Book of the Fortnight: The Science of Liberty

At long last – a book review! And since this is the first, it comes with the bonus unveiling of the official OB&B Book Review mascot! I adored him at once and having inquired about him I thusly rescued him from the uncertain fate awaiting him at a local political party office (guess which one). Once home, I promptly named him Buckley because, really – a more bookwormish, conservative name was not possible. Just look at him. Anyways – Gripweed agrees he’s a perfect fit for our Book Review mascot needs. We’re confident he’ll increase the Aww factor of even the most dry of reviews and we’re delighted to welcome him officially on board.

Our debut review is a selection off the OB&B Book List, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris. Coming from a scientific and academic background, Ferris’ premise is that science and democracy share common characteristics and rose to prominence simultaneously through the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. He methodically presents a compelling argument complete with the historical record and statistical data as evidence while delivering a stinging rebuke of unscientific, illiberal political philosophy.

It is important to understand Ferris’ use of terminology throughout the book, with “liberal” being used in the classical sense and not the common political vernacular used in America today. Actually – he presents a very solid case as to why the left shouldn’t be called “liberal.” Calling the linear political spectrum “crude,” Ferris uses a triangular model with “progressive” and “conservative” the two other points, and acknowledging all three points can lean towards the others in degrees. (It becomes clear in the book that Ferris leans towards classical liberal, yet can’t quite accept its relation to Goldwater Conservatism and the right-wing. I believe it taints his analysis of more recent political events but not enough for me to discard the body of his argument.)

Ferris notes the similarities between (classical) liberalism and science including free speech, the free flow of information and travel, toleration of differing views, promotion/achievement based on merit, and the notion of perfection being “inimical to both.” They are also both imperfect but self-correcting, though democracy is much slower in this regard. He also examines the preconditions needed for science to flourish, including resources both financial and intellectual.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that when Ferris turns to the historical record we find the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the commercially powerful Italian city-states, but the harsh treatment Galileo received shifted science to the more Protestant north. Once there, it evolved along two lines of logic – Baconian (after Francis Bacon) and Cartesian (after Rene Descartes). Descartes favored deduction and reasoning, believing science was completely deductible from mathematics. He denied the possibility of a vacuum, for instance. Bacon, on the other hand, stressed induction – experimentation, observation and, this is an important point, adhering to the results. “Politically, it is said that the legacy of (mostly British) induction fostered liberalism, while (mostly French) deduction promoted socialism,” Ferris notes. (pg 46)

I must say, this is a dichotomy that should be recognizable to those familiar with A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell, where he focuses on a dichotomy in 18th century political philosophy. Ferris goes back a bit further to 17th century thought – where the two visions Sowell so excellently examines originated. Baconian thought led to British Empiricism while Cartesian thought led to French Romanticism. Without intending to, I’m sure, Ferris echoes Sowell that a key difference between the two schools of thought is equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome, so I highly recommend The Science of Liberty and A Conflict of Visions as companion reading.

The pivotal development in the Scientific Revolution, and thus democracy, Ferris continues, was Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia. Through the course of a number of chapters, Ferris does an excellent job illustrating how Newton inspired John Locke, Adam Smith, and countless others of the Enlightenment including America’s Founding Fathers. In this sense, Newtonian mechanics gave rise to capitalism and American democracy, and Ferris shows how science and democracy formed a beneficially symbiotic relationship which has led to an improved quality of life on Earth.

For me, the first of the two most compelling chapters in The Science of Liberty is “The Terror,” where Ferris starkly contrasts the success of British Empiricism and American independence to that of Romanticism and the French Revolution. While first praising the beneficial contributions of French scientists, Ferris notes the French nonetheless “neglected the fundamental lessons of science and liberalism – that the key to success is to experiment and abide by the results,” (pg. 113) and that “[p]hilosophy, not science, drove the French Revolution.” (pg. 115)

For this, Ferris saves his criticisms for Jean-Jacques Rousseau and it’s worth quoting him at length here. Rousseau, he writes, “more than anyone else invented Romanticism – a Manichaean world view that champions sentiment over logic, caprice over common sense, instinct over civilization, and mysticism over clarity.” (pg 115-116) Indeed, Ferris even quotes Rousseau himself, “Let us begin then by laying facts aside.” With a flash of humor Ferris elaborates, “[h]is political philosophy is founded on the baseless assertion that humans originally lived in a state of peaceful equality, from which happy status they eventually fell, owing to ill-advised innovations like toolmaking and property rights.” (pg. 117)

Remarking, “[a]n astonishingly large number of people still believe in Rousseau’s mythical prehistory,” (pg. 118) Ferris then examines the scientific evidence of man’s prehistory, decimating Rousseau’s reasoning and notes the modern day equivalent of prehistoric man’s barbarity, “[a]s it happens, there is a political philosophy that celebrates warlike leaders who plunder agrarian settlements while happily sacrificing misfits among their own numbers: It is called fascism. It is thanks to agriculture, technology, science, and liberalism, rather than to Rousseau and the fascists, that so many puny, weak, eccentric, and otherwise encumbered individuals have contributed to civilization – people like Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcel Proust, and Steven Hawking.” (pg. 119)

Robespierre and many others were devotees of Rousseau, and Ferris notes how many French scientists died at the hands of The Terror. “Rousseau’s fact-free thought,” Ferris writes, “enjoyed a lasting influence. He had created not only a new philosophy, if it may be called that, but a new and pernicious style of philosophizing – one that consists of basing real world arguments on bald fictions, then retreating into a wounded obscurantism should anyone question the legitimacy of the enterprise. This style was resurrected in the pseudoscience of Marx, the antiscience of Hitler, and the cynicism of the postmodernists.” (pg. 125)

It is Ferris’ chapter concerning the postmodernists, titled “Academic Antiscience,” I find to be the second most compelling. “The postmodern assault on science involved two main campaigns. One was to undermine language – to “deconstruct” texts – by claiming that what a scientist or anybody else writes is really about the author’s (and the reader’s) social and political context.” (pg. 241) He illustrates a great example of this a few pages beforehand while discussing Boris Hessen, a communist physicist who wrote a paper interpreting Newton’s Principia in a Marxist context and trying to demonstrate, “the complete coincidence of the physical thematic of the period which arose out of the needs of economics and technique with the main contents of the Principia.” With a gut-busting retort Ferris quips, “Put into plain English, this says that the economic and technological currents of Newton’s day completely dictated the contents of the Principia – that noblemen and tradesmen of sixteenth-century England got what they wanted, which for some reason was a mathematically precise statement on the law of gravitation, written in Latin.” (pg. 239) ZING!

“In essence, deconstructionism demands that the knowing reader tease out the meanings of texts by discerning the hidden social currents behind their words, emerging with such revelations as that Milton was a sexist, Jefferson a slave driver, and Newton a capitalist toady,” Ferris wittingly notes. (pg. 242) He highlights the champions of deconstructionism and their histories, and wouldn’t you know – they turn out to be Nazi collaborators. “These and other revelations about the fascist roots of the academic left, although puzzling if analyzed in term of a traditional left-right political spectrum, make better sense if the triangular diagram of socialism, conservatism, and liberalism is expanded to form a diamond: [diagram of two triangles forming a diamond with “totalitarian” added.] Such a perspective reflects the fact that liberalism and totalitarianism are opposites, and have an approximately equal potential to attract progressives and conservatives alike.” (pgs. 244-245) Thus one can move between being a progressive, a conservative and a totalitarian alike without ever having been a (classical) liberal.

In concluding his takedown of the academic left Ferris writes, “It may be useful to summarize the campaigns of the radical academics in terms of their principal errors. First, they ignored science as a source of knowledge and instead depicted it as a source of power, a distortion which ultimately led them to discount the validity of all objectively verifiable knowledge. Second, they thought that since scientific research is a social activity, the knowledge it produces must be nothing more than a social construct; this was like claiming that if various teams of mountaineers climb the north face of Eiger via different routes, there must be no real Eiger at all.” (pg. 259)

Ferris concludes the book by discussing two of today’s flash point issues: radical islam and climate change. Among his many insightful points on both subjects is that Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s founder, Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, based his writings on Rousseau and Hegel. And Ferris also discusses how science was used by the United States to infuse democratic ideals into totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union and China to pursue international climate change research.

Laced with historical fact, scientific data, and sharp wit, The Science of Liberty was a highly fascinating read for me, shedding some important insights into a dichotomy in reasoning I had previously examined. Many Goldwater conservatives and Thomas Sowell fans will likely find it thought provoking if they pick up a copy, and perhaps some will then wonder if our apple motif is a tribute to the Beatles or Isaac Newton. Hmm. Regardless, our mascot Buckley gives our debut book one trunk up.

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3 Responses to Book of the Fortnight: The Science of Liberty

  1. vxbush says:

    You’re right. Your mascot is adorable, and thus definitely needs a name. May I suggest Newton?

    And please, please, PLEASE add more book reviews! This was a pleasure to read and gives me a good reason to add it to my reading list.

  2. Drae says:

    Thank you! More book reviews are coming, but we might fudge the boundaries of a fortnight a little.

    Newton is a great name, but I’ve already been calling him Buckley for months. If we ever hire a science mascot, Newton will be at the top of the list for a name, because I totally dig it. Enjoy the book!

  3. Drae says:

    Our science mascot should be a rhinoceros.

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