Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance has succintly explained why it is reasonable to believe in dark matter, in spite of the spate of recent modified gravity-inspired publications that purport to explain the Bullet Cluster result and the emergence of a relativisic verison of modified gravity over the past few years. Quoth the article:
The dark matter hypothesis provides a simple and elegant fit to the Bullet Cluster, and for that matter fits a huge variety of other data. That doesn’t mean that it’s been proven within metaphysical certainty; but it does mean that there is a tremendous presumption that it is on the right track. The Bullet Cluster (and for that matter the microwave background) behave just as they should if there is dark matter, and not at all as you would expect if gravity were modified. Any theory of modified gravity must have the feature that essentially all of its predictions are exactly what dark matter would predict. So if you want to convince anyone to read your long and complicated paper arguing in favor of modified gravity, you have a barrier to overcome. These folks aren’t crackpots, but they still face the challenge laid out in the alternative science respectability checklist: “Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.” Tell me right up front exactly how your theory explains how a force can point somewhere other than in the direction of its source, and why your theory miraculously reproduces all of the predictions of the dark matter idea (which is, at heart, extraordinarily simple: there is some collisionless non-relativistic particle with a certain density).
And people just don’t do that. They want to believe in modified gravity, and are willing to jump through all sorts of hoops and bend into uncomfortable contortions to make it work. You might say that more mainstream people want to believe in dark matter, and are therefore just as prejudiced. But you’d be laboring under the handicap of being incorrect. Any of us would love to discover a modification of Einstein’s equations, and we talk about it all the time. As a personal preference, I think it would be immeasurably more interesting if cosmological dynamics could be explained by modifying gravity rather than inventing some dumb old particle.
But the data say otherwise….
The basic probelm is that, while modified gravity proponents tend to argue that dark matter is a kludge designed to fit the data even though there is no indication of what it might actually be composed of (and until recently hadn’t even been directly detected), modified gravity itself proposes an ad hoc modification to the law of gravity without any theoretical motivation. Why should modified gravity then be considered more realistic hypothesis than dark matter?