An appeal to ignorance fallacy will state that if something cannot be conclusively proven then the opposite must be true.
This fallacy takes advantage of the fact that either collectively or individually we cannot know everything about ourselves and the world.
As there are so many things in the world which we cannot conclusively prove, this fallacy is very common and easy for people to take advantage of. They need only to point out a way in which we are ignorant of something in order to claim that the opposite must be true.
The most common example of the appeal to ignorance fallacy is in religious arguments: because we cannot prove that god does not exist, then god must exist; or similarly, because we cannot prove that god does exist, then god must not exist.
The structure of appeal to ignorance arguments will look something like this:
- X is false because it cannot be proven that it is true.
- X is true because it cannot be proven that it is false.
A counter to this fallacy is best described by the well known sentence: ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. If we relate this to the structure of the 1st appeal to ignorance argument above, we can translate this sentence to:
Absence of evidence that X is true is not evidence that X is not true (false).
Appeal To Ignorance Fallacy Examples
1. Holiday time!
Jared suggests to his partner that they should take a vacation. When she asks how they will afford it, he replies by asking why they can’t afford it.
In this situation Jared deflects the responsibility of having to justify why they should go on vacation. He places the emphasis rather on why they can’t afford it. If his partner cannot conclusively prove that they cannot go, the implication is then that they can go. This is easier for Jared than having to give a detailed explanation of their ability to go on holiday.
In other words, Jared is appealing to his partner’s ignorance of their ability to afford a holiday in order to prove why they can go on holiday. He is therefore committing the appeal to ignorance fallacy.
2. Ghost stories.
Ghosts and the spirit world do exist. Ghosts, by their very definition, are impossible for science to prove. Science measures the physical world in order to come to conclusions, and ghosts are nonphysical entities. Therefore, science cannot prove that they do not exist as they do not have the tools to look for them.
In the above argument the claim is made that ‘ghosts and the spirit world’ do exist. As with any good argument a claim needs a valid reason behind it. If you read carefully you will see that no reason is given for why ghosts do exist, but rather only reasons for why science cannot prove that they don’t exist.
This argument is therefore an appeal to ignorance fallacy. It claims that because we cannot prove that ghosts don’t exist they therefore must exist. We are never given real reasons proving why ghosts do exist.
3. Out there, somewhere
We haven’t even explored the entirety of the ocean on our planet, there is so much we just don’t know yet. Like, for instance, the ancient city of Atlantis must still be out there somewhere beneath the waves.
The tone of the paragraph above is casual in nature. However, this does not mean that there are no conclusions being drawn. We are told that the lost city of Atlantis must be out there. But what evidence are we given?
The only evidence we are given is that there is a lot of unexplored ocean where the city could be. However, this does not mean that it must definitely exist. Just because we have not conclusively proven that there is no city of Atlantis does not mean that it exists. This is an appeal to ignorance fallacy.
4. No news is good news
I must be a friendly and helpful tour guide, I have never received any complaints. I mean, if I was doing a bad job people would tell me. Or at the very least, I would have noticed my unhappy customers.
The assumption made by the tour guide in the above scenario is that he is a good tour guide. The reasons given for this are that he has not been told or observed that he is a bad tour guide. If we examine this closely we will notice that he has not presented any reasons for why he is a good tour guide, only that he is not bad enough for people to have complained.
What the tour guide is telling us then is that he must be a good tour guide because he has not been proven to be a bad tour guide. This is an appeal to ignorance fallacy.
5. It’s always sunny in California
In all the movies and TV shows I have only ever seen perfect sunny weather in and around Los Angeles. Given that I have watched many many movies and TV shows which take place in this area, if there was ever bad weather I would have seen it.
In this scenario I am arguing that there is never bad weather in Los Angeles because I have only seen good weather there on the TV. I have claimed that an absence of evidence for bad weather in Los Angeles proves that there is not bad weather there. As we saw above at the beginning of this article, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
6. One day!
Zahra says to her friend that she is sure one day they will all be able to fly just like superman! She goes on to explain that in the 1600s people did not think that we would ever have planes to fly in and look at us now. That just proves that we do not know what science is capable of in the future.
In this scenario Zahra is attempting to convince her friend that science will give us all the powers of flight. The thing to notice is that she does not say how this will be possible. Instead her argument is that we don’t know what science will be capable of, which is different to having proof or evidence for human flight. Therefore, Zahra is committing the appeal to ignorance fallacy.
Clarence bets Jeremy that he has read more books than him. When Jeremy tries to argue, Clarence says: “Well, how many books have you read?” Jeremy responds that he does not know. To this Clarence says: “If you don’t know how many you have read then you can’t say you have read more than me.”
In this interaction, Clarence plays on Jeremy’s completely understandable ignorance of the number of books he has read. It is information that most of us probably do not have at hand. Clarence uses this ignorance as a reason for why Jeremy cannot say he has read more than Clarence. It is important to note that Clarence has not given any evidence to support how much he has read, instead he is appealing to Jeremy’s ignorance. He is therefore committing the appeal to ignorance fallacy.
8. Don’t miss out!
You should always invest in stocks that are cheap and have some potential. If you don’t, you could really miss out on a great financial opportunity. As they say, you can’t get lucky if you don’t play the game.
The above rather vague and risky investment advice is surprisingly common. The motivation is the ignorance we have around the unpredictable elements of the stock market. A stock could become really valuable and if it does you might miss out.
The appeal to ignorance fallacy comes into play when the argument claims this is a reason to always invest. The argument then becomes that it’s always a good idea to invest because it’s not always a bad idea.
9. One small mistake
In 1919 the Red Sox baseball team sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. He then went on to be one of the best baseball players in the world, scoring a total of 659 home runs for the Yankees. If the Red Sox had not sold Babe Ruth they would have definitely been better than the Yankies around that time. We can’t prove otherwise and look how well he did for the Yankees!
In this scenario the only reason we are given for why the Red Sox would have beaten the Yankees with Babe Ruth is because we can not prove that they would not have. This is obvious given the fact that it never happened. The fact that Babe Ruth did so well for the Yankees does not prove that the Red Sox would have beaten them in the 1920s. This is therefore an appeal to ignorance fallacy.
10. The long way home
Scientists still can’t fully explain how certain species of birds migrate all the way across the world without ever having seen how to get there. Imagine just being told to walk from the bottom tip of Africa to Sweden without a map! I think birds are able to do this because they have memories of their past lives and so it’s as if they have been there before. Since science hasn’t proven otherwise it’s got to be correct.
The argument for why we should accept that birds can remember their past lives is that science has not proven otherwise. No valid reasons were actually given in favor of the argument. This is therefore an appeal to ignorance fallacy.
The appeal to ignorance fallacy shifts the burden of proof (the responsibility of having to provide good evidence) from the person making the claim or argument to those who would deny it. As we have seen in the above examples, it relies on the fact that it is not possible to deny it because there is some unknown factor.
When wondering if you are dealing with an appeal to ignorance fallacy the best strategy is just to remember that it’s up to the person making the argument to provide good reasons for why you should believe it.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]