The Admission of Ignorance

Ignorance is something we all have to admit to on a pretty regular basis. We don’t know! Science admits it with incredible frequency, even if only to justify its funding. “Science knows it doesn’t know everything, else it would stop” as Dara O’Briain says. Ironically, the religious narrative is not beset by such humility. Despite humility being a virtue and religion having a pitiful track record of actually being correct about things, the religious narrative accuses science of being arrogant. Religion, which continues to assert its validity in the face of evidence and reality, calls science, which admits its errors and endeavours to improve based on the evidence and reality it discovers, arrogant.

“In January last year the Vatican actually issued an official statement reminding Dan Brown readers that the books are largely fictional, full of historically unverifiable information”

Stewart Lee

So, as it happens, the irony of who admits ignorance and who refuses to show humility is a topic of comic fodder. As it should be, the irony should jut out at anyone honestly paying attention. But I strongly suspect this is no accident. Science has a history of coming up with bad ideas and refining them into ever better explanations of what we see and now even a world beyond our basic intuitions. This history shows a clear progress. Think of the flat Earth: from flat, to spherical, to oblate spheroid, to an oblate spheroid with greater curvature in the southern Hemisphere. A naive thinker might look at that and say that’s three wrong ideas and one idea we provisionally accept as correct now. But if they sustain that shallow thinking, they won’t be able able to distinguish between two competing new models of explanation (which shallow thinkers often believe are revolutionary and right around the corner). How could such a binary view distinguish between discovering that Scotland is actually flatter than initially thought or discovering that Earth is actually the lattice of a tetrahedron?

And if they can distinguish between these two new (hypothetical) discoveries, in terms of plausibility, how do they do it?

The answer is that they recognise progress. We recognise, when we’re honest with ourselves, that science rarely u-turns on solid theories; instead they refine them. The previous answer might be wrong, in the naive sense, but it’s not. It was just in need of refinement. “Wrong” is gradated, and science has a good track record of becoming less wrong, more refined.

It’s no accident, I suspect, that religious “epistemology” and apologetics infer each refinement in science as being an admission of having been previously absolutely wrong. It creates the appearance of science being unreliable and in a constant state of flux; it seems as though science would be better summed as “I don’t know” and not as “we’re ever-so close”. (But, as we know, the latter better sums up science.) Religious apologists then use this gap, a thing they have massively exaggerated or invented, and use it as a palate to plaster their own answers. After all, if science can’t be confident surely any answer will do.

Religious apologists use this humility as an aesthetic. While science lacks certitude, religion has complete certitude. And that is comforting and more easily understood and constant. And so people too busy or disinterested to contemplate the answers just dogmatically side with religion. (There are other techniques used, like demonising unbelievers and creating an ‘us and them’ mentality, but that’s not relevant right now.)

The problem is that aesthetic. It’s more than just opportunistic; it’s an error. I don’t know is never that simple in science and it never leads a completely blank slate where all answers are equal.

The honest answer about dark matter at the moment is I don’t know. But we know approximately how we’ve arrived at the question of dark matter: we observe the effects of gravity on light and map gravity intensity around the universe and notice that gravity is very strong in places we can’t see enough matter to account for it. It’s matter we can’t see; it’s dark matter. Now that we know it has mass, we know where is sensible to look. Because we know where it is sensible to look we know that some answers are simply wrong. We are looking in hyper-cooled geranium. The answer it’s alien cats simply isn’t in the right direction.

For an easier to understand example, if you came and had a drink with me at my local pub (in Dorset in the UK) and when you went to the toilet I disappeared the first thing you would do is probably ask someone if they know where I went. If they say I’m in Kansas, you’re going to know something is off. Even though you admittedly don’t know where I am.


8 thoughts on “The Admission of Ignorance”

  1. Scientists don’t need to be humble about what they know because what they know is the truth.

    Religions claim to know certain truths so the disciples of those religions don’t need to be humble about what they know.

    On the other hand, everyone, atheist and believer alike, benefits from their own personal humility and the personal humility of others.

    The sophistry being employed in this post is that personal humility is at odds with being confident about what one knows and what one does not know.

  2. Allallt, how would you recommend assisting someone in refining their understanding of science?

    Say, for example, you show them evidence, but they refuse to refine their understanding–instead, they defend themselves by saying, “The majority of the community feels differently.” How can you get them to focus on the evidence, rather than on their preferred perspective.

    1. The community of trained professional scientists has a variety of check-and-balance hurdles that any claim of evidence has to pass through in order to gain recognition, and then a further set of checks and balances to get through in order to achieve wide acceptance. – Peer-reviewed journal entries, reproducible experimentation and discovery, theoretical congruence, etc. The assumption that there is some blunt ‘thing’ that can serve as evidence in the sciences is just false.

      That is one reason that the claim that science is engaged in advocacy – rather than reportage of ‘our best knowledge given the (tested) evidence’ – is simply a distraction.

      Scientific theories present the facts as we understand them today. To deny this is to deny rationality and the successful achievements of the human endeavor for the past 400 years. And it is to deny the truth of the theoretical explanations of real evidence that we do have, and of he evidence itself. It is to fold back into a primitive, tribal past where nothing could be known without some shaman’s approval.

      Rather the community of scientists than the shaman, any day.

      1. Ah! So then, ejwinner, you feel that the Wise Men of your era are so wise, and so rigorous, that in order to be correct, one need only accept their consensus without question?

        1. I read eywinner’s comment and then yours and then ej’s again because yours simply doesn’t repent what ej said at all.
          All commenters are free to do as they please, but this is another post i won’t be engaging you on.

        2. Allallt,

          Surely you’re insightful enough to recognize Appeal to the Majority, aren’t you?

          Look at what ejwinner wrote:

          “The community of trained professional scientists has a variety of check-and-balance hurdles that any claim of evidence has to pass through in order to gain recognition, and then a further set of checks and balances to get through in order to achieve wide acceptance. – Peer-reviewed journal entries, reproducible experimentation and discovery, theoretical congruence, etc…To deny this is to deny rationality…Rather the community of scientists than the shaman, any day.”

          This is a textbook example of the logical fallacy which can be called “Appeal to the Majority,” as well as “Appeal to Popularity” (or, alternately, a form of “Bandwagon”).

          Perhaps, just as you haven’t learned much about mathematics and probabilities/statistics, you haven’t had the chance to learn about the common logical fallacies, either. Here’s a simple link that might help you out:

          Logical Fallacies – Appeal to Popularity.

          What ejwinner did was remind me of how many Wise Men on Earth 2015 agree with his point of view. He references how learned and careful those Wise Men are. However, he does not discuss any of the primary-source evidence related to the issues at hand.

          To help you understand this more, imagine that we are talking about music theory, and about whether or not Beethoven was a more advanced composer than Lady Gaga. What ejwinner has said is essentially this:

          The community of trained professional record producers has a variety of check-and-balance hurdles that any claim of a good album has to pass through in order to gain recognition, and then a further set of checks and balances to get through in order to achieve nationwide popularity. – Industry journals, sales figures, radio play time, mention in consumer magazines, etc. The assumption that there is some blunt ‘quality’ that can serve as evidence of musical complexity is just false.

          You’ll notice that, in all of that text, he hasn’t addressed frequency of changes of key, chord progression, harmonic variance, rhythm, or other aspects of musical composition. He’s simply stated that “record producers” (a different kind of Wise Men) and “sales figures” (popularity) prove that Lady Gaga is a superior composer to Beethoven.

          But you shouldn’t believe such arguments, because popularity does not make something true. To actually address the subject, you’d need to discuss the complexity of the musical scores. Simply pointing out that one side has more money, more power, or more followers has nothing to do with truth.

          I hope you can learn to understand that someday. Not a single proud atheist here has been brave enough to address the many specific points (with pictures included!) that I made in Abscesses of Note. I think that, if any of you were able to muster up the effort to read the piece, you might be able to address the argumentative points I have presented, rather than merely reminding me how unpopular and stupid I am.

          Wouldn’t that be a more productive use of your time than just agreeing with each other that I’m stupid? Don’t be afraid of taking a closer look at fossils, geology, and mathematics! You might learn something new and helpful.

    2. Step 1 – present robust evidence incompatible with the majority belief.
      Step 2 – explain why it is incompatible.
      Step 3 – acknowledge criticisms to your evidence (peer review).

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