Bad logic: the argument from secrecy

Democracy Now! published an interview with academic Stephen Cohen about the Malaysian Airlines plane that crashed in eastern Ukraine.

Across many subjects and over a long arc of time, the core argument used by Cohen is familiar. I consider it a fallacy of sorts, dubbed “argument from secrecy“. Cohen notes that there is unreleased information about the crash, held (or assumed to be held) by powerful groups. He states:

They’re sitting on satellite intercepts. They have the images. They won’t release the air controller’s conversations in Kiev with the doomed aircraft. Why not? Did the pilot say—let me speculate—”Oh, my god, we’re being fired on by a jet fighter next to us! What’s going on?” Because we know there were two Ukrainian jet fighters. We don’t know, but somebody knows.

Emphasis mine. He uses this absence of information to draw a conclusion that strongly butts against the most obvious answer and the information publicly available. What is clear from the interview is that he is, under the guise of just asking questions, stating that the airplane was shot down by the Ukrainian government, using a fighter jet. Note the switch in the middle from a lack of exculpatory evidence to speculation that nobody has confirmed, including say, the Russians who would have every reason to back that up.

I am not attacking Cohen here. Nor am I asserting that secrecy is a good thing. Above all, the issue is using secrecy as a bridge towards a conclusion advocated by the individual. While the crash in the Ukraine is still not adequately sketched out, what exists does not jive well with the assertion that it a) was shot down by a jet, and b) that the jet was Ukrainian.

This method of analysis is the backbone of a continuum of scenarios. Legitimate journalists invoke it, so do academics like Cohen, and the argument from secrecy is the cornerstone of conspiracy theories. Secret information is a sort of rhetorical spackle.

Post-9/11 legislation has contributed to a secrecy culture and a deep mistrust of government explanations, though as the half-century since JFK was assassinated it’s not a new development. The JFK documents archive is a classic example- the ongoing declassification project has been slow. Secrecy has put an obstacle in front of getting the truth nailed down. But the preponderance of evidence doesn’t point to what those that use the argument from secrecy think.

There is a limited amount of information to glean from secret (or alleged to be secret) information, obviously. But rational and skeptical personalities should not use the unknown to create whatever tea leaves they would like to see. Even when facts are elusive, the temptation to switch into speculation mode needs to be resisted.

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