Despite dealing with some weighty issues, The Science of Liberty isn't a wonky book written by an egghead, but a passionately crafted and articulate exploration of the relationship between science and democracy. Ferris, a first-rate popular-science writer, combines lucid prose with some serious science chops to show how science and democracy working in symbiosis can thrive and--the author suggests, using the antiexamples of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union--can just as easily die. In any book of this scope, critics tend to cherry-pick their favorite anecdotes and to focus on certain historical periods (and to kvetch a bit when those periods aren't well represented). Ferris, though, treats his subject with equanimity and the advantage of the long view.
Ferris, the prominent science author and PBS series host, champions scientific and classical liberal values in this work. Holding that the rise of science blazed the trail for liberal democracy, Ferris opens with profiles of seventeenth-century philosophical pioneers in each arena, Francis Bacon and John Locke, and continues with embodiments of the Enlightenment’s intersection of science and self-government, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Historical episodes in which authoritarianism suppressed liberty and democracy occupy much of Ferris’ subsequent analysis: in his discussions of the regimes of Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, Ferris convincingly demonstrates that the disasters that befell science and scientists under their sway stemmed from the extinction of freedom. In contemporary times, the threat to scientific and democratic values, Ferris writes, comes from deconstructionist philosophers and their pilot fish in academia, and from Islamic radicalism. Disparaging illusions about a perfect society at the base of various stripes of totalitarianism––Communist, Fascist, or Fundamentalist Muslim––Ferris vindicates his thesis that humanity’s progress ensues only whenever science’s anti-authoritarian, egalitarian commitment to free inquiry is allowed to range wherever curiosity will take it. --Gilbert Taylor