The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

by Timothy Ferris

Hardcover, 2010




Harper, (2010)


In this sweeping intellectual history, science writer Timothy Ferris transcends the concepts of left and right to make a passionate case for science as the inspiration behind the rise of liberalism and democracy. Ferris argues that just as the scientific revolution rescued billions from poverty, fear, hunger, and disease, the Enlightenment values it inspired has swelled the number of persons living in free and democratic societies from less than one percent of the world population four centuries ago to more than a third today. Ferris investigates the evolution of these scientific and political revolutions, demonstrating that they are inextricably bound. He shows how science was integral to the American Revolution but misinterpreted in the French Revolution; reflects on the history of liberalism, stressing its widely underestimated and mutually beneficial relationship with science; and surveys the forces that have opposed science and liberalism--from communism and fascism to postmodernism and Islamic fundamentalism.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

Ferris's deeply humane conviction that science is the most powerfully liberating force in history and the single most dependable agent of social progress.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nbmars
In this ambitious undertaking by science popularizer Timothy Ferris, the author attempts to argue that science is a precursor of liberty, in that scientific thinking fosters a preference for democracy. Science encourages experimentation and questioning of authority; it argues for the freedom to explore new ideas and hear new voices and use new methods. Good science comes from conflict, and from advancement on the basis of merit. It was only natural, argues Ferris, that the development of the scientific method inspired a search for a new form of government, one that would both reflect the values inherent in scientific inquiry, and also allow for the tangible results of that inquiry to benefit the people.

Specifically, Ferris begins by arguing that The Scientific Revolution (starting roughly with Copernicus) was the cause of the subsequent democratic revolution that “spread freedom and equal rights to nearly half the world’s inhabitants.” A more accurate (if less felicitous) title of the book would have been, The Role of Science in Establishing Liberty.

Ferris overstates his case somewhat when he claims that “science flourishes only [sic] in liberal-democratic environments” because it is (1) inherently antiauthoritarian, (2) self-correcting, (3) dependent on drawing on all available intellectual resources, (4) powerful, and (5) a social activity. Those reasons are why science and liberalism go well together, but do not prove that one is the sine qua non of the other.

As he demonstrated in earlier books, Ferris is a very good historian of ideas. He shows how the scientific ideas of Galileo and Newton may have influenced the philosophical-political ideas of John Locke, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, and thus the Enlightenment and the establishment of American democracy. The Federalist Papers, he notes, used the word “experiment” forty-five times. He also references Benjamin Franklin’s address to the Constitutional Convention in which Franklin praised the construction of a government that could accommodate future information and an increase in knowledge rather than a dogmatic insistence on finality in its then present form. Ferris further cites the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin:

"Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about.”

Ferris devotes a chapter to the Terror of the French Revolution, the excesses of which he ascribes to the fact that philosophy (particularly that of Rousseau), not science “drove” the Revolution. His analysis of why the French chose the Terror over moderation is not satisfactory. He says they “neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism—that the key to success is to experiment and to abide by the results.” But they did experiment, first with a non-bloody revolt, followed by the execution of the king, and then by wholesale executions of everyone who seemed to doubt the virtue of the people in power. The failure to experiment was not the problem - choosing the wrong philosophy was.

Ferris also has trouble reconciling 19th century imperialism with his science driven liberal philosophy. He recognizes that science creates power in the cognoscenti, and observes that the ones holding technological advantages used them to subjugate whole civilizations that did not possess those advantages. How did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world? Ferris has no real answer to that question other than to observe that colonialism was an anachronism, and that by 1980 no substantial colonies existed anywhere.

Ferris argues convincingly that the scientific method applied to the process of wealth creation and distribution has yielded good results. He shows that modern economics, starting with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, like the “hard sciences,” is objective (rather that subjective or directed to the way things ought to be), quantitative, and empirical. In Ferris’s words, economics is not “like cultural anthropology, much of which reads like fairy tales translated into Esperanto, and psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, who discovered nothing and cured nobody.” He notes that even though there is a tension between Keynesians and the Chicago School of Economics, liberal democracies tend to experiment with aspects of both schools. Moreover, by building a body of empirical information, the theories continue to evolve.

Ferris is highly critical of totalitarian antiscience and academic antiscience. He shows that science progressed much more slowly under the regimes of the Nazis, Soviets, and Chinese than under the western democracies. He also deprecates the rise of antiscientific academic philosophies like postmodernism and deconstructionism, which, he contends, uncritically accept the truth or validity of many forms of intellectual nonsense.

The final chapter of the book is entitled, “One World.” It can be summarized by saying civilized people are all inconvenienced greatly by dogmatists, particularly of the religious (and especially the Islamic) variety. Ferris notes that “scientists originally were as religious as the rest of the population, but the scientific process and the knowledge it obtains are so different from religious practices and doctrines that it is becoming increasingly difficult…to accommodate both within a single worldview.” He concludes with a paean to liberal democracy, where a country may go from George W. Bush to Barak Hussein Obama—or the other way around.

Evaluation: This is a good book in that it explores cogently the interrelation of many complex ideas. It is flawed in that it is able to sustain its thesis through many, but not all, of the subjects covered. Ferris’s other books, in which he doesn’t stray so far from cosmology and physics, are more compelling.

Rating: 3.5/5
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LibraryThing member peterwall
Timothy Ferris is an enthusiastic student and synthesizer of others' primary research. This means he paints inevitably broad strokes and makes necessary selections from vast specialist literatures. It also means that he, like most of us, occasionally stumbles with inaccurate facts or infelicitous summaries of complex ideas. (Two examples occurring to this reviewer are a minor misstatement about the effects of neutron bombs and a brief discussion of Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions that might be a little misleading. But whether neutron bombs destroy property has no bearing on Ferris' thesis and the argument would be little improved by adding more of Kuhn's ideas about the usefulness of "normal science" between "revolutions." A selection was made; take it as you find it.) But Ferris is honest and thus provides fairly detailed notes, which enable the reader to do two things that substantially increase the value of the book: check his work and use his synthesis as a reference piece. Readers who fail to understand this particular genre (not specialized, not exhaustive, argumentative but transparent) will criticize it unfairly on points that make no difference to its viability.

That prefatory caveat (and high-horsey admonition to other reviewers) aside, The Science of Liberty tells a story that needs to be told more often: science and liberalism (the lowercase variety) go hand-in-hand to promote freedom and well-being by systematically and constitutionally rejecting ideology and dogma. Even better, Ferris narrates his argument, from the Milesians to global warming and Islamist terrorism, with easy clarity. Science thrives when and where people are free to think, investigate, and communicate without state restrictions; thriving science promotes technological benefits; and creative investigations of our world are further enabled where well-being is enhanced by those benefits. Meanwhile, the virtuous habits of doubting what is received while emphasizing the provisionality of what is given promote the development of a more tolerant and humane world. And, finally, the universal accessibility science makes its benefits more broadly shareable than those of ideology and dogma, which thrive on parochialism. His argument comes, essentially, to this: science without liberty withers away, while the values that science promotes can only bolster liberty; the two together form something like a positive feedback loop.

Near the end of the book, a chapter each is devoted to two forms of what Ferris calls "antiscience": totalitarianism and postmodern pseudo-intellectualism. The "pseudo-" is not his, but Ferris would surely not disagree; he calls it "Academic Antiscience," but observes that the postmodern critique, insofar as it is valuable, states only obvious trivialities (that scientific findings are provisional, that scientists cannot claim pure objectivity, etc.) and has elsewhere called the rest of it "pernicious nonsense." On totalitarianism, page after page of examples from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China support his argument: ideology and dogma promoted to political authority stifle scientific research surely and with stunning consciousness of motive in their implementation.

The broad, underlying point of The Science of Liberty might have been stated more clearly. Ferris suggests, without saying it clearly and succinctly, that science and liberalism are, if not the most "natural" mode of human existence (and what does "natural" mean, anyway?), the surest path to well-being and self-realization. It is a bold argument (and one of the blurbs on the back of the dust jacket says that "He boldly goes where no science writer has gone before") but one that deserves to be considered.
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LibraryThing member subbobmail
In "The Science of Liberty," Timothy Ferris argues that science and democracy are 1) beneficial to humankind, and 2) mutually reinforcing. Prosperity depends upon inprovements in technology; technological advancement depends on scientific discovery; science depends upon the free and open exchange of ideas; and countries that enjoy both prosperity and free expression tend to move from despotism to liberty. Meanwhile, powers that value dogma over evidence -- Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, the Bush Administration -- eventually fail because they cannot correct their own errors in judgement. Ferris is a lively writer who remains engaging even while making dubious arguments. (For instance, economics is not a true science -- not even by Ferris' own definition -- but that doesn't keep him from speaking as though it were.) One comes away from this book very grateful for the ways in which science has improved our lives. Not only has it made billions of people healthier, wealthier and wiser, it has made them more free.… (more)
LibraryThing member smithwil
I very much want to agree totally with the review, below, by wanack. I do not disagree with a word of the short review. However, I must agree somewhat with the earlier review by suggesting that the first two-thirds of the book would have sufficed. The basic premise of the mutually beneficial value of science and liberty working together for human progress is at the heart of the book. The rest of the book provides one illustration after the other to support the basic premise.… (more)
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
a very well written researched book about how science and democracy reinforce each other a excellent read
LibraryThing member DLMorrese
The central argument in this book is that individual freedom encourages science and that the lack individual freedom inhibits and distorts it. There is something here for everyone with preconceived notions of how things 'should' be to hate. I can't say I agreed with every point being made, but this is a book that will make you think and reexamine your assumptions. I recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
Really enjoyed this as I did Timothy Ferris's other book "Coming of Age in the Milky Way." Part science, part history, part philosophy this book explores the connection between advances in scientific discovery and democratic liberalism. His thesis is that one cannot exist without the other, each feeding off the other as they progress. He believes society can only prosper in such an environment.

Most of the book cites examples that illustrate this, from Newton to the present day. He explores the relative freedom of liberal democratic societies comparing them with those that have tried to suppress it. He cites fascism, communism, religious fanaticism and postmodernism as culprits that inhibit this progress. Each he says, substitutes scientific objectivity with a relativism that encourages abuses of power and causes backwardness.

He levels some of his most pointed criticisms at the wave of postmodern deconstruction that has become fashionable at academic institutions in the 20th century. He views this trend with alarm as scholars make claims about the relativism of scientific discovery; asserting there is no objective scientific truth, and that any discovery that makes that claim is inherently tainted by the bias of the discoverer. A notion he views as beyond ridiculous - and dangerous. By assuming all scientific discovery is thus subject to disproof, students aren't encouraged to actually learn the science they have been trained to criticize.

Ferris even takes on one of the most influential works describing the history of science - Thomas Kuhn's landmark work "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Kuhn's assertion in that work is that scientific truth is not based on objective criteria, but is defined by the consensus of the scientific community. As such it consists not only of objective observation, but of the subjective perceptions of those forming that consensus. Discovery that comes into conflict with this consensus and breaks through it to form a new consensus are said to have initiated "paradigm shifts" - a term Kuhn coined to describe this sudden and successful change in that consensus. Since scientific truth cannot be ascertained objectively, there can be no such thing as an assertion of scientific truth.

Ferris views this as nonsense and simply another way to inject relativism and subjectivity into perceptions of scientific discovery. In this way those who have agendas other than the search for truth can assert that flaws in the scientific method are no different than flaws in any other system. They can thus conform their view of scientific discovery with whatever ideology they have constructed (e.g. "Socialist Science").

He also describes the ideological spectrum as a triangle. Instead of progressive and conservative at two ends of a line, they populate two vertices of a triangle, with liberalism at the other. As societies implement policies they move along these vertices toward more or less liberalism...and that these shifts can validly come from either the progressive or conservative side. Liberal democratic societies thus oscillate between them constantly trying to find the right balance of freedom and regulation to maximize progress. (this is a very quick and crude explanation of what Ferris describes in the book).

All of this is very well written in a smooth and non technical way. While reading it I found I suddenly understood concepts I had only a dim comprehension of before. It's only weakness in my opinion is the scrupulous effort made to balance any criticism of conservative ideology with one of progressivism...even if that attempt was strained. I also think he is too dismissive of criticisms of globalization, income inequality, and corporate power.

Highly recommended!

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LibraryThing member lindap69
skimmed this come back with more time - makes the case for science as the inspiration behind the rise of liberalism and democracy


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