long adhered and often repeated, especially if it also appears in several different papers (and this, though they notoriously copy from one another), is almost sure to be generally believed. Whence this high respect which is practically paid to newspaper authority? Do men think that because a witness has been perpetually detected in falsehood, he may therefore be the more safely believed when he is not detected? or does adherence to a story, and frequent repetition of it, render it the more credible? On the contrary, is it not a common mistake in other cases, that a liar will generally stand to and reiterate what he has once said, merely because he has said it?

Which brings me to the David Bain issue that is afflicting New Zealand at the moment. David Bain (for my hypothetical foreign readers) was convicted of murdering his family and spent quite some time in prison for it. His case was recently heard before the Privy Council and the conviction has been quashed on the grounds that new evidence, post the original trial, would lead to reasonable doubt by the jury and that the Crown not only did not present all the facts but also misconstrued some of them. Damning stuff, but, as some commentators have argued, not proof that David Bain is innocent.

Up to this point everything seems fine, but a lot of people with no legal training or expertise in forsenics are now arguing that, on the balance of probabilities David Bain probably was guilty because the other suspect, his father, had a full bladder when he died (I wish this was a crude characterisation, but it really isn’t). The argument seems to be that an aged man can’t commit multiple homocides before he has his morning toilet experience and certainly wouldn’t commit suicide before relieving his bladder tensions. That people aren’t always rational agents seems to escape such highly trained legal minds. That murderers might not be in a rational state of mind anyway just seems to be a further complication not worth thinking. Fine, to each their own. I just hope they’re never a juror at any trial of mine.

More sophisticated commentators will trout out the bladder line with reference to a few other salient details of Robin Bain’s existence that day, using the bladder argument as support for the hypothesis that Robin Bain’s activities are incongruous with a man who is about to massacre his own family. This certainly seems like a better move than relying on a general law about men needing to relieve themselves before the serious work of the day can be done. Still, Whately’s criticism on reporting comes into play here. People are reporting certain states of affairs of Robin (and David) Bain’s activities that fateful morning as if they are unquestionable (to whit, as if they are facts) when these are actually interpretations or inferences based upon certain key assumptions. Both the Crown, the Defense and the Privy Council have called into question many of these interpretations and to continue maintaining them at this stage, post the trial and the damning Privy Council report, is a disservice to everyone. These are, clearly, not unquestionable facts, no matter how often the New Zealand Herald tells you that they are.

Let it be observed that I am not impugning any one particular narrative; but merely showing generally, that what is unquestioned is not necessarily unquestionable; since men will often, at the very moment when they are accurately sifting the evidence of some disputed point, admit hastily, and on the most insufficient grounds, what they have been accustomed to see taken for granted.

And to think that this was going to be filler post. Oh well, I’m sure normal service will resume next week.