Book review: 'The Science of Liberty,' by Timothy Ferris

By Curt Suplee
Sunday, March 7, 2010


Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

By Timothy Ferris

Harper. 368 pp. $26.99

From our privileged vantage on the prow of the 21st century, it is clear that modern science and modern democracy have evolved in striking parallel over the past 350 years. Can that epochal concurrence really have been a mere coincidence?

Absolutely not, says Timothy Ferris in this important, timely and splendidly written book. In fact, he says, history shows exactly the opposite: "The democratic revolution was sparked -- caused is perhaps not too strong a word -- by the scientific revolution, and . . . science continues to empower political freedom today." Why did this happen? "Science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits," he contends, "creating a symbiotic relationship in which the freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in return rewarded them with knowledge, wealth and power." Put bluntly, the tenets of science are principally responsible for today's advanced democracies and the spread of human freedom.

This hypothesis is somewhere between ambitious and outrageous, depending on the reader's predisposition, and the person advancing it had better be enormously credible. Fortunately, Ferris fills the bill. An academic polymath known chiefly as the author of "The Whole Shebang," about cosmology, and other uncommonly lucid books, he is among the half-dozen foremost explicators of the physical sciences alive today. He is also a man for whom the English language is not a tool, but an instrument on which to perform with grace and precision. As a result, "The Science of Liberty" is a profound delight whether one puts it down convinced or not. Either way, contemporary civilization won't look quite the same.

Ferris develops his argument in three stages, each with a somewhat different appeal. The first traces the tandem progress of science and society from the Renaissance to the American and French Revolutions and their aftermath, with science providing the drive: "The Enlightenment without science would have been a steamship without steam." Ferris makes a strong case that the antiauthoritarian, self-correcting aspects of science and the scientific mindset -- and especially the primacy of empirical evidence over all other means of knowing -- intensely influenced the minds of our Founding Fathers and early advocates of democracy elsewhere.

One rather knew this about Jefferson and Franklin, but Ferris also focuses on such surprising cases as Thomas Paine (whose ideas likely "arose from exposure to science") and George Washington (with his "sturdily empirical habit of learning from experience and a lifelong scientific curiosity"). No wonder, then, that "the founders often spoke of the new nation as an 'experiment,' " and that the United States was conceived in science as much as in liberty.

Even when he is covering familiar ground, Ferris's perspective is a joy, and his vivid account of the vast conceptual divide between the American Revolution's appeal to reason and the French Revolution's tyranny, hysteria and terror (which Ferris attributes largely to the anti-scientific, delusional, "fact-free thought" of Rousseau) is itself worth the price of admission.

The second part of the book examines the impact of science on the structure and behavior of the most advanced societies since the early 19th century. Ferris lays out the empirical economics pioneered by Adam Smith ("comparable to Newton's dynamics or the discovery of binary computing"!) and contrasts it with the explicitly unscientific bases of communism, Nazism and other totalitarianisms. This leads him to dismiss too hastily the widespread belief that the Soviet Union and the Third Reich actually had formidable scientific capabilities, and he also wastes the (admittedly amusing) following chapter, titled "Academic Antiscience," on the brief scholastic mania for "deconstructionism" and its spawn, with their woozy conviction that "science is culturally conditioned and politically suspect -- the oppressive tool of white Western males," a controversy of utter insignificance to anyone outside a university faculty.

But the core of this section is a hard-headed look at the notion that "Western" science has been "discredited by its association with Western imperialism and colonialism." If so, then much of what we call progress has been illusory. Not surprisingly, Ferris easily proves that by virtually any metric -- from personal wealth to life expectancy -- humanity is better off thanks to science and that such blessings tend to be distributed in proportion to how much each society values personal liberty.

The final chapter -- deliciously polemical, if less coherent -- is titled "One World." It finds Ferris attacking "religious and political dogmatists [who] react against science and liberalism" by suppression or outright terror. He takes on Islamic extremists, climate-change skeptics, creationists and the second Bush administration, and he ventures some remarkable assertions. One is that "atheists and agnostics are, if anything, less apt to commit serious crimes" than self-identified religious sorts. It's more fun than a congressional pie fight.

But it does not obscure the serious central message of this volume: Ferris's deeply humane conviction that science is the most powerfully liberating force in history and the single most dependable agent of social progress.

Curt Suplee, author of "Physics in the 20th Century" and other science books, is a contributor to The Post's Health section.

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