Steeped in Ignorance October 19, 2009

Steeped in Ignorance

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • NDT is one of my favorite people in the world.

  • Mr. Tyson is probably one of those voices that should be heard more often advocating science and reason.

  • Nathan

    wow…. this guy is amazing. This is seriously one of the BEST videos I’ve ever seen online. As a psychology major, this is a great example of how people mistakenly trust the testimony of witnesses. lol

  • bigjohn756

    I have done the chasing Venus thing. It is absolutely amazing! Venus follows your path so closely and goes so fast that it is unbelievable. This illusion works best in the winter when there are lots of bare trees to look through. It is an eerie feeling. Even when you know what you are doing the hair on the back of your neck will stand up. After all, it appears that you are being stalked.

    It works with the Moon too, especially when the Moon is a crescent or partially covered by clouds.

    Oh, here’s an idea! Take your kids out before Halloween and try to see this illusion. The Moon is a waxing crescent and Jupiter is up, too. This works best when these things are low in the sky.

  • Lukas

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is an example of how to convey scientific stuff to other people. Instead of showing the audience that he’s smarter than them, he makes them laugh with him at how obvious this stuff is. The audience doesn’t feel lectured to, but they will come away having learned something and perhaps with changed minds – without even realizing it.

  • Korinthian

    I like this guy. Youtube, here I come!

  • Alec

    I love that guy.

  • Brad

    Maybe you should consider the possibility that the reason people like religion is because God created them with a need to have a relationship with him… but I guess you won’t consider that because you are determined to believe there is no God even though you have no evidence that can prove that he does not exist.

  • JulietEcho

    @Brad – what you just did is a prime example of what NDT talks about in the video. You have no proof that some god created people (let alone that people were created with some specific purpose in mind), but you’re filling in the information (where you actually have none) because it’s what makes you comfortable.

    We are currently ignorant concerning the origins of life. We have some hypotheses, but we haven’t figured it out. Instead of stopping there, you’ve decided that we must have been created by a god. You’re projecting your own personal wishes onto gaps in human knowledge.

  • Lukas

    @Brad: People like invisible pink elephants, too. There’s no evidence that they don’t exist. But I guess you won’t consider that because you are determined to believe that invisible pink elephants don’t exist.

    Substitute Thor, Allah, Vishnu, underpants gnomes, Xenu, fairies, ghosts, Kali, or whatever you like for “invisible pink elephants.” The fact that there is no evidence that something exists is meaningless if there’s no evidence that it does exist – and the fact that people want something to exist does not qualify as evidence for actual existence.

  • Again to @Brad, that’s entirely backwards. No one needs evidence for the *non-existence* of something like a god — evidence is required to show whether it *does* exist.

    There are infinite numbers of things for which there is no evidence — because there are infinite numbers of things that aren’t real. I have no evidence to prove that unicorns don’t exist. I have no evidence to prove that Bizarro World doesn’t exist on the other side of the Sun. I have no evidence to prove that my neighbour across the street doesn’t eat rocks for lunch. And so on. But with no evidence *for* those things, there’s no reason to think they’re true either.

    And thus the whole point of this post, I think.

  • Mister Trickster


    Ha! Well done.

    Take that, Brad!

  • Becky

    And thus, my GeekCrush on Mr. Tyson is solidified.

  • gwen

    @Becky…you can’t have him! He’s all mine!! I had my GeekCrush first! (besides, I actually met him and he TOUCHED my shoulder! I have a non photoshopped picture to prove it AND eyewitness testimony!).

  • Cafeeine

    Have you considered the possibility that at least some atheists have considered the possibility you mention and rejected it, not because of some pre-determined belief, but because they found it to be untenable? Or is that impossible, since your own experiences show you that a god exists so therefore anybody with a different outlook is close-minded and / or lying through their teeth?

  • Abcd

    FYI Dr. Tyson has a radio show over at 🙂

  • muggle

    That video was great! I definitely learned something while laughing ’til my sides ached.

  • DreamDevil

    Niel DeGrasse Tyson is so full of win.

  • Amyable Atheist

    Am I the only one wondering if Brad even bothered to watch the video before chiming in?

  • What an excellent clip. I must have more.


    Maybe you should consider the possibility that the reason people like religion is because God created them with a need to have a relationship with him…

    Exactly as Jesse explained this simply creates more questions. Why would the gods create people? Why would he create them to desire religion? Why would he want a relationship with humans? Why do all this and allow doubt? Why make such a good job of looking like he isn’t there?

    you are determined to believe there is no God even though you have no evidence that can prove that he does not exist.

    There are some atheists who very much regret the loss of their faith. I’ve never had a faith to regret losing but I know of atheists who have. It isn’t a matter of wanting to believe something but a matter of looking at the world, of examining the evidence, and seeing nothing that leads to any god much less the Christian god. You start from a position of ignorance and then look for explanations, not the other way around.

  • Gospel stories

    theory 1: eyewitness testimony orally transmitted for about 2 generations before being written down. Imagine the distortions and exaggerations.

    theory 2: allegorical stories written specifically to fulfill Old-Testament prophecy for the purpose of starting a new religion. (there never really was a Jesus).

    Take your pick.

    chasing Venus: Star of Bethlehem anyone?

  • Ubi Dubium

    As I was watching Neil, I thought “He’s Carl Sagan crossed with Bill Cosby!”

    I love this guy.

  • AxeGrrl

    Lukas wrote:

    The fact that there is no evidence that something exists is meaningless if there’s no evidence that it does exist

    Perfect nutshell summary Lukas!

    It has bumper-sticker written all over it 🙂

  • Dr. Tyson sure does know how to explain things. He’s the man! He makes learning entertaining.

  • Claire

    Talk about coincidence. I *just* finished watching the entire talk/Q&A that the above clip was excerpted from, then clicked over here to read the new post.

    The whole talk is also quite entertaining and available on YouTube, but about 1.5hrs, so make a bowl of popcorn and block out some time!

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