Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

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

Modern philanthropy has been deeply shaped by the scientific worldview; thus a book that helps us understand better the relationship of science to political order should be of significant interest to philanthropists.  There is much to commend in Timothy Ferris’s new book, not the least of which is his enthusiastic engagement with a subject of immense scope and complexity  Moreover, he brings a refreshing understanding of intellectual history that is stoutly informed by classical liberal thought and the history of science and technology. Ferris writes with the smooth confidence of a seasoned professional.  The result is a selective tour across the past four hundred years of the co-development of liberal democratic institutions and the tangled nexus of science and technology.  This entire traverse is peppered with generally engaging if sometimes distracting ‘side bars’ on the personal lives and peccadilloes of the great and powerful.  I say “distracting” not because they fail to amuse (they do) but because I find them to be digressions from the aims of the book that left me feeling that I was rambling about rather than being guided by an accurate compass.

The purport of this book is clear enough: science sparked the democratic revolution. Ferris eloquently asserts that while previous authors have ascribed the simultaneous rise of science and liberal democracy to be a matter of coincidence he finds science to be “the innovative ingredient—the crystal dropped in the supersaturated liquid, suddenly solidifying it—without which the democratic revolution would not have occurred” (2). He continues by pointing out that science produced technology which, in turn, enhanced prosperity and security.  The freedom induced by these conditions and protected by liberal democracies, he argues, are essential to scientific inquiry.  This raises the obvious question of circularity, but I think we can assume that he views scientific discovery analogous to a mutation that establishes the base for a chain of liberating thoughts and institutions.  His claim that democracy itself is an experiment is not sufficient to vault his thesis to a ‘science of liberty.’ 

The title of the book aside, Ferris does step gently into a long-standing scholarly discussion of the interaction between science, technology, freedom, and authority.  Ferris acknowledges some of his predecessors but does not recognize others.  In the first group he identifies the contribution of Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. (How the West Grew Rich, 1986) who state that multiple causation makes it impossible to single out the source of Western development. They point to the existence of socio-political conditions that favored autonomy, experimentation and diversity as the linchpin of economic, technological, and scientific advance (158-159). The second group, whose work could have informed Ferris, includes Robert McC. Adams (Paths of Fire, 1996), David S. Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 1999), and Joel Mokyr (The Lever of Riches, 1990), who emphasize the pre-conditions that allowed tinkerers to develop technologies that invited subsequent scientific speculation.  Mokyr writes: “[Thus,] scientists may have been more important to technological change than science itself.  All the same, their role was not decisive.  The number of truly important technological breakthroughs that the world owes to men renowned for their scientific contributions is not large” (73-74).

Personally, I prefer the technology-first view, in which technology acts as an emergent force that ushers in incremental change, over the stunning power of a singular scientific breakthrough, but I am equally convinced, along with Ferris, that a liberal order provided the best opportunity to sustain either.  “Liberalism,” as Ferris writes, “stands out among political philosophies in its readiness to embrace change.  Liberals do not pretend to know what the future will bring, and so are skeptical about planning.  They stress the importance of individual creativity, noting that humans are profoundly ignorant and so must be free to keep learning” (25-26).  He credits this insight to Friedrich Hayek, whom he cites liberally in this work.

The Science of Liberty is organized around the claim that science flourishes only in liberal democratic environments.  This claim rests on five assertions about science.  It is: inherently anti-authoritarian; self-correcting; dependent on all available intellectual sources; powerful; and a social activity.  To demonstrate the claim of the liberal democracy/science connection and the efficacy of the five assertions Ferris deploys the journalist’s signature framework of who, when, what, where, and why unobtrusively throughout the book.

The first four chapters lay the foundation of his argument, and he demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the contribution of Italian thinkers to the Renaissance and British and Continental minds to the Enlightenment advances in science and technology.  These are followed by chapters comparing the role and acceptance of scientific thought in the developing liberal democracy of the United States and in the illiberal conditions of revolutionary France.  Drawing on the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, Ferris notes that “[T]he contrast between the American experiment, which limited government power, and the French, which did not…impressed itself upon many observers of the debacle—although not to a sufficient degree to prevent all future abuses” (125).  

Ferris is at his best in a discussion on ‘progress,’ a term he believes has been maligned in modern society.  Progress is defined as creating more options for more people over time, and he insists that it must be compared to the past rather than to some imagined utopian future.  To substantiate his argument for the efficacy of science and liberalism he contrasts Africa south of the Sahara with its persistent poverty and neither science nor democracy, with East Asia where science and democracy are on the increase and poverty has plummeted. 

Chapters on totalitarian anti-science and academic anti-science are excellent, if oversupplied with lengthy digressions on topics such as rocketry or the insidiousness of Paul Feyerabend’s views of science.  Discussion of the nonsense of Nazi ‘science’ and the absurdities of science under Soviet control dispel the myth that “totalitarianism was more efficient than liberal democracy.”  The crackpot agricultural science of Lysenko was laughable on its face to other Soviet scientists, many of whom were executed because they dared to smirk.  The Lysenko episode revealed a statistical practice in agriculture that has been repeated in our day with respect to meteorological stations: “underperforming” units were removed from the database to skew results toward predetermined ends.  Under Lysenkoism “[T]he State Statistical Bureau, which might otherwise have reported that millions were dying of hunger, was disbanded and replaced with ‘good news reporting stations’” (226).

 Much of the discussion of academic anti-science is devoted to the dismissal of post-modernism of the ilk of Heidegger, de Man, Derrida, Foucault, and particularly Feyerabend.  Ferris’s point is that post-modernism’s adventure with science was based on a plan to make science abandon its privileged status as the arbiter of reality.  He writes:  “This sounds nice, but in practice usually means wielding the power of the state to restrict scientific research.  Hence it was not surprising that the ‘democratization’ [leveling] of science gained favor among authoritarian political thinkers of many stripes….”  This aim highlights Ferris’s comment that “Scientists have a story of discovery to tell, dogmatists a story of obedience to authority” (262).

The final chapter takes its theme from the previous sentence.  As humans move from dogma toward discovery they find themselves inhabiting a common world, thus raising “the prospect that as the influence of science grows people may overcome old prejudices and parochialisms and treat one another more liberally” (261).  It is in this concluding chapter that Ferris stumbles, perhaps over his own caution not to search for an imagined future.  He explores the illiberal nature of radical Islam and the influence it has on Muslim nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, noting that “[a] liberal-scientific diagnosis of what has gone wrong in the Middle East is that the problem arises from a paucity of science and liberalism” (275).  As in the rest of his book Ferris uses data to support his observation: Muslim nations produce less than one-quarter scientists per capita than the average of all other nations, and only a quarter of the world’s Muslim-majority states are electoral democracies.

There are, of course, many scientists who are Muslim and who carry out research in venues around the world.  In recent times these individuals are being induced to return to newly created science centers in definitively illiberal countries, such as Saudi Arabia.  This fact may pose an interesting test for Ferris’s hypothesis that science will lead to liberalism.

Finally, two points of negative criticism must be made, the first technical and the second on a lapse of scholarship.  Concerning the first, I found the use of page notes in place of text citations annoying.  This was done, I suppose, to foster smoother and swifter reading of a book that seeks to synthesize many ideas and themes from a variety of sources rather than to develop a tightly argued and potentially more turgid analysis by full reference to the scholarly literature.  That said many of the page notes are interesting stories in their own right, so I urge their reading rather than skipping them on purpose or by accident.

The second negative criticism is of Ferris’s treatment of the issue of global warming.  The page notes described above reveal a very thin set of references to the climate change literature, and these, such as the work of Nichols Stern on the costs of climate change, are seriously disputed.  Without stating so explicitly Ferris adopts “the precautionary principle” which states that it is better to take actions in the present to prevent future possible catastrophes, even if these may not occur, than to risk that they will.  The cost of these current actions may be high but they would be much higher if the threat is discovered to be real.  He writes: “[T]o dismiss the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) conclusions as merely probabilistic is like playing Russian roulette with a ten-shot revolver containing nine live rounds”  (287).

 The climate change discussion is so weak in contrast with the rest of The Science of Libertythat one can almost sense the zealousness of an editor seeking to add some “dash” to the text.  In any case, the author has missed the opportunity to discuss the nature of dogma endogenousto the scientific community, a discussion that could have drawn on examples from the early twentieth-century issue of continental drift as well as the early twenty-first-century issue of global warming.  Both are potent examples of the rule of orthodoxies and the ends to which they will go to suppress scientific evidence: the Lysenko case is a stark but not isolated instance.  No liberal democracy here.  Although I can agree emphatically with Ferris’s observation that “[G]lobal warming will require ongoing scientific investigation, quantitative analysis, and open, liberal discussion and debate on a worldwide scale” (281), I have serious doubts that he understands how difficult it will be to bring together those whose views he finds persuasive with those who have adduced serious scientific arguments to the contrary.  Philanthropy may feel more challenged to ameliorate than to investigate; however, as this book informs us, it is crucial to understand the tension between freedom and authority within science as well as from without.  This may be, in fact, an ongoing challenge for philanthropy itself in the coming years.


Jack Sommer is Knight Distinguished Professor of Public Policy Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and Chairman and President of the Political Economy Research Institute.  Previously he taught at Dartmouth College and the University of Texas at Dallas.  His past public service includes science policy analysis at NSF and Senior Advisor for Science and Technology at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  His special expertise is in science policy, and he is a contributing editor to Conversations on Philanthropy.

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