The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

By Butos, William N. | Freeman, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature


Butos, William N., Freeman


The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris HarperCollins * 2010 384 pages * $26.99 hardcover; $15.99 paperback

Timothy Ferris is a prolific bestselling author of 12 books on cosmology, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the recipient of several awards for popular science writing. The Science of Liberty is a welcome treatment of a subject often and regrettably neglected by intellectual historians in the social sciences.

Ferris's interests center on articulating an understanding of liberal democracy informed by science and its achievements. The book's narrative draws on the connections between ideas in the moral sciences and discoveries in the hard sciences. The writing is lively and clear, especially concerning the development of science and the ways scientists like Galileo and Newton influenced Locke, Paine, Madison, and others. Overall this book is well worth the attention of anyone concerned about the requirements of a free society and science.

In the book Ferris studies the dependency between science and liberal democracy and, by implication, the dependency between science and material wealth and sustained prosperity. That scientific achievement can make our lives better is probably universally accepted - assuming everyone agrees on what "better" means. Ferris wishes to push this dependency a step further by claiming science as causal to liberal democracy. His conception of science as anti-authoritarian and self-correcting highlights the necessity that scientific inquiry be founded on open and critical discourse with an absence of government meddling. Ferris's chapter on "Totalitarian Antiscience" shows how science is throttled and sometimes destroyed, as happened to genetics under Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, as government increases its control over science.

While Ferris argues for the autonomy of science as requisite to liberal society, it becomes evident as he discusses the progress of science (and its perversions under Stalin, the Nazis, and Maoists) that causality between science and liberal society is bidirectional. He seems to be aware of this when he writes, "Liberalism nourishes science by fostering a free and flexible milieu in which scientific activity can flourish, which in turn increases the knowledge, power, and wealth of liberal societies. In doing so, science helps demonstrate that liberal governance works; and so the cycle continues."

That quotation hints at a more complex conception of science and its connection to the broader society in which it functions. It is hardly a coincidence that liberalism and unrestricted discourse (including science) generally move together via adaptive feedback processes, much the same as liberalism and free markets do. Unfortunately Ferris tells only part of the story. …

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