Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

The Blow Job Refutation

A common thread that runs through most kinds of pseudoscience is that the proponents are being suppressed and threatened by a vast conspiracy involving the government and/or the scientific community. Intelligent design creationists believe that the “Darwinist establishment” is deliberately rejecting scientifically solid papers critical of evolution from getting published in scientific journals. 9/11 truthers claim that evidence showing that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is an inside job is being covered-up by elements within the U. S. government. Anti-psychiatry cranks assert that modern psychiatry is an evil conspiracy between pharmaceutical companies and the government in order to keep the citizens as sheep while stealing their money. Those who reject the existence and impact of anthropogenic global warming allege that it is just a delusion in order to impose a global carbon tax.

While it is more exciting with government cover-ups, shadowy agencies and conspiracy theories and more satisfying to explain being rejected and ridicules by the mainstream science than to acknowledge the mundane truth, there is one fatal flaw. These purported conspiracies quickly grow to unfathomable and absurd proportions. For instance, if 9/11 was an inside job, then the conspiracy behind it must include thousands of politicians, public sector employees, journalists, engineers, aviation experts and scientists. The question then becomes: why have the information about the existence and nature of such a conspiracy not leaked to the public? Surely, it is pretty much a practically impossible task to pay off thousands of people to keep quiet? Thus, we find ourselves holding a very powerful counterargument against any conspiracy theory. If it existed, we would probably have known about it.

A tweet by someone called William K. Wolfrum illustrated this general counterargument nicely:

the blow job refutation

In other words, if the government could not even keep a sexual act between the President and a woman working at the White House a secret, it seems very unlikely that they would be able to keep the vast conspiracies that any number of pseudosciences require. This is different from an appeal to ignorance. The claim is not “we cannot imagine how the conspiracy would be kept secret, therefore it would not be (and therefore it does not exist)”, but rather that large organizations, whether associated with the government or the scientific community, has such a poor track record of keeping secrets that it seems very unlikely that they could pull something like that off.

The benefits with the blow job refutation is that it is a strong, general rebuttal to any conspiracy theory, regardless if it is about 9/11, vaccines, HIV or global climate change. So it works like a universal acid, corroding through the absurd pretense of most anti-science conspiracy theories.

However, the counterargument has an important limitation: it is not specific enough to counteract the psychological appeal of individual conspiracy theories. In other words, it does not provide any positive explanation for the alleged discrepancies (“how do you explain THAT!?”) that proponents of different forms of pseudoscience appeal to to make their case. Therefore, while it can successfully stand alone as an intellectual defeater of most conspiracy theories, it has an emotional blind spot that needs to be supported by refutations specific for the arguments for any given conspiracy theory.

Despite this limitation, the blow job refutation is a powerful tool in the skeptic’s debunking kit.

3 responses to “The Blow Job Refutation

  1. Hank Roberts March 21, 2013 at 03:26

    Yeah, but — once you get to serious public policy issues, secrets get kept rather well.
    https://www.google.com/search?q=nixon+johnson+1968+election+peace+talks

    “f the many secrets contained on the White House tapes.

    Consider:

    “… a scandal that, if it had been known at the time, would have sunk the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon.

    “By the time of the election in November 1968, LBJ had evidence Nixon had sabotaged the Vietnam war peace talks – or, as he put it, that Nixon was guilty of treason and had “blood on his hands”.

    “The BBC’s former Washington correspondent Charles Wheeler learned of this in 1994 and conducted a series of interviews with key Johnson staff, such as defence secretary Clark Clifford, and national security adviser Walt Rostow….”

    Big secrets like those get kept quite well.

    I think that’s sufficient refutation of the blowjob refutation.

    Climate science is an area where a great many people over decades know quite a lot — and have no reason to keep anything a secret. What else is like that?

    The statisticians have some ideas:

    “… Finding connections is not only the way we react to the extraordinary, Tenenbaum postulates, but also the way we make sense of our ordinary world. ”Coincidences are a window into how we learn about things,” he says. ”They show us how minds derive richly textured knowledge from limited situations.”

    To put it another way, our reaction to coincidence shows how our brains fill in the factual blanks….”

  2. Emil Karlsson March 21, 2013 at 19:05

    Actually, the fact that we know about this actual conspiracies are evidence in favor of the blow job refutation, not against it.

    Your argument is no more rational than the creationist assertion that the Piltdown man hoax supposedly show that evolution is a fraud. The fact that the Piltdown man got exposed is evidence of the self-correcting nature of science, not an argument against the blow job refutation.

  3. Pingback: The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part II: GMOs | Debunking Denialism

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