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The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature Paperback – February 8, 2011
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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. John Locke studied science and was friends with Isaac Newton before writing his marvelous defense of liberalism - Two Treatises of Government).
As to the relationship between pseudoscience (or dismissal of science altogether!) and illiberalism, we look to chapters six ("The Terror) and ten ("Totalitarian Antiscience"). The first of these takes the French Revolution as its subject - a revolution that professed to understand liberty and science but seemed to understand neither. Ferris reminds us that the ideological father of the French Revolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau, denigrated both liberty and science, as did many of its major figures. Chapter ten focuses on the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Mao's China, where science tended to flounder because it was so heavily controlled; those who reached the 'wrong' conclusion (those which went against the dominant ideology) were often expurgated and, as a result, the 'science' produced in these illiberal regimes was often incompetent (think Mengele and Lysenko). Again, those interested in exploring the topic further might look at Polanyi's book cited above.
The implication here is that since science and liberalism use similar methods and rely on the same type of liberty and decentralization, totalitarian regimes face much difficulty being totalitarian while providing a scientifically-friendly environment. This also bleeds into academic life, where various forms of centralization are often advocated. Chapter eleven ("Academic Antiscience") talks about the anti-scientific tendencies that are particularly visible in humanities departments under the labels "postmodernism," "poststructuralism" and "social constructrionism." The reviewer below very correctly notes that Ferris does not rebut these academics' ideas very well. I think Ferris's intent was wholly different. Like the other 'antiscience' chapters, Ferris is showing that many of the academics who dismiss science as a subjective social construction were and are often the loudest champions of illiberalism. Heidegger was a Nazi, as was Paul de Mann. Ferris does a good job in showing that most academic denigrators of science turn out to be advocates of centralized government control either via a right or left worldview.
In short, Ferris does a good job at demonstrating that liberals have tended to be pro-science and illiberals have tended to be anti-science. Of course, one can always argue that as history is retrospective, Ferris's examples may have been cherry picked, but he seems to do a good idea at presenting the best anecdotal (what else is history?) evidence possible. My only real complaint is that he might have strengthened his case by giving a chapter on the plethora of books and articles already written that show an analogy between the scientific and liberal processes (Polayni's is one, Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies is another well-known example, as is Friedrich Hayek's COUNTER-REVOLUTION OF SCIENCE, THE.)
A great read for those who want a deeper understanding of how science and liberty help each other.
"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. Much of the book details the intertwined emergence of human rights and scientific experimentation with original observations, and unusual examples. It reveals in anecdotes & capsule biographies the conspicuous overlap of in proponents of liberty and iconic early scientists--even the odd lapses of overlap. A paraphrase from Lewis Thomas sets a basic pillar of this thesis: "...the greatest discovery of modern science was of the dimensions, not of cosmic space and time, but of human ignorance." (My note: That perceived ignorance was enormous then, and is growing rather than shrinking. The notion that all worth knowing is already known is as old as humanity, and thrives today--not just in Waziristan.)
The common ground of science and democracy is broad: the inherent messiness, the need for freedoms of association, speech, inquiry and press, the diffusion of authority through consensus, the permanent mutability of judgment. These are repellent to people who prefer direct acts of dictatorial intervention, unchallengeable moral axioms, or permanent (capital"T") Truths. We easily imagine the stereotype forms of this opposition, but Ferris extends his criticism of illiberal ideas beyond the usual suspects. Coercive agendas are reentering modern politics in force. In America the Republican & Democratic parties both include majority factions who see ideas they wish suppressed, research they wish limited, trade they want prevented, liberties they want canceled.
Ferris has his own chart of contemporary politics. He proposes replacing the 1-dimensional Left/Right paradigm with a 2-D space showing the political spectrum shown as a triangle: Left & Right on the bottom corners, labeled "Progressive" & "Conservative" with (small "l") "liberal" at the upper apex. (This denotes liberalism in its original sense, a principled devotion to individual freedom, before before the word evolved to describe advocacy of a progressively expanding sphere of regulatory governance. (Ferris could as well have named his apex corner "Libertarian" and left the Liberal label on the left.) Later on he appends a second lower triangle to this 3-D graph to accommodate a "Totalitarian" corner at bottom center (thus forming a de facto square--an idea suggested long ago by a Libertarian writer whose name I've forgotten).
His relatively light chastisement "progressives" and "conservatives" is prudent and sensible: most of them support science in general and most pay at least occasional lip service to liberty. The gloves come off when exposing dictatorships (expected) and the radical anti-science fringe and police state-friendly professors within academia (not as expected), particularly the "deconstructionists" and the countless academic cranks who've made profitable careers attacking science, liberty, & virtually anything associated with Western Civilization. There's a good bibliography if you're skeptical of his descriptions of academic intolerance.
Clarity of prose is a fair indicator of clarity of mind. A good idea can be presented boringly, but a bad idea clearly expressed won't travel far. Compare the transparent clarity of this book with obfuscatory jargon of "Postmodern" academic neo-medievalists and you'll know why they write so opaquely--and what makes this book by contrast so well thought out, so utterly wise, necessary, and best of all, so wonderfully readable.
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