Quick: what’s the difference between science and religion as knowledge-systems?
Not so easy, is it?
Let science communication come to the rescue!
Before science, in what Hitchens called “the bawling and fearful infancy of our species,” everything we knew was constructed via social proof. In other words, the truth was what people said.
But this raised an obvious question: how many people?
The answer differed between cultures and faiths. The general consensus seems to be 4. The testimony of 4 people, on average, was the truth.
In the Middle East—the cradle of civilization—the most important quadriveridical tradition was, of course, Islam. The Qur’an is admirably consistent:
Why did they not bring four witnesses of it? As they have not brought the witnesses they are liars before Allah. — 24:13
Those who defame chaste women and do not bring four witnesses should be punished with eighty lashes, and their testimony should not be accepted afterwards, for they are profligates. — 24:4
If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, take the evidence of four witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some [other] way. — 4:15
Yet we do not recognise here a modern approach to truth. The people and archangels responsible for these early stabs at epistemology may have had the same, universal concerns that preoccupy us today—identifying and punishing sluts—but they were still about 1,000 years away from doing it scientifically.
The journey from bipedalism to the modern scientific method was a long one, and we made countless wrong turns on the way.
The Arabs tried letting the material world speak for itself—only to find its testimony could not be trusted, especially when proto-lewinskian psycho-sluts were involved:
[There is] evidence of the use of forensic evidence in the early days of Islam. Anwar Mahmud Dabur in al-Qara’in wa Dawruha fi al-fiqh al-Jina’i al-Islami (p. 215) narrates the story of a woman who accused a man of rape. She spread egg yolk on herself and her clothes and brought it as evidence to Caliph Umar ibn Khattab. The Caliph consulted another woman who confirmed the woman’s clothing bore semen stains.
They even experimented with establishing truth by simple repetition:
And those who accuse their wives [of being sluts], and have no witnesses but themselves, then the testimony of each of them shall be a testimony sworn by God repeated four times, that he is indeed truthful […] And it shall avert punishment from her that she testify a testimony repeated and sworn by God four times, that he is lying. —Qur’an, An-Nur: 6-9
But this system was hardly an improvement, being vulnerable to the obvious Goebbelian gambit.
Ironically it was Judeo-Christian ideas that finally impelled mankind, sometime after the humanist Renaissance, into the scientific age. The key insight was obvious—at least in retrospect. It turns out Arab civilisation had simply set the bar for truth 100% too high.
As science communicator John Cook† communicates,
So I’m starting to test the idea of softening the language, engaging values that you share in common with your audience, in order to “give the facts a fighting chance”.
So I’m writing an article for a Christian magazine – in that one, I start by referencing scripture about how truth is established by two or more witnesses and showing how science runs on the same principle. I’ve also drafted something I’ll send to the ABC where I start by quoting some skeptics demanding evidence, complimenting that attitude.
So you see: it was a trick question.
†John Cook’s science communication work was recognised by the $10,000 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Advancement of Climate Change Knowledge in 2011.
John is the Climate Communication Research Fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Adjunct Researcher at UQ and Adjunct Lecturer at University of Western Australia.
When he’s not busy teaching Australians about the difference between science and religion and how there actually isn’t one, John runs the SkepticalScience website.