I was recently on a lengthy flight and was pondering the regulations on cell phone usage. I've heard that the cell phone doesn't actually interfere with the plane's flight systems (or comms, or anything at all) but that one of the reasons for the "airplane mode" requirement is that A) the phone generally just won't be able to get a signal anyway, and B) if it can reach a tower, it's expensive (computationally) for the cell network to hand-off a phone that's jumping from one tower to another at 500 MPH. Multiply this by a cockpit full of passengers, and it's a big load on the system. This seemed fairly plausible to me, but I wondered if that was only because it was a more complex/technical answer than the more accepted "it messes with the plane" answer. Is there a term for an explanation which seems like it might be the real reason for something, simply because it's more complicated than the more widely accepted explanation?

It's almost the opposite of Argumentum ad populum.

NOTE: I suppose that it *is* possible that I'm the only one on the planet susceptible to this phenomenon...


2 Answers 2


This sounds like ignoratio elenchi, or missing the point. Since your specific example substitutes misdirection for a candid answer, it is purposefully missing the point.

To the question “Why turn off cell phones?” the answer “It interferes with the plane and so is potentially dangerous” is false, and knowingly so, but that is the correct answer to “Why can’t I fire a gun in the plane,” so it is a right answer to a different question.

What isn’t directly to your point is about simplicity trumping complexity in that the candid answer would take more effort or would be more subject to debate or more difficult to understand than using a lie to cultivate the inference that if you use a cell phone everyone would die in a plane crash.

So the implicit intimidation behind the simple answer is a manipulation which uses fear rather than reason to gain acquiescence. So one question would be “Is the answer to the question true or false?” If true, it is not ignoratio enelchi in any case. Using a simple true answer, with more extensive justifications behind it, would simply be a simplification.

In your example it is false. A further question might be “Is the simple answer manipulative, or based on fear, or just wrong?” The airline might have a motive for having the flight attendant give a wrong answer, so the term for the airline would be different than the flight attendant.

I’m not sure how specific you want your term. I know I’m still not exactly on point, because ignoratio elenchi does not address complexity, but maybe this helps. Probably way more writing than you wanted.


This sounds like an appeal to complexity or appeal to obfuscation.

I found one external source that used the term "appeal to complexity": http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html#complexity

if the arguer doesn't understand the topic, he concludes that nobody understands it. So, his opinions are as good as anybody's.

I agree -- this is something that seems commonplace to me as well.

(Nitpick: if the cockpit of the aircraft is full of passengers, ala Airport 1975, there are a lot of problems on that flight!)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.