• 4-minute read
  • 2nd December 2020

How to Avoid the Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy in Academic Writing

You should always try to avoid fallacies – i.e. bad arguments – in your academic writing. But what is the appeal to ignorance fallacy? And why is it a problem? In this post, we explain what this this fallacy involves and how to avoid it in your work.

What Is the Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy?

The appeal to ignorance fallacy – also known as an argument from ignorance or argumentum ad ignorantiam – involves claiming that something is true or false based on a lack of evidence. This can take positive and negative forms:

Positive: X is true because it hasn’t been proven false.

Negative: X is false because it hasn’t been proven true.

To see how this works, let’s look at some examples involving aliens.

Examples of Arguing from Ignorance

One classic argument from ignorance focuses on alien construction projects:

We don’t know how ancient humans built major monuments like the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge without modern technology. As such, they must have received help from alien visitors to achieve what they did.

There is an element of truth here. We only have limited evidence of how the ancient world’s greatest feats of engineering were performed. And this lack of evidence has left enough doubt for some to suggest that maybe aliens did it instead.

This does not explain, however, why our ignorance of ancient engineering should lead to a theory based on aliens. And this logical leap – from a lack of evidence for one thing to the truth of another – makes an appeal to ignorance fallacious.

We can turn this around as well, though. For example:

There are no proven UFO sightings, so we can conclude that aliens do not exist.

This might seem reasonable. A lack of UFO sightings may be a reason to withhold belief in alien life, for instance. But the claim here is stronger: i.e. that a lack of evidence justifies the belief that alien life does not exist anywhere in the universe.

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Here, again, we see a lack of evidence for one thing (i.e. verifiable UFO sightings) being used to justify another claim (i.e. that there is no life in the universe beyond our own planet). And this is still a fallacy, even if it seems more reasonable.

Is Appealing to a Lack of Evidence Always Wrong?

There are occasions when a lack of evidence may be relevant to an argument. The lack of proof of alien life, for instance, means we should be sceptical about claims of UFO sightings. And if we have two theories – one with a lot of supporting evidence and one with none – a lack of evidence for one will usually count against it.

Likewise, there are some situations where the burden of proof means an appeal to ignorance is valid. For instance, the legal principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty can be set out in the form of an appeal to ignorance:

The suspect is innocent because they have not been proven guilty.

In this case, a lack of evidence of guilt does not technically prove the accused person is innocent (they could just be good at covering their tracks). But it is taken as proof of innocence. This is so we do not wrongly convict people unless the evidence proves them guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

However, in academic work, you need your arguments to be as strong as possible. As such, it is rare that a lack of evidence will be enough to support any claim.

How to Avoid the Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy

As a rule, the best way to avoid appealing to ignorance in your writing is to focus on the available evidence rather than what a lack of evidence might imply.

For instance, rather than turning to aliens to explain the pyramids, rigorous historians build theories based on the evidence available. And they change their theories when new evidence emerges (e.g. from an archaeological dig).

The evidence for any given theory or argument may never be complete, so there may always be some doubt. But an argument based on evidence will always be stronger than one based on a lack of evidence!

Another key tip is making sure you express your arguments as clearly as possible. If you’d like some expert assistance with this, our academic editors are the best in the business. Sign up for a free proofreading trial today to see how we can help.

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