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“Mr. and Mrs. Geo. S. Knight's Comedy Co.,”; P & P Online, Library of Congress, LC-USZ6-403Introduction to Logic
Ignoratio Elenchi: Ignorance of the Refutation

Abstract: Ignoratio elenchi, or “irrelevant conclusion,” is broadly defined as any incorrect argument which reaches an evidentially irrelevant conclusion. Historically, the fallacy is more narrowly defined as an irrelevant counterargument to a thesis which does not prove the thesis mistaken. In practice, ignoratio elenchi functions as a “catch-all” category of any fallacy of relevance not specified as one of the specific traditional fallacies of relevance. The fallacy is analyzed here with a variety of specific examples and compared to several similar fallacies, including the fallacies of non sequitur, red herring, and straw man.

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  1. Ignoratio Elenchi (irrelevant conclusion): the fallacy of proving a conclusion not evidentially pertinent and quite different from that which was intended or required and thus missing the point at issue.

    1. Ignoratio elenchi is the fallacy committed when an argument proves or attempts to prove a different conclusion from what was supposed to be the point of the proof either through intentional or inadvertent irrelevancy.[1]

      In the more rarely used strict sense of the term, the fallacy occurs when what is intended to be proved is not the contradictory of an opponent's assertion; instead, a conclusion other than the contradictory is reached. The fallacy occurs when, e.g., your argument “answers” the wrong point, so the error in reasoning is “ignorance of the fact that your Conclusion would not contradict his Conclusion.”[1]

      The employment of ignoratio elenchi is most persuasive in extended argumentation when the train of reasoning used in evading the question makes it difficult to follow and maintain attention.

      1. So, there are two related views of this fallacy: (a) the traditional view is based on a disputation (or dialectical exchange) where a disputant neglects a proper refutation which should prove the contradictory of an opponent's thesis and instead endeavors to establish a different and unrelated point, and (b) the more recent wider view of simply an argument for a conclusion different from what was claimed.[1]

      2. It's important to point out that in dialogical argumentation an ignoratio elenchi fallacy can occur even if the counter-argument is sound. In such a case, the counter-argument is termed “fallacious” not because it is internally fallacious but because it is irrelevant to the refutation of the thesis of the dispute. Richard Whately describes an example of this type of ignoratio elenchi (when viewed from a dialogical point of view): the story of King Cyrus as a boy and the two coats. Again, note how the fallacy results from mistaking the question at issue:
        “One of his schoolfellows, who was tall and stout, had a coat that was too small for him; and proposed to a smaller boy, whose coat was much too big for him, to make an exchange. But the other refused; whereupon the bigger boy took away the coat by force, and left his own in exchange; and Cyrus, on being appealed to, decided in favor of the exchange. He had judged rightly which coat best fitted each boy; but this was not the real question; which was, whether it was right to take away another's property without his consent.”[1]
        A sound argument can be set up to demonstrate that the exchange of coats was proper because each boy maximizes utility by owning a fitting coat. However, this outcome is beside the essential point at issue: viz. whether it's just to take another person's property without consent.

      3. Criterion of Relevance: The fact that no theoretical definition or sufficient condition of relevance (or “logical relatedness”) is established for informal fallacies is a central difficulty for identifying instances of this fallacy. Arguments and statements can be related in many different ways — not just in terms their topical subject matter.

        However, as a matter of practice, it is doubtful that a formal analysis of relevance is possible. For our course our criterion of relevance necessary to avoid an ignoratio elenchi will be the requirement that any evidentiary argument must either uphold or contravene supporting statements for the thesis at issue. Consequently, if any premise of an argument provides evidential support of either a proper denial or affirmation of a thesis in dispute, then the premise is thereby relevant, and the argument cannot be classified as an ignoratio elenchi; instead, the argument is be termed an argumentum ad rem: “the direct or ostensive proof [or disproof] of the thesis, or problem, or main point in question.”[1]

        (Albany, NY: State Univeristy of New York Press, 1999), xx. Yet, I see no reason some contextual effects might not be relevant or that a straw man response can be logically relevant.
        1. Note that in formal logic, valid arguments are a property of the formal structures of statements, rather than the material content or subject matter of those statements. A formally valid argument can turn out to be an informal fallacy of ignoratio elenchi whenever the argument is irrelevant to the thesis or whenever the premises are irrelevant o the conclusion or the conclusion is irrelevant to the premises. E.g., in symbolic logic the formal argument …
          ∴ p ∨ q
          is a valid argument form. So, therefore, an argument such as …
             The cat is on the mat.   
          ∴ The cat is on the mat or the earth is flat.
          is valid formally in that if the premise is true, the conclusion is necessarily true as well. “The earth is flat” is part of the conclusion, but statement is irrelevant to the statement “The cat is on the mat.” (Relevance logics have been developed with a view to avoid these failures of relevance.[1])

        2. Finally, it should be noted that in disputation, if the argument used to support a thesis is demonstrated to be mistaken, the demonstration does not prove the conclusion false — it only shows the argument to be incorrect. To demonstrate that a statement has not been proved does not prove that the statement is false. (Q.v, the ad ignorantiam fallacy.)[1]

        Nevertheless, current usage of ignoratio elenchi is wider than the traditional refutative or dialogical usage. In the more general, contemporary use, relevance or non-relevance, if not obvious, is determined on an ad hoc basis of the material evidentiary support of a conclusion.

    2. Non Sequitur, Red Herring, and Straw Man Fallacies as Subtypes: Ignoratio elenchi is usually considered broader in focus than the non sequitur, red herring, or the straw man fallacies. (Although, various logicians use some of these terms interchangeably.)[1]

      1. A non sequitur fallacy occurs whenever a conclusion does not logically follow from its premises. Even if both premises and conclusion are true in a non sequitur, the fallacy occurs because the premises do not logically support the conclusion.

        Many logicians from the 19th century onward define non sequitur as occurring whenever a conclusion does not follow from its premises; so any formal fallacy is also a non sequitur.[1]

        Arguments are sometimes given with an unexpressed premise when the premise is assumed so obvious that it need not be stated. Such an argument can be mistakenly taken for a non sequitur. Consider the following argument set up here from a critical reasoning textbook:
        It is important that we provide our students with a quality education.
        ∴ We should require every student to study a foreign language. [1]
        The textbook author argues this argument is irrelevant reason or non sequitur:
        “There were no reasons given as to why studying a foreign language should be a required part of a quality education. The conclusion did not follow from the reason that was given.[1]
        Following Paul Grice's conversational implicature, if we have no reason to suppose a speaker is not cooperative, the speaker expects that it is within the competence of the listener to understand what was said. Since the listener has no reason to suppose the speaker violates the maxim to be relevant, the listener looks for ways the speaker's comments are relevant.[1] The implicit premise for the argument at issue, which should should suggest itself to anyone with an open mind, is the plausible assumption that foreign language study is necessary for a quality education. So, applying the principle of charity, the argument could be:
        All subjects necessary for a quality education should be required.
        [Foreign language study is a subject necessary for a quality education.]
        ∴ Foreign language study should be required.
        Both premises can be questioned, so the argument might not be sound, but by this analysis, the argument is not a fallacy of irrelevant reason or non sequitur.[1]

      2. A red herring fallacy occurs when attention is diverted from the real question at issue by introducing an argument on a different subject leading to a topically irrelevant conclusion. In disputations, the use of a red herring fallacy is an attempt to redirect attention away from an adversary's argument by proving an unrelated often stimulating conclusion.[1]

        The red herring fallacy differs from the straw man fallacy in that the opponent's argument is not misrepresented &mash; it's just ignored. Consequently, the red herring is distracts attention from the argument under consideration by segueing to a different issue as a distractive digression misdirecting the argument. Both red herring and straw man fallacies occur most often in a dialogue or a disputation

        If the “red herring” presents no argument, but confines itself as a distractive diversion to a different topic, then it's a rhetorical distraction, not a fallacy occurrence. A fallacy in this course is defined as an incorrect argument.[1]

      3. A straw man fallacy occurs when a locutor's position is intentionally or unintentionally misrepresented[1] and then deceptively rejected as if it were the original argument. So the result is that a different position from the one initially advanced is more easily assailed.

        1. Just as a constructed figure of straw is easily knocked down, so likewise an argument inadequately restated as an implausible misrepresentation is readily refuted.[1]

        2. In contrast to an ignoratio elenchi, where the conclusion of an argument is intentionally misrepresented thereby enabling a straightforward refutation, a straw man argument intentionally (or even unintentionally) misrepresents the argument thereby ensuring artless refutation.

        3. The ignoratio elenchi answers to the wrong point in a refutation; the straw man reconstructs a wrong argument to refute. Often in practice the distinction between ignoratio elenchi and straw man is dispensable.[1] In any case, whenever either fallacy is intentionally committed, the the principle of charity is violated. For example


      4. Other lesser-named fallacies similar to these which can be subsumed under the ignoratio elenchi fallacy include:

        disproof of a converse statement artful diversion[1]

        subject changing (elenchi mutatio)[1]

        shifting ground (where a new argument is begun prior to the completion of an argument under examination),[1]

        raising objections,[1]

        ignoring the issue,[1]

        and ignorance of the refutation.[B]

        These fallacies are all types of ignoratio elenchi and are classified as such in this course.

        In a legal context, these types of responses given to a question are considered “nonresponsive.”[B]

    3. Premises in an ignoratio elenchi have no direct relation to the claim at issue. In this sense of the term, almost any fallacy or relevance could be considered an instance of ignoratio elenchi.

    4. In general, an ignoratio elenchi occurs when an argument purporting to establish a specific conclusion is directed, instead, to proving a different conclusion. The responding argument can itself be valid, but the use of argument is considered fallacious because it missed the point at issue. For example:
      “To argue that a particular branch of study — [the study of mathematics] — should not be included in the curriculum of our schools, on the plea that it will never earn ‘bread and butter’ for nine-tenths of those who study it, would be a typical instance of the fallacy.[B]
      Even when mathematics is not be used in future employment, the study developed analytical skills and is required for other essential aspects of daily life.

    5. As noted above, Aristotle's use of ignoratio elenchi is narrower than our contemporary usage. For Aristotle, an elenchus is a syllogistic refutation of an adversary's position establishing the contradictory of a thesis (hence, a negative dialectic). So, literally, ignoratio elenchi means “ignorance of the contradictory of the adversary's conclusion. With Aristotle, an ignoratio elenchi can occur only in the context of disputation where an opponent does not prove the contradictory of the argument being disputed.[B]

      This view of ignoratio elenchi continued with the medieval author Peter of Spain and the English theologian Henry Aldrich whose influential logic text Artis Logicæ Compendium[B] influenced Richard Whately[B] who, in turn, extended the application of the fallacy to a somewhat wider sense of “irrelevant conclusion” more in keeping with present day usage which more or less began with Fowler in the mid-1800s:
      “Whenever an argument is irrelevant to the object which a speaker or writer professes to have in view, it is called an ignoratio elenchi[B]

      Currently the term ignoratio elenchi describes a a putative refutation which proves or attempts to prove a thesis different from that which it claims to disprove, and, for that reason, ignoratio elenchi has a different scope of application from that of the non sequitur which describes any conclusion of an argument not logically following from its premises. Moreover, an ignoratio elenchi can be a valid argument (whose conclusion is not what is required); whereas, a non sequitur is always invalid.

  2. Ngram graph showing historical frequency of ignoratio elenchi and non sequitur in Google books

    FIG. 1. Historical Frequency of Use of “ignoratio elenchi” and “non sequitur” in Google Books 1740-2000.

  3. Ignoratio elenchi is traditionally used as a "catch-all" classification for fallacies of irrelevance not properly classified under more specific fallacies of relevance.

    Identifying fallacies of relevance such as ad hominem, ad populum, and so forth as ignoratio elenchi, although correct, is imprecise.[B]

    So, in general, ignoratio elenchi arises from a misunderstanding of the proper way to refute the argument being contested.

    1. The ignoratio elenchi is often persusaively effective in oral political argumentation. Often listeners in such a venue are easily distracted by the confidence and resolve of a speaker.

    2. Also, this fallacy can be effective as a persuasive technique when coupled with the ad populum fallacy. The emotional situation in a crowd can often be distracting and can result in overlooking the logical import of what is said.

    3. Some Common Examples of Ignoratio Elenchi: There are many ways to evade a question. Some of the fallacious techniques to change or shift the focus of an argument are listed below together with a perfunctory example. It is essential to point out that these examples apply to short “one-off” arguments and do not necessarily apply to parts of extended argumentation for a thesis such as those found in essays, books, debates, trials, disputations, and the like.[B] A major disadvantage to the examples given in textbooks and with these notes is that most ignoratio elenchi occurrences in writing and speech are extended arguments.

      Few logic texts point out that many instances of a purported ignoratio elenchi can when considered in the wider context of an extended argument not only be relevant but also effectively add evidence probabilistically or inductively to the elenchus or counter-thesis being refuted.

      1. The purported argument attempts to prove a wholly different statement than that related to the question at issue. The essential terms of the claim are changed (i.e., elenchi mutatio, “changing the question”). An example:
        “Is the soul immortal? It is proved, or attempted to be proved, that the soul has not always been, and therefore, it is not eternal.” [italics deleted][B]
        That is, the original claim is not that the eternal soul is “infinite in past and future duration,” but that it is “infinite in future duration”[B]

      2. The responding fallacious argument attempts to prove an issue not denied or affirmed in the original argument. Example:
        “Thus, if a person should undertake to prove the existence of ghosts, and should only prove some unusual noises and appearances during the night, he would exemplify this kind of fallacy.[B]
        Rather than prove the existence of ghosts, mysterious occurrences are shown. Since these occurrences are not in question, the issue has been changed.

      3. The given argument rhetorically provides an emotion or a sentiment rather than a real conclusion. Example:
        “Is the person at the bar guilty or not [?] … A counsel might prove the heinousness of the crime charged, the dreadful aggravations in this case, the need for making public example of such a wretch …”[italics deleted][B]
        These outcries miss the point of proving the accused's guilt.

      4. The original argument is misrepresented by refuting only part of the topic: i.e., the refuting conclusion drawn is only part of what is required. A minor point is sometimes addressed, and the fallacious reasoner concludes the original view is completely overcome. Thomas Reid provides this example from John Locke's criticism of Nicholas Malebranche's metaphysical distinction between Idea and Sensation:
        “… Locke [neglects] the Cartesian opposition of Idea and Sensation altogether, been guilty of an egregious mutatio elenchi in his strictures of the Cartesian doctrine of Extension, as the essential attribute of body.”[B]
        Thomas Reid argues here that John Locke criticizes Malebranche by imputing to him a Cartesian doctrine Malebranche did not hold.

      5. The original argument is misrepresented by attempting to prove something more general than that which is required — the fallacious argument proposed in reply is only vaguely applicable in resolution of the controversy. Example:
        ”[E]ighty-seven Port Royal nuns refused to denounce [Jansenism] in spite of its condemnation by two papal bulls. … When Archbishop Pérefixe demanded that the nuns sign the formula … the nuns [stated] such matters were “above their profession and their sex.’ … [The nuns signed] the formula with this heading[:] they ‘espouse absolutely and without reserve the faith of the Catholic Church’[B]
        In effect, the nun's overarching statement implied to the Archbishop they were religious, not Jansenist, since the Archbishop viewed these beliefs incompatible. Yet, the nuns remained Jansenists since they viewed the beliefs compatible.

      6. The issue under discussion is sidestepped by the irrelevant weighing of alternatives. E.g., a critic misrepresents the arguments of a locutor by raising a litany of collective objections or criticisms and concludes that the alternative issues are too complex for solution. Objections to almost any argument can be raised, but the crux is whether or not the objections are telling and are not simply rhetorical or whether or not other arguments outweigh those objections. The truth of a conclusion is not determined by the number of answerable objections that can be raised.[B] Example:
        ”Ilhan Omar is one of the four Democratic congresswomen of color who Mr. Trump told to ‘go back’ to their original countries. … [When] asked how he would feel if someone told the first lady, who is from Slovenia, to go back to her country [the president said] ‘Well if you go back into the four congresswomen, the things they've said about our country are terrible, what they've said about Israel are just terrible. … I don't know I can't say for sure but certainly a lot of people say they hate our country and I think it's a disgrace what they've said. … And then you have these people I think Omar I find it hard to believe but I hear Omar today put in or yesterday put in a sanctions bill against Israel and other things beyond sanctions. So when I hear that, you just can't talk about our country that way. And when people are angry at them I fully understand it.”[B]
        President Trump's ignoratio elenchi is bundled with an implicit ad populum, an ad hominem, and hearsay. Simply to point out the existence of objections is not a fallacy per se, but simply pointing out objections in the absence of counterobjections to reach a default conclusion is fallacious. In public discussions or debates, raising objections can overwhelm an opponent since only a limited number of objections can be effectively answered within the time constraints.

      7. The contrary is erroneously thought to be proved from the falsity of the contrary of the point at issue. (Contrary statements can both be false but cannot both be true). Also, a fallacy occurs if it is thought that the failure of establishing a specific conclusion is proof of the opposite conclusion.
        “Maybe the two most famous opposing views on this debate are those of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes describes humans as ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’, needing society and rules to reign in their instincts in order to thrive; later Rousseau openly criticised him, arguing instead that man would be gentle and pure without the corruption of greed and inequality caused by the class system imposed by our society.”[B]
        An ignoratio elenchi would occur if from the falsity of Hobbes' belief, Rousseau concludes that people are essentially good. Both views could be false; that is, people neither innately are born good or bad.

      8. An argument shifts the grounds of the argument being examined and to some other more familiar subject.
        “When an opinion is propounded, we find people attacking it on the ground of its traditional character, its being nothing new, or its bearing, real or supposed, upon existing interests and institutions”[B]
        To say that an argument is not new or in antiquated is not to say that the argument is mistaken.

        Or, to take another example, many international and national leaders lament by means of example, the increase of ill-mannered speech among U.S. politicians. Such an argument is thought discounted by the contention that this contention is nothing new: foreigners have always referred to U.S. citizens of being discourteous and inconsiderate “ugly Americans.”

      9. The argument, in effect, disproves a statement which is not at issue:
        Thus, when in a discussion one party vindicates, on the ground of general expediency, a particular instance of resistance to Government in a case of intolerable oppression, the opponent may gravely maintain that ‘we ought not to do evil that good may come:’ a proposition which of course had never been denied, the point in dispute being ‘whether resistance in this particular case were doing evil or not.’”[B]
        Many people assume the truth of an aphorism in oral discourse since the evaluation of its appropriateness to the argument at hand would cause momentary inattention to the continuing discourse.

      10. Finally, as Francis Bacon states, “Not to resolve, is to resolve, [an action].”[B] Whately points out:
        “[W]ithout considering whether more and weightier objections may not lie against their own schemes … their opponents have this decided advantage over them, that they can urge with great plausibility, ‘we do not call upon you to reject at once whatever is objected to, but merely to suspend your judgment and not come to a decision as long as there are reasons on both sides:’ now since there always will be reasons on both sides, this non-decision is practically the very same thing as a decision in favour of the existing state of things; the delay of trial becomes the equivalent to an acquittal.” [italics original] [B]
        In this case, leaving open the question shifts back the burden of proof to the objector.

  4. The key for argument evaluation of ignoratio elenchi fallacies is the determination as to whether or not an appeal used in the argument is relevant to the conclusion. Relevance in arguments is established by material evidential connection of the premises with the conclusion.

    Trudy Govier defines “positive relevance” as one statement counting in favor of the truth an another statement,[B] and Douglas Walton defines “probative relevance” as a statement playing some part in proving or disproving another statement.[B] Material evidential relevance, probative relevance, and positive relevance are similar concepts with some differences.

    So, one statement is irrelevant to another statement if and only if the first statement does not does provide evidence for or against the second statement.

    1. Consider how to assess relevancy in the following example based on the final release of the last U.S. embassy hostages held in Iran in 1981:
      “The 52 former hostages are seen as national heroes. I consider them survivors. A hero is one who is admired for his achievements and qualities. Therefore, the true heroes are those servicemen who volunteered for the failed rescue mission.”[B]
      Ms. Coyne's conclusion indicates that the finally released 52 former U.S. hostages are not true heroes, but the servicemen who failed the rescue attempt are true heroes. The “achievements and qualities” of the servicemen are due to their courage, nobility of purpose, and risk of life in the rescue attempt, — not the outcome of the attempt. Similar qualities are attributed to the survivors who were held for over 14 months by the Iranians.

    2. Rather than directly proving that the 52 former hostages are not heroes, by means of misdirection, Ms. Coyne conceals the dubious assumption that the withheld hostages cannot be admired for their achievements and qualities since they are (just) survivors. The statement that the soldiers are heroes implies nothing whatsoever as to the “achievements and qualities,” i.e., the heroism of the survivor hostages and thus is evidentially irrelevant.

  5. How to Respond to an Ignoratio Elenchi with Examples of Ignoratio elenchi in Personal Disagreements:

    1. In order to address and demonstrate the nature of the fallacy, the question at issue stated in argument form is compared side-by-side with the elenchus, or supposed refutation:
      “Refutations … must … be met by examining the conclusion in light of its contradictory and seeing how the same term shall be resent in the same respect and in the same relation, manner and time.”[1]
      For example, consider the following summary of a disagreement:
      [Medic]: “The man is unfit to travel, because he has a life-threatening fever.”
      [Captain:] ”The man is fit to travel, because he is a soldier.”[1]
      Comparison: “Being unfit to travel” is not necessarily connected with being a soldier but is necessarily connected with serious illness. So the statement that a man is a soldier does not obviate the statement that when seriously ill he is fit to travel.[1]

    2. On occasion, the lack of a clear and distinct response to an argument can lead to a charge of Ignoratio Elenchi. What follows is an example where a less than straight-forward apology became an incipient event in one thread of a complex conflict in the storied controversy which began between Mr. Kingsley and Dr. Newman:

      Mr. Kingsley states in an article in a Macmillan's Magazine:
      “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not be …“
      Dr. Kingsley responds to the magazine:
      ”There is no reference … to any words of mine … in justification of this statement. … I do wish to draw the attention … to a grave and gratuitous slander …
      To which Mr. Kingsley replies in a letter to Macmillan's:
      “Dr. Newman has by letter expresst, in the strongest terms, his denial of the meaning which I have put upon his words. It only remains, therefore, for me to express my hearty regret at having so seriously mistaken him.”

      This should have been the end to the matter, but Dr. Newman expected the “slanderous” statement to be withdrawn. Instead, Mr. Kingsley's response was seen as an ignoratio elenchi, namely the regret that Dr. Newman had misunderstood the statement — not the regret that Dr. Newman had never made such a statement.

      From this point on, the disagreement only intensified as one of the greatest “ungentlemenly” controversies of the nineteenth century.

  6. Ignoratio Elenchi Examples: Practice for Fallacy Recognition.

    1. Read and analyze the following passages. whether or not you judge an ignoratio elenchi fallacy to be present in the following passages.

      1. “In 2016, the U.S. government announced that Harriet Tubman will become the face of the $20 bill. If you need proof that America can still get it right, there it is.”[1]

      2. “It is incredibly simple to gain body fat. In fact, it is so basic that it commonly happens without intent; even worse, it happens when a person is trying to avoid fat gain. Surely, if a problem arises so naturally and simply, the solution must be equally simple and natural.”[2]

      3. “Secretary of State John Kerry says that there is less violence than usual in the world right now. Meanwhile the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, says the opposite, that terrorism is more violent and dangerous than ever. Since Clapper is Director of National Intelligence, maybe Kerry should have the title Director of National Stupidity.“[3]

      4. “Five years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered manufacturers of extended-release and long-acting (ER/LA) opioids to offer clinicians training on how to prescribe the drugs for pain to prevent patients from getting addicted or overdosing.

        Now the FDA is proposing an expansion of that educational mandate for opioid makers — to teach physicians how to manage pain with yoga, cognitive therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and other nonpharmacologic methods.

        ‘Nobody has overdosed from too much mindfulness,’ said Corey Waller, MD, who chairs the legislative advocacy committee of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), in an interview with Medscape Medical News.”[4]

      5. “You've probably heard the New York mayor has proposed a ban on selling supersized, sugary drinks. Here's what I want to respectfully say to Mayor Bloomberg: ‘Really?’ Terrorist cells might be lurking about and multiplying like bacteria on a dish sponge, homeless people are sleeping in alleys and Mayor Bloomberg is in a tizzy about Big Gulps being sold at the 7-Eleven?”[5]

      6. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen to appoint women to half the positions in his Cabinet.

        Why did he do it? ‘Because it's 2015,’ the new PM said.[6]

      7. “Now, what else would stamp a murder as being a most atrocious crime? … It may be that the state's attorney would think that it was particularly cruel to the victim because he was a boy. Well, my clients are boys, too, and if it would make more serious the offense to kill a boy, it should make less serious the offense of the boys who do the killing.”[7]

      8. “My point is that scientists got obsessed with the Mediterranean diet in large part because it's a great place to go for scientific conferences.”[8]

      9. “The Trump administration is being sued over its plans to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census, which California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) says ‘is not just a bad idea — it is illegal.’ No, it's not. There is nothing wrong with asking about citizenship. Canada asks a citizenship question on its census. So do Australia and many other U.S. allies.”[9]

      10. ”We request your help in compiling a book which recalls memories from our parents' first 50 years of marriage. On the enclosed sheet, we ask that you write one memory or event that you have shared with them, and return it to us by April 25. We believe that loving memories they have shared with you, their friends, would be the most treasured gift they could receive; therefore, we request that no other gift be sent.” [“Dear Abby,” The Index Journal (February 2, 1980), 14.]

    2. Finally it should be noted that one reason for a fallacy identification of ignoratio elenchi rather than that of a specific type of fallacy of relevance is the purported reasoning in the example is not clear enough for a definitive assessment given the context of the argument.

      For example, the following passage can be plausibly analyzed in different ways depending upon how the missing premises are supplied:
      “One after another of our leaders and heroes managed to shame himself in the past couple of decades. Americans have always been a little skeptical of politicians, but Bill Clinton (and too many others of both parties to name in recent years) invited outright contempt and disgust. Baseball players and world champion bikers admit to doping after vigorous and protracted denials. Best-selling historians and journalists are caught plagiarizing. Teachers are having sex with their underage students. Doctors are caught taking lewd photographs of their patients. The Secret Service uses prostitutes. The most decorated and esteemed military officer of our time is forced to resign as CIA director after a sex scandal. One of the most admired college football coaches in the nation is found to have kept silent about child abuse. The Catholic Church as been profoundly tarnished for failing to protect children from pedophile priests. So, for all of us, even the non-Catholics, it will be a tonic, and possibly even a little inspiring, if Pope Francis turns out to be just what he seems “a truly Godly man who lives out his faith.’” [Mona Charen, “Hoping for the Real Deal in Francis,” Index-Journal 94 no. 322 (March 19, 2013), 6A.
      From her list of selected examples of leaders and heroes who have flawed character or behavior, the author argues to the unexpected conclusion that it will be ‘a tonic and possibly even a little inspiring’ to learn that the newly selected pope is not flawed also.

      One interpretation of the argument might be just to notice the biased selection of flawed leaders and flawed heroes (without consideration of honest and ethical leaders and heroes) and conclude the argument commits a fallacy of cherry picking or biased selection.

      The author might be presupposing that all of these examples point implicitly to the generalization as a subconclusion that most leaders and heroes are flawed. And then the author might be concluding from this that if the pope turns out to be an exception to that generalization, it will be unexpected. The fallacies of converse accident and accident might be plausibly argued.

      But since there is no clear connection or relevance of the kinds of leaders or heroes mentioned in the premisses with respect to the leader of the Catholic Church, assuming the passage is argumentative, identification of the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi seems appropriate.

      It is perhaps more charitable to conclude that the “so” in the last sentence is not a conclusion indicator and the author did not intend the passage to be argumentative.
“[T]he leading varieties [of ignoratio elenchi:]
  1. [M]ildly denying that a certain thing is absolutely all-important.
  2. [B]oldly point out that something else is altogether valueless, we are met by the answer that we ‘can't expect perfection.’
  3. [A]sserting that some doctrine lacks argument to prove its truth, we are referred to excellent reasons for believing in its utility.
  4. [E]ndeavouring to trace the manner in which some highly developed growth (e.g. conscience) originated, we are supposed to be refuted by a mere description of its present nature.
  5. [D]isputing an argument, or an instance, we are supposed flatly to deny the theory in support of which there were brought forward.
  6. [M]aking some merely tentative suggestion we are asked for definite proof.
The varieties are endless …”
Alfred Sidgwick, Fallacies: A View of Logic from the Practical Side (New York: D. Appleton, 1884), 188.

Notes: Ignoratio Elenchi

1. Historically, a distinction is made between ignoratio elenchi and mutatio elenchi. If the fallacy is committed unknowingly, it is an ignoratio elenchi; if committed purposely, the fallacy is “mutatio elenchi.”See, for example, Wilhelm Traugott Krug, System der theoretischen Philosophie: Logik oder Denklehre (Königsberg: August Wilhelm Unzer, 1833), 507 and Lawrence Johnstone, A Short Introduction to the Study of Logic (London: Longmans, Green, 1887, 101.) The elenchus, historically, is the syllogism in which the contradictory of an opponent's thesis is shown true thereby showing the thesis false. Ignoratio elenchi, then, represents “ignorance of this refutation.”

B. Anonymous, An Elementary Treatise on Logic (London: J. Chapman, 1852), 67.

1. “US to Pressure Iran Over ‘Plot to Kill Saudi Envoy’” BBC News 12 October 2011 (accessed 13 Oct. 2011).

2. Nathalie Rothschild, “In Sweden, a Debate Over Whether Gender Equality Has Gone Too Far,” Christian Science Monitor, 7 Apr. 2012

3. Kathleen Parker, “Death of a Salesgirl,” Index-Journal 94 No. 110 (18 Aug. 2012), 9A.

4. Charles Krauthammer, "The Big Bird Counterattack," Index-Journal 94 No. 166 (14 Oct. 2012), 9A.

5. Jonathan Martin, et al., “Exclusive: 2 Women Accused Herman Cain of Inappropriate Behavior” 30 Oct. 2011

6. Gene Epstein, “Assume a Pen: An Economist's Epistles,” Barron's 92 no. 49 (3 Dec. 2012), 39.

7. Charles Krauthammer, "In Defense of Obama's Drone War," Index-Journal 94 no. 293 (19 Feb 2013), 6A.

8. Dana Milbank, "Romney Can Retire Later," Index-Journal 94 no. 220 (8 Dec. 2012), 9A.

9. Cal Thomas, “Extortionist in Chief,” Index-Journal 94 no. 297 (23 Feb. 2013), 9A.

10. Cal Thomas, “The Sound of Inevitability,” Index-Journal 94 no. 316 (14 Mar. 2013), 8A.

11. Alan Koepcke, “Aristocratic Agriculture,” Barron's 92 no. 43 (22 Oct. 2012), 54.

12. Thomas Sowell, “The Paul Ryan Choice,” Index-Journal 94 no. 108 (16 Aug. 2012), 6A.

13. Richard S. Whiting, “Governor, Take a Lesson From GWF,” Index-Journal 94 no. 118 (26 Aug. 2012), 8A.

14. Cal Thomas, “Who Needs Reform Most: Egypt or America?” Index-Journal 94 no. 151 (28 Sept. 2012), 10A.

15. John Stossel, “Earth Daze,” Index-Journal 95 no. 331 (April 14, 2014), 9A.

Readings: Ignoratio Elenchi

Fabrizio Macagno and Douglas Walton, Interpreting Straw Man Argumentation (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 1017). doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-62545-4

Frans H. van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst, “Relevance Reviewed: The Case of Argumentum ad Hominem,Argumentation 6 no. 2(May, 1992), 141-159. doi: 10.1007/bf00154322

Walton, Douglas N. “Ignoratio Elenchi: The Red Herring FallacyInformal Logic 2 no. 3 (1979), 3-7. doi: 10.22329/il.v2i3.2823

Douglas N. Walton, “The Straw Man Fallacy,” Logic and Argumentation ed. Johan van Bentham, Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst and Frank Veltman (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1996), 115-128.

Richard Whately, Elements of Logic (London: J. Mawman, 1826), 187-202.


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