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

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


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In his most important book to date, award-winning author Timothy Ferris—"the best popular science writer in the English language today" (Christian Science Monitor)—makes a passionate case for science as the inspiration behind the rise of liberalism and democracy. Ferris argues that just as the scientific revolution rescued billions from poverty, fear, hunger, and disease, the Enlightenment values it inspired has swelled the number of persons living in free and democratic societies from less than 1 percent of the world population four centuries ago to more than a third today.

Ferris deftly investigates the evolution of these scientific and political revolutions, demonstrating that they are inextricably bound. He shows how science was integral to the American Revolution but misinterpreted in the French Revolution; reflects on the history of liberalism, stressing its widely underestimated and mutually beneficial relationship with science; and surveys the forces that have opposed science and liberalism—from communism and fascism to postmodernism and Islamic fundamentalism.

A sweeping intellectual history, The Science of Liberty is a stunningly original work that transcends the antiquated concepts of left and right.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611065718
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 02/28/2011
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Timothy Ferris's works include Seeing in the Dark, The Mind's Sky (both New York Times best books of the year), and The Whole Shebang (listed by American Scientist as one of the one hundred most influential books of the twentieth century). A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ferris has taught in five disciplines at four universities. He is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a former editor of Rolling Stone. His articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Scientific American, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications. A contributor to CNN and National Public Radio, Ferris has made three prime-time PBS television specials: The Creation of the Universe, Life Beyond Earth, and Seeing in the Dark. He lives in San Francisco.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

August 29, 1944

Place of Birth:

Miami, Florida


B.S., Northwestern University, 1966

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Science & Liberty 1

Chapter 2 Science & Liberalism 16

Chapter 3 The Rise of Science 35

Chapter 4 The Science of Enlightenment 57

Chapter 5 American Independence 89

Chapter 6 The Terror 109

Chapter 7 Power 128

Chapter 8 Progress 149

Chapter 9 The Science of Wealth 168

Chapter 10 Totalitarian Antiscience 191

Chapter 11 Academic Antiscience 236

Chapter 12 One World 261

Acknowledgments 293

Notes 295

Index 355

What People are Saying About This

A.C. Grayling

“Lucid and captivating. . . . Deeply important. . . . Ferris’s clear and educative account makes for an enjoyable read.”

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The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Skeptical-DoDo More than 1 year ago
Just finished reading a book I would like to recommend. It is by Timothy Ferris called "The Science of Liberty". It talks about the rise of liberal democracy as a result of the enlightenment, the product of scientific thought or methodology. Timothy Ferris is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is emeritus professor at University of California, Berkeley and former editor of Rolling Stone. He argues that "just as the scientific revolution rescued billions from poverty, fear, hunger, and disease, the Enlightenment values it inspired has swelled the number of persons living in free and democratic societies form less than 1% of the world population 4 centuries ago to more than 1/3 today." He researches the evolution and the linkage of liberal democracies and scientific development. The history itself is interesting and gives one pause to think. He in the last chapters goes into the dangers of "Totalitarian Anti science" and "Academic Anti science". This he shows as a threat to further research and political freedom. Examples include the Nazi time when academics in Germany embraced Hitler. It also shows examples in Soviet Russia when Lysenko held sway and retarded Russian biology for decades. Now the threat of religious inspired totalitarianism in the form of the religious right in the U.S. and Islamists in the middle east. This will go on the recommended read list.
Realmenreadbooks More than 1 year ago
Tim Ferris is up to his usual excellent standards in this new book where he examines the relationship between liberty and science. Ferris shows how the scientific spirit, the willingness to experiment, is reflected by and related to the best of our liberal democracies. He is excellent at pointing out that democracies thrive with strong science and that science is at it's best with democracies! This a superb book! Enjoy!
TimDonaldson More than 1 year ago
The central thesis of Ferris' book is that there is a positive feedback loop between liberty and science, which benefits the nations that support both; and, of course, a negative feedback loop between totalitarianism and anti-science, which undermines the nations built on them. The American experiment in liberty is scientific because it is just that, an experiment. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 famously described the Civil War as a painful empirical test of whether any nation, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can endure on the earth. But the experiment metaphor was not his invention. Thomas Paine- to whom we have built no statues because he was a religious iconoclast, but of whom it was said "he crushed the empires of Europe with a pamphlet"- had started speaking of America as an experiment in 1774. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, in their Federalist Papers, used the word "experiment" 45 times- by comparison they used the word "democracy" only 10 times, and often in the context of states as "laboratories" of democracy. Washington and Jefferson also frequently referred to the "experiment" on occasions large and small. In fact, it is much more than coincidence that the Founding Fathers were almost all amateur scientists. Some, like Benjamin Franklin, were much more than amateurs. James Madison's first love was Newtonian physics and he said he designed the federal system based on the idea of the federal government as the sun at the center and the states in orbit around it. George Washington was an amateur scientist in agricultural methods- methods which the USSR and PRC could have used later when their "Marxist science" led to massive starvation by the millions. Even those Founding Fathers who we do not think of as scientists were- or wished they were, as when John Adams lamented that he wasted his early decades on the largely useless castles in the air of the ancient Greek philosophers instead of spending that time studying Newton and Galileo. To Ferris, who has taught 5 subjects at 4 universities and was once the Editor of the Rolling Stone Magazine, amongst other things- there is a clear line of the pro-science, pro-liberty, successful side of history. This includes capitalism and globalization, which have accomplished much and been almost entirely forces for good in the world. He says this as a San Francisco Democrat who strongly condemns the dropping of the a-bomb, and supports universal health care and climate change initiatives. He addresses most of the criticisms of capitalism as being the bankrupt mental leftovers of the Middle Ages, a period of over 1000 years, from the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment, in which Europe was poor and STAYED poor. There were only 2 medieval inventions of consequence, the waterwheel @ 800 and the windmill @1100. That's it. The average European had an income of something equivalent to about $180 a year (compared to the global average of $7000 a year now). Starvation was common. Life expectancy was 30 for men and 24 for women, because of childbirth. The economy was a zero-sum game. If someone did better, someone else much have done worse. Lending money was an excommunicatable sin, which is why only the Jews did it- and they were the original bogeymen bankers. In that world, their "leading lights" could say "Business is itself an evil" (St Augusitine) and "A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God" (St Jerome). As
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this ambitious undertaking by science popularizer Timothy Ferris, the author attempts to argue that science is a precursor of liberty, in that scientific thinking fosters a preference for democracy. Science encourages experimentation and questioning of authority; it argues for the freedom to explore new ideas and hear new voices and use new methods. Good science comes from conflict, and from advancement on the basis of merit. It was only natural, argues Ferris, that the development of the scientific method inspired a search for a new form of government, one that would both reflect the values inherent in scientific inquiry, and also allow for the tangible results of that inquiry to benefit the people.Specifically, Ferris begins by arguing that The Scientific Revolution (starting roughly with Copernicus) was the cause of the subsequent democratic revolution that ¿spread freedom and equal rights to nearly half the world¿s inhabitants.¿ A more accurate (if less felicitous) title of the book would have been, The Role of Science in Establishing Liberty.Ferris overstates his case somewhat when he claims that ¿science flourishes only [sic] in liberal-democratic environments¿ because it is (1) inherently antiauthoritarian, (2) self-correcting, (3) dependent on drawing on all available intellectual resources, (4) powerful, and (5) a social activity. Those reasons are why science and liberalism go well together, but do not prove that one is the sine qua non of the other. As he demonstrated in earlier books, Ferris is a very good historian of ideas. He shows how the scientific ideas of Galileo and Newton may have influenced the philosophical-political ideas of John Locke, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, and thus the Enlightenment and the establishment of American democracy. The Federalist Papers, he notes, used the word ¿experiment¿ forty-five times. He also references Benjamin Franklin¿s address to the Constitutional Convention in which Franklin praised the construction of a government that could accommodate future information and an increase in knowledge rather than a dogmatic insistence on finality in its then present form. Ferris further cites the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin: "Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about.¿Ferris devotes a chapter to the Terror of the French Revolution, the excesses of which he ascribes to the fact that philosophy (particularly that of Rousseau), not science ¿drove¿ the Revolution. His analysis of why the French chose the Terror over moderation is not satisfactory. He says they ¿neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism¿that the key to success is to experiment and to abide by the results.¿ But they did experiment, first with a non-bloody revolt, followed by the execution of the king, and then by wholesale executions of everyone who seemed to doubt the virtue of the people in power. The failure to experiment was not the problem - choosing the wrong philosophy was.Ferris also has trouble reconciling 19th century imperialism with his science driven liberal philosophy. He recognizes that science creates power in the cognoscenti, and observes that the ones holding technological advantages used them to subjugate whole civilizations that did not possess those advantages. How did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world? Ferris has no real answer to that question other than to observe that colonialism was an anachronism, and that by 1980 no substantial colonies existed anywhere. Ferris argues convincingly that the scientific method applied to the process of wealth creation and distribution has yielded good results. He shows that modern economics, starting with Adam Smith¿s Wealth of Nations, like the ¿hard sci
peterwall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Timothy Ferris is an enthusiastic student and synthesizer of others' primary research. This means he paints inevitably broad strokes and makes necessary selections from vast specialist literatures. It also means that he, like most of us, occasionally stumbles with inaccurate facts or infelicitous summaries of complex ideas. (Two examples occurring to this reviewer are a minor misstatement about the effects of neutron bombs and a brief discussion of Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions that might be a little misleading. But whether neutron bombs destroy property has no bearing on Ferris' thesis and the argument would be little improved by adding more of Kuhn's ideas about the usefulness of "normal science" between "revolutions." A selection was made; take it as you find it.) But Ferris is honest and thus provides fairly detailed notes, which enable the reader to do two things that substantially increase the value of the book: check his work and use his synthesis as a reference piece. Readers who fail to understand this particular genre (not specialized, not exhaustive, argumentative but transparent) will criticize it unfairly on points that make no difference to its viability.That prefatory caveat (and high-horsey admonition to other reviewers) aside, The Science of Liberty tells a story that needs to be told more often: science and liberalism (the lowercase variety) go hand-in-hand to promote freedom and well-being by systematically and constitutionally rejecting ideology and dogma. Even better, Ferris narrates his argument, from the Milesians to global warming and Islamist terrorism, with easy clarity. Science thrives when and where people are free to think, investigate, and communicate without state restrictions; thriving science promotes technological benefits; and creative investigations of our world are further enabled where well-being is enhanced by those benefits. Meanwhile, the virtuous habits of doubting what is received while emphasizing the provisionality of what is given promote the development of a more tolerant and humane world. And, finally, the universal accessibility science makes its benefits more broadly shareable than those of ideology and dogma, which thrive on parochialism. His argument comes, essentially, to this: science without liberty withers away, while the values that science promotes can only bolster liberty; the two together form something like a positive feedback loop.Near the end of the book, a chapter each is devoted to two forms of what Ferris calls "antiscience": totalitarianism and postmodern pseudo-intellectualism. The "pseudo-" is not his, but Ferris would surely not disagree; he calls it "Academic Antiscience," but observes that the postmodern critique, insofar as it is valuable, states only obvious trivialities (that scientific findings are provisional, that scientists cannot claim pure objectivity, etc.) and has elsewhere called the rest of it "pernicious nonsense." On totalitarianism, page after page of examples from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China support his argument: ideology and dogma promoted to political authority stifle scientific research surely and with stunning consciousness of motive in their implementation.The broad, underlying point of The Science of Liberty might have been stated more clearly. Ferris suggests, without saying it clearly and succinctly, that science and liberalism are, if not the most "natural" mode of human existence (and what does "natural" mean, anyway?), the surest path to well-being and self-realization. It is a bold argument (and one of the blurbs on the back of the dust jacket says that "He boldly goes where no science writer has gone before") but one that deserves to be considered.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a very well written researched book about how science and democracy reinforce each other a excellent read
smithwil on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I very much want to agree totally with the review, below, by wanack. I do not disagree with a word of the short review. However, I must agree somewhat with the earlier review by suggesting that the first two-thirds of the book would have sufficed. The basic premise of the mutually beneficial value of science and liberty working together for human progress is at the heart of the book. The rest of the book provides one illustration after the other to support the basic premise.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Had to read this for a history class and it is a pretty good read. It is a little hard to follow the authors thought process sometimes, but you eventually get use to it. It does broaden your horizons and makes you think.
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PBrant More than 1 year ago
If, as the author proclaims, the Enlightenment was inspired by scientific progress, perhaps one could believe that philosophy was meanlngless and natural philosophy, that is, science, was all. This dubious theory is at the heart of Ferris's book, and one should be allowed to question such a materialistic suggestion. The core of the Enlightenment was much more complicated, and less dependent upon science than upon the questioning of the dusty reckonings of scholaticism and church dogma. What does it matter if Thomas Jefferson kept a record of the day's temperature? Rubbish. The enlightenment was a revolution of thinking, of mentality, not of thermometer temperatures? His book contributes only to the hardening of the view that without Newton the Enlightenment would not have taken place. In fact, Newton was only a part of the whole.