The Appeal to Embargoed Evidence

1 June 2015



There is a mode of fallacious argumentation, related to argumentum ad ignorantiam yet sufficiently distinct from it, that I am going to call the appeal to embargoed evidence (and which could also be called the appeal to sequestered evidence). The appeal to embargoed evidence occurs when someone makes the claim that some open question has been definitely answered, but that the evidence that settles the question is not available to public inspection. The evidence may be missing, or hidden, or suppressed — but whatever its status, it cannot be produced. One is supposed to take the speaker’s assurances on the existence and nature of the evidence.

I have personally experienced the appeal to embargoed evidence many times, as, for example, when a reader responded to my posts Of Distinctions, Weak and Strong and Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise with this comment:

May I recommend lunch with a scientist working in nano technology. The ‘mind body problem’ you speak of was “solved” in a lab I worked in years ago. Sadly it’s classified due to ESP Rsrch. Such musings with regard to mind, now seem like Claudius Ptolemy lecturing about his epicycles.

I responded in turn:

If it’s classified, don’t you suppose that I would have a difficult time getting anyone to talk? Also, I would insist on writing about it, which would endanger both myself and my source.

Is anyone persuaded or convinced by claims of evidence that cannot be produced? I can only conclude that the appeal to embargoed evidence must be at least occasionally effective, or I would not run across it as often as I do.

The appeal to embargoed evidence is encountered most frequently today in the form of claims of government suppression of UFOs and alien bodies, or private industry suppression of particular technologies that would adversely affect established business models (e.g., the idea of the 100 MPG car). While the appeal to embargoed evidence is most commonly encountered in discussions of conspiracy theories, it is also to be found in high culture in the form of suppressed books or manuscripts. It is not unusual to hear that a missing or hidden manuscript by some famous author has been glimpsed by an individual, who in virtue of this privileged access to otherwise inaccessible materials has a special insight into the author in question, or maintains that “everything we think we know about x is false” because the speaker is “in the know” about matters denied to the rest of us.

The conspiratorial dimension of the appeal to embargoed evidence appears when it is stated or implied that an omnipotent government entity, or even a non-governmental entity possessed of uncommon power and influence, is able to suppress all, or almost all, evidence relating to certain knowledge kept secret, whether for the good of the public (which is not ready for the knowledge, on which cf. below) or in order to more effectively act upon some comprehensive social engineering project that would presumably be derailed if only the public knew what was really going on.

A moral dimension is added to the appeal to embargoed evidence when it is stated or implied that evidence has been embargoed because you (the individual asking for evidence) are not worthy of seeing it, or, more comprehensively, that the world at large is not ready for some Earth-shattering secret to be revealed, with the implication being that only the elect are allowed to share in the evidence at present, but the world at large will eventually reach a level of maturity when then evidence can be made public without danger.

The appeal to embargoed evidence gives the appearance of respecting scientific canons of knowledge, because it recognizes that evidence is crucial to knowledge, but it represents a fundamental violation of the scientific method because evidence is invoked rather than produced. Scientific knowledge is in principle reproducible by anyone who has the time and cares to make the effort to confirm experimental results for their own satisfaction. Since embargoed evidence cannot be inspected, tested, or made the object of any scientific experimentation, no putative knowledge or proposed theory solely based on embargoed evidence can be considered scientific.

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Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

An unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy

The Truncation Principle

An Illustration of the Truncation Principle

The Gangster’s Fallacy

The Prescriptive Fallacy

The fallacy of state-like expectations

The Moral Horror Fallacy

The Finality Fallacy

Fallacies: Past, Present, Future

Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology

Metaphysical Fallacies

Metaphysical Biases

Pernicious Metaphysics

Metaphysical Fallacies Again

An Inquiry into Cognitive Bias by way of Memoir

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Grand Strategy Annex

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