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”
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.