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.
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.
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.
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.