Argument from ignorance

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John Locke

Argument from ignorance (from Latin: argumentum ad ignorantiam), also known as appeal to ignorance (in which ignorance represents "a lack of contrary evidence"), is a fallacy in informal logic. It asserts that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false or a proposition is false because it has not yet been proven true. This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes the possibility that there may have been an insufficient investigation to prove that the proposition is either true or false.[1] It also does not allow for the possibility that the answer is unknowable, only knowable in the future, or neither completely true nor completely false.[2] In debates, appealing to ignorance is sometimes an attempt to shift the burden of proof. In research, low-power experiments are subject to false negatives (there would have been an observable effect if there had been a larger sample size or better experimental design) and false positives (there was an observable coincidental effect). The term was likely coined by philosopher John Locke in the late 17th century.[3][4]


False positives[edit]

Often seen in anecdotal evidence, superstitions, correlation-causation fallacies, and experiments with small sample size. Examples include:

  • "I took a placebo pill and now my symptoms are completely gone. The placebo cured my symptoms."
  • "I wore red socks and we won the baseball game. My red socks helped win the game."
  • "When ice cream sales increase, so do murders, therefore more ice cream causes more murders". (These events correlate due to the common element of high temperatures. High temperatures, not ice cream sales, lead to more murders).[5]

Absence of evidence[edit]

These examples contain or represent missing information.

  • Statements that begin with "I can't prove it but ..." are often referring to some kind of absence of evidence.
  • "There is no evidence of foul play here" is a direct reference to the absence of evidence.
  • "There is no evidence of aliens, and therefore, aliens do not exist" appeals to an absence of evidence.
  • "A recent study said there is no strong evidence that shows flossing reduces cavities or gum disease." The NIH dental health expert indicated that large-scale, long-term clinical trials are expensive and challenging to perform, and that patients would still likely benefit from flossing.[6][7]

False negatives[edit]

These examples have the potential for "false negative" results.

  • When the doctor says that the test results were negative (a month later the test is positive).
  • Under "Termites" the inspector checked the box that read "no" (a week later termites are discovered).
  • A patient uses an antibiotic for only one day and stops because they feel it isn't working. (Had they used it for 7 days the drug would have worked).

Evidence of absence[edit]

These examples contain definite evidence that can be used to show, indicate, suggest, infer or deduce the non-existence or non-presence of something.

  • One very carefully inspects the back seat of one's car and finds no adult-sized kangaroos.
  • The police did not find a gun in the suspect's clothing.
  • The elderly patient did not have any teeth in his mouth.

Arguments from ignorance[edit]

(Draws a conclusion based on lack of knowledge or evidence without accounting for all possibilities)

  • "I take the view that this lack (of enemy subversive activity in the west coast) is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage we are to get, the Fifth Column activities are to get, are timed just like Pearl Harbor ... I believe we are just being lulled into a false sense of security." – Earl Warren, then California's Attorney General (before a congressional hearing in San Francisco on 21 February 1942).
  • This example clearly states what appeal to ignorance is: "Although we have proven that the moon is not made of spare ribs, we have not proven that its core cannot be filled with them; therefore, the moon’s core is filled with spare ribs."[8]
  • Carl Sagan explains in his book The Demon-Haunted World:

Appeal to ignorance: the claim that whatever has not been proven false must be true, and vice versa. (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore, UFOs exist, and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.[9]

Related terms[edit]

Contraposition and transposition[edit]

Contraposition is a logically valid rule of inference that allows the creation of a new proposition from the negation and reordering of an existing one. The method applies to any proposition of the type If A then B and says that negating all the variables and switching them back to front leads to a new proposition i.e. If Not-B then Not-A that is just as true as the original one and that the first implies the second and the second implies the first.

Transposition is exactly the same thing as Contraposition, described in a different language.

Null result[edit]

Null result is a term often used in science to indicate evidence of absence. A search for water on the ground may yield a null result (the ground is dry); therefore, it probably did not rain.

Related arguments[edit]

Argument from self-knowing[edit]

Arguments from self-knowing take the form:

  1. If P were true then I would know it; in fact I do not know it; therefore P cannot be true.
  2. If Q were false then I would know it; in fact I do not know it; therefore Q cannot be false.

In practice these arguments are often unsound and rely on the truth of the supporting premise. For example, the claim that If I had just sat on a wild porcupine then I would know it is probably not fallacious and depends entirely on the truth of the first premise (the ability to know it).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Duco A. Schreuder (2014). Vision and Visual Perception. Archway Publishing. p. 103. ISBN 978-1-4808-1294-9.
  2. ^ "Argumentum ad Ignorantiam". Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic. Lander University. 2004. Archived from the original on 30 April 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2009.
  3. ^ Fallacies : classical and contemporary readings. Hansen, Hans V., Pinto, Robert C. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1995. ISBN 978-0271014166. OCLC 30624864.CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. ^ Locke, John (1690). "Book IV, Chapter XVII: Of Reason". An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
  5. ^ Landers, Richard N. (2018). A Step-By-Step Introduction to Statistics for Business. SAGE Publications. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-5264-1752-7.
  6. ^ "Don't Toss the Floss!". 19 April 2017. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  7. ^ Sambunjak, D.; Nickerson, J. W.; Poklepovic, T.; Johnson, T. M.; Imai, P.; Tugwell, P.; Worthington, H. V. (2011). "Flossing for the management of periodontal diseases and dental caries in adults". The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (12): CD008829. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008829.pub2. PMID 22161438. S2CID 205196903.
  8. ^ "Argument from Ignorance". Retrieved 23 November 2016.
  9. ^ Sagan, Carl. "Chapter 12: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection". The Demon-Haunted World.

Further reading[edit]

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