Is there a day coming when we will effectively know nothing?
In your favorite search engine, if you type "what is a black hole", or "black hole in space", most likely you will be presented the expected scientific entries that vary slightly in their presentation, but are reasonably consistent to give the inquirer a working definition.
One such site is: wisegeek. Some of the answers that are posted there would qualify as scientific, as correct according to our current theories. But which ones? How would the lay person know for sure, or be able to distinguish between right and wrong answers on a scientific topic such as this?
Well, one approach, adopted by Yahoo Answers, and many other sites, including most social media sites, is to allow people to vote on the best answer, or offer their opinion. So, in the case of a question "What is a black hole?", we can have anyone from a high school freshman in their first physics class, all the way to Stephen Hawking and other prominent physicists voting for the best answer.
The physicist’s answers are obviously going to be more correct than the freshman’s, but the trouble with most answers from scientifically educated individuals is that they often assume a level of understanding not actually present in their audience. Also, their use of the language is generally at a level much further advanced than the average high-schooler, and most people will not bother looking up the meaning of a word they do not know.
At any of those "vote here" sites, which answer do you think is going to be voted as the best answer? The one closer to being correct but filled with technical terms and obscure references, or the one that says something simple like
A black hole is like a tear in space that sucks up everything around it. The distance between the edges of the rip is called a wormhole.
Many people will like, or vote for the answer above because it is stated simply, sounds correct, and draws an effective, though completely wrong, picture in the questioner’s mind. Thus, that answer gets many page views, more people like it because of it’s simplicity and all the major search engines begin to take notice of that page with the wrong answer getting the most attention.
Over the course of time, because of the popularity of the page, it begins to move up in the search engine rankings and gets displayed more prominently, thus propagating the very cycle that it started in the first place. It becomes a virtual perpetual motion machine, sustained on the sheer momentum it has created and the indiscriminate nature of the algorithms that drive the search engines. Eventually, this page could conceivably be the first result returned to the black hole query and at the point, for the vast majority of seekers, the true knowledge of what a black hole is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t, are lost because of the answer that was allowed to be voted on for best status.
This black hole example is an extreme for the moment, but serves to illustrate the point of how we gain knowledge. We are far more likely to trust an answer from someone we know and like than from someone we don’t on just about any subject. There is an old acronym in the computer programming world: GIGO. Translated, that is Garbage In, Garbage Out. The same holds true for the human mind as well. When it comes to scientific inquiries or fact finding excursions on any topic, the answer voted as the best may be nothing of the sort. Soon, we will all know absolutely nothing.