This post is by Jesse Galef
I feel comfortable saying that I don’t know something. True, on a midterm exam I’m likely to frantically scribble something down in hopes that might be correct. But when it comes to the big questions, there’s no shame in saying “I don’t know.” Neil deGrasse Tyson explains this in excellent fashion. Here he discusses the fallacy of argument from ignorance among other interesting topics (via Phil Ferguson on facebook):
Somebody sees lights flashing in the sky. They’ve never seen it before; they don’t understand what it is. They say, “A UFO!” The ‘U’ stands for ‘unidentified’. So they say: “I don’t know what it is… It must be aliens from outer space visiting from another planet!”
Well… if you don’t know what it is, that’s where your conversation should stop! You don’t then say it MUST be anything! Ok?
That’s what argument from ignorance is. It’s common; I’m not blaming anybody. Psychologists know all about it.
It may relate to our burning need to have to know stuff because we’re uncomfortable steeped in ignorance. You can’t be a scientist if you’re uncomfortable with ignorance, because we live at the boundary of what is known and unknown in the universe.
So the public, it appears, seems to have this burning need to have to have an answer to what is unknown. And so you go from an abject statement of ignorance to an abject statement of certainty. That is operating within us.
This phenomenon seems like a prime reason people give theologians any credit for having answers. The argument in a nutshell, seems to be “Science can’t tell us why we exist… So we must trust men wearing fancy hats reading from books written hundreds of years ago.”
It’s not always so blatant, but it’s this fallacy that leads people to theism instead of deism: “We don’t know why there is something instead of nothing… so there must be a omnipotent, all-knowing, and loving deity looking over us who created us in his image and whose word is written in this particular book.” They’re not just calling the creation of the universe ‘God’, they’re making a stronger statement based on nothing but ignorance.
This is another reason religion is so seductive to people: it offers relief from the uncomfortable position of ignorance. Of course, when religion creates more questions than it answers, people are likely to leave their religion. That might be why the problem of suffering leads so many to leave the fold – suddenly, faith in God creates the uncomfortable ignorance of not knowing why God would allow cancer, tsunamis, and genocide.
Of course, it’s good that we feel uncomfortable with ignorance – as long as it drives us to find out more. But too often, it drives us to make bad assumptions and give too much weight to flawed arguments. The overall message of the video is that humans are pretty bad data-takers, and science is the attempt to overcome our inherent weaknesses. Watch the whole thing; I found it fascinating.