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The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature Hardcover – February 9, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

From Booklist

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (February 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060781505
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060781507
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #539,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on February 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris is out to make an interesting case: that science and liberalism (small "l") go hand in hand. Namely, he wants to show (a) that science and liberalism have similar decentralized methods, and (b) it is very hard to have science without liberalism and, in turn, liberalism generally fosters scientific invention.

The first few two chapters are ones devoted to making the former case, the largely theoretical argument that science and liberalism have much in common. Both function by individuals being left free to make testable claims, test their own and others claims, and find truth by participating in this social process. This is similar to liberalism in that authority is never immune from challenge, people are left largely free to "experiment" with how best to live, and everyone can participate in the marketplace of ideas. (For perhaps the best theoretical comparison of science to liberty, check out Michael Polanyi's LOGIC OF LIBERTY, THE.)

From here, Ferris moves on to look at the historical connection between science and liberty (and that between pseudoscience and illiberalism). Chapter four ("Science of Enlightenment") and five ("American Independence") are of particular interest here as Ferris shows how many scientists championed liberty, and how many advocates of liberty championed science. Virtually all of the founders (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, etc) studied and were enthusiastic about science. Similarly, Newton and Bacon, who wrote primarily on science, also ruminated quite a bit on liberty.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My enjoyment of science books has been sorely tempered by an allergy to dull writing. Academia, the source of most modern science, is infamous for precisely that. Years ago I discovered Timothy Ferris's "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" and loved his contagious sense of wonder, the dramatic narrative of our ongoing discovery of our place in the cosmos, and his lucid prose and ingenious analogies. I've been avidly reading his astronomy & cosmology books ever since.

"The Science of Liberty" is arguably his best book: it has all his trademark eloquence and a vastly more relevant topic. But the huge popularity of his earlier books won't repeat here. Ferris has stepped from neutral ground onto a morally charged minefield to forcefully argue that individual liberty and scientific inquiry are historically and inseparably linked, and that together they form the principal engine of human progress. Any book taking a passionate and unequivocal moral stand will provoke loud protests from someone. Neither science nor liberty have historically lacked powerful and visible enemies: religions, monarchies, dictatorships, holy terrorists, etc. Their heirs won't be reading this book. The incandescently obvious success of (small "l") liberal democracies and scientists in improving human life on our planet has forced most of its modern adversaries underground--where they chip away at the basic assumptions of science and lobby for ever tighter limits on freedom. They will hate this book and you'll surely be hearing from some of them on this page.

A prefatory note: The title isn't meant to imply that liberty or liberal governance is a science. The author means to show that science and liberty were siblings born of common parents.
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Good stuff... Those who enjoy and appreciate science should gain some valuable insight from the Science of Liberty regarding the many forks-in-the-roads that have brought us to where we are today. I beg to differ with the reviewer that characterized this book as "a sleeper". I found myself fascinated with the scholarly yet eminently readable history covered in the book that puts the topic into perspective with current events.

Not long ago I would have passed this book by - simply on the basis of its title and content. The engaging style of writing and fascinating topics covered kept me interested from beginning to end. I particularly enjoyed the many historical references and background that the book covers. Much of it I had a smattering of background in but the author was very good at delivering insightful snippets that brought history to life.

While not everyone will agree with Mr. Ferris, he makes a compelling argument for the value of science in promoting liberty and the general improvement in the quality of life for all those nations that embrace freedom in scientific endeavors. I for one agree with his observations and conclusions.
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Format: Hardcover
The central thesis of this work which connects scientific method and research with political democracy and liberalism is one which seems to me right. The non- authoritarian character of science, the focus on experiment and testing by empirical reality, the valuing of individual freedom, and willingness to make use of all potential talent, the capacity for self- correction, the remarkable power and capacity of Science and Technology to transform the world and improve the human condition, seem to fit well with the emphasis on Democracy, political freedom,individual liberty. Ferris' argument as I understand it is even stronger for he does not see a complementary connection only but also a causative one. The scientific mind and temperament of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic is contrasted with the authoritarian mind - set of absolutist French Revolutionaries. In a sense Ferris is getting at here an idea which has been developed at least in some degree by thinkers diverse as Karl Popper and Eric Hoffer, There is an opposition between the closed- minded fixed answer way of seeing the world and the open- minded experimental way. The latter is the way of the democracies and the former is the way of the Totalitarians whether they be in the political world or in the academic.
In all this I see Ferris as on the side of the angels. I do not know enough to really either defend or take issue with the body of his historical story. I too tend to sympathize with his strong critique of the Post- Modern nonsensists,
But I do wonder and am troubled by where Humanity as a whole now is in relation to the developments which have been described. Does the rise of scientific researches which involve very vast collaborative efforts really make room still for the work of individual genius?
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