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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. The fallacy is committed when one 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. If a proposition has not yet been proven true, one is not entitled to conclude, solely on that basis, that it is false, and if a proposition has not yet been proven false, one is not entitled to conclude, solely on that basis, that it is true.[1][2] In debates, appealing to ignorance is sometimes an attempt to shift the burden of proof. The term was likely coined by philosopher John Locke in the late 17th century.[3][4]


  • "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."[5]
  • Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, argued against the argument from ignorance when discussing the lack of evidence for WMDs in Iraq prior to the invasion:

"Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist."[6][a]

Appeal to ignorance: the claim that whatever has not been proved 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.[8]


Contraposition and transposition


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


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.


Argument from self-knowing


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



  1. ^ Though the authors here caution that this may not be an entirely appropriate use of the argument as the onus of providing proof for a substantive statement, like "there are WMDs in Iraq", lies with the party making the claim, not with those opposing it.


  1. ^ Copi, Irving M (2016). Introduction to logic (14th ed.). Routledge Publication. p. 146. ISBN 9780205820375.
  2. ^ Hurley, Patrick J (2012). A Concise Introduction to Logic (11th ed.). Boston, Mass.: Cengage Learning. p. 140. ISBN 9780840034175.
  3. ^ Hansen, Hans V.; Pinto, Robert C., eds. (1995). Fallacies: Classical and Contemporary Readings. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0271014166. OCLC 30624864.
  4. ^ Locke, John (1690). "Book IV, Chapter XVII: Of Reason". An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
  5. ^ Bennett, Bo. "Argument from Ignorance". www.LogicallyFallacious.com. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
  6. ^ Brown, Deborah; Key, Brian (22 April 2019). "You look but do not find: why the absence of evidence can be a useful thing". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 15 June 2021. Retrieved 20 June 2022.
  7. ^ Daily Kos. "Logical Fallacies Bootcamp: Appeal to Ignorance".
  8. ^ Sagan, Carl. "Chapter 12: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection". The Demon-Haunted World.

Further reading