Science Communication Gems: Science versus religion

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.

3 thoughts on “Science Communication Gems: Science versus religion

  1. H.D. Kline

    The question would have been easier to answer before the Postnormal Science of the modern era evolved from what had formerly been regarded as “normal” science, supplanting it with ruthless efficiency by a process of natural selection – truly a spectacle (metaphorically speaking) of Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Mistake this not for a lament, for it is merely an observation, not a Value-Judgement. Believe me, I have no wish to return to the simplistic science of the pre-Postnormal era that was born (arguably) in the days of Galileo (a Denialist of his era), matured with Newton (famous for being an Alchemist) and Liebnitz, and degenerated, in the twentieth century, into what might almost be described as a form of “collective dementia” with the likes of Einstein, Bose, Gell-Mann and Feynman, to name but a few.

    I think a lot of the the difficulties we have with Fake Sceptics is that they feign ignorance of Postnormal Science and of the POSTMODERNIST ideas that inform it. How many Denialists and Fake Sceptics will admit that Scientific Truth is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT? NOT A ONE!!! WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE??? As one of East Anglia’s Greatest Climate Scientists, Mike Hulme, once said:

    Two years ago, Tony Blair announced the large, government-backed international climate change conference in Exeter by asking for the conference scientists to “identify what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is self-evidently too much”.

    This is the wrong question to ask of science. Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking, although science will gain some insights into the question if it recognises the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists – and politicians – must trade (normal) truth for influence. If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity.

    So yeah! A question such as “what’s the difference between science and religion as knowledge-systems?” might have made perfect sense in the Pre-Postnormal era, but it ceases to have meaning [or, to be a bit technical, ceases to be “decidable”] to today’s more sophisticated scientist.

    The irony is that this all follows from quantum mechanics and the unavoidable subjectivity it introduces by making the Conscious Observer an unavoidable component of any quantum mechanical system. I say “irony”, because some of the early Quantum Mechanicians understood this – as do most of today’s Pop. Sci. writers on the subject – and they understood that a cat could therefore be simultaneously alive and dead until a Conscious Observer looked at it and Collapsed its Wavefunction. (Aside: I must state, at this point, that I am an animal lover, and I would never knowingly Collapse an animal’s Wave Function – not even in the name of SCIENCE). Sadly, some of these Quantum Mechanicians’ peers and the vast majority of their demented (metaphorically speaking (see above)) successors failed to grasp this simple fact. Instead they resisted being dragged kicking and screaming into the quantum era – the Postnormal Era – by pretending that the Wave Function, rather than being the essence of a being’s being, was merely a measure of our knowledge of the being’s being. AND THIS IS WHY IT IS CLIMATE SCIENTISTS, RATHER THAN PHYSICISTS, WHO ARE LEADING US INTO NEWER AND BETTER WAYS OF SCIENCE.


  2. usedtobespeedy


    To anyone with the faintest understanding of statistics, this is merely elementary. We all know that the standard deviation within a population will diminish as the inverse of the square root of the number of samples taken. So, if we start with two samples, then quadruple it, the standard deviation within the population will be reduced by a factor of two. If we have thousands of climate scientists, all in violent agreement about the state of the planetary climate and the grim prospects for whales, polar bears, people or other cute animals, then we can be very sure (lets say 97% sure) that they are absolutely right.

    The science is undeniable. And anyone who has read an IPCC report will know, that the thousands and thousands of pages of meticulous scientific information contained therein eliminate the risk of error, whatsoever, to absolutely zero. The IPCC is infallible, And anyone who even thinks otherwise is a denier and should be dealt with accordingly.


    1. H.D. Kline

      What you say, usedtobespeedy is of course broadly unarguable. Nevertheless, we must never forget that the Postnormal Science of today might employ facts and statistics, but it is no longer about facts and statistics; rather, it is about weighing up competing narratives from a range of balanced sources – making sure first to remove unbalanced sources, such as the deranged STATISTICALISTICISM of Denialists such as W.M. Briggs (complaining, here, about the abuse of statistics as if statistics had feelings) and Steve McIntyre (engaging in a convoluted distancing of himself from fellow denialists by means of a “guest post” full of incomprehensible equations, graphs and suchlike; probably acutely aware of the need to dissociate himself from the Secret Network of Big Oil Funded Denialist Conspiracy Theorists before it is too late). Obviously, in this case, my linking to Denialist sites is entirely acceptable, since these links show that the Denialists in question have STATISTICALISED themselves into a backwoods from which they can only reverse out.


      Hayden. D. Kline



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