Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Science of Liberty

      The last book I wrote about, Blood Meridian, I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys the literary arts. The book I am writing about here I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys understanding anything at all about the world they live in. The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris is one of those books that can truly change the way someone sees the world. Nothing he says in it is a revelation, he simply synthesizes and explains his subject in a way that enables the reader to see connections that many of us might not make on our own. I would rank few books in my library as having had as memorable an impact on the way I see the world (Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse; The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, The Age of Reason) as Ferris' exquisite work.

      His thesis (in my words) is simple: science can't exist without liberal democracy, and historically, liberal democracy wouldn't exist without science. This may sound fairly obvious, but as someone who has read a great deal on both of these subjects, I can say that I have never seen the connection drawn so directly, or as forcefully argued, as in Ferris' book. He makes this claim based on five assertions which I will explain briefly (I'll try) below, and then explores the relationship between science and liberal democracy throughout history and traces the threads of his five assertions alongside.

      His book is primarily concerned with the European Renaissance forward, since neither science nor liberal democracy could be said to truly exist before then. Prior to that, the Greeks (or at least Athenians) and Romans flirted with both, even though neither ever developed either to the standards we have today. However, the fact that these were the only civilizations in the West which had any semblance of either, and each had both, is further evidence of his thesis. Greek science was more abstract, searching for the underlying composition of the universe, the first formal explorations of cause and effect, math and geometry, etc. Roman science, although less grand in its goals, was ultimately more successful, as they were primarily concerned with engineering and practical application, and indeed were the most technologically advanced civilization in the world (with the probable exception of China), until christianity set the West back a thousand years and held it there for another thousand (Can you imagine what the world will be like in 2,000 years?) China, as I mentioned, was, throughout history, a engineering and manufacturing powerhouse, which was only eclipsed by Europe in the last couple hundred years, and is quickly resuming its historical place. Although ancient (and modern) China was a highly authoritarian state, the mathematicians, scholars and engineers in ancient China enjoyed unheard of liberties and freedom of discourse and movement that are essential to the scientific process.

      To return to Ferris' assertions, however. Although several individuals, Galileo, Kepler, etc. had begun doing real science in the preceding decades, the Scientific Revolution began with Newton's publication in 1687 of the Principia Mathematica into a world where "witches" were still being burned alive almost daily and slicing open a vein was considered the best way to cure most diseases. The American Revolution followed 89 years later. Ferris argues that this was more than mere coincidence. He makes his case through the following five points.

      First, science is inherently anti-authoritarian. You can't do science when anyone in your society claims to have a monopoly on truth, whether that is the king or emperor and his lackeys, a pope or imam, a political party or leader (such as in communism), or a particular book or document (even our own Constitution, people). Science is about seeking truth, whatever it is, and its impossible to do that when someone pretends they already know everything anyone would ever need to know. In this way, science establishes a model for democracy and itself relies on democracy to flourish.

      Second, science is self-correcting. Science never claims to have absolute truth, only the best working model at the moment. When the most revered scientist of the previous century (and probably of all time, behind only Newton) Albert Einstein, argued that quantum mechanics is deterministic, he was proven wrong and his theory discarded. No person or theory is sacred, all can be discarded if something that seems to make even more sense comes along. Democracy works in the same way; we don't have to put up with Castro until he dies, if who ever is in power isn't doing what seems best at the moment, we throw the bums out (like we did last year, and two years before that, and two years before that, and two years before that... it is a painful process but it does incrementally lead to something better, though in our current situation, we need to do more than just replace the faces over the same two colored ties). Again, science was the model for liberal democracy.
      Third, science needs all available intellectual resources to flourish. In 1905, Einstein was working as a patent clerk in Swiss office. In his spare time he wrote three (three!) Ph. D. thesis because the first two were rejected as inaccurate (it later turned out he was right about both of them) and the third was a little thing called Special Relativity (if you like math and mental problems, Special Relativity is a must read, as he was also a very gifted writer and excelled at making complex ideas easy to understand; only read the General Theory if you are a masochist- it's been at least ten years since I did and it still hurts my head). When he finally had the attention of the scientific community, he quickly rose to the prominence he has today. This doesn't happen in a society where a certain race (he was jewish, obviously) or gender or social class (patent clerk) has exclusive access to recognition and the means to pursue further achievement.

      Fourth, science is powerful. Besides the fact that knowledge is always powerful, science leads to new technology that increases the well-being and security of the society that sustains it (there isn't a lot of science being done in Africa right now). This is a kind of feed-back loop, where democracy allows science to flourish, and in turn, science gives the liberal democratic society tools to allow it to flourish and grow. 

       Lastly, science is a social activity. It requires freedom of thought, speech and travel. Science is a group effort. If scientists can't confer with colleagues, the work stagnates. Liberal democracies give science the necessary freedom to allow it to happen. At the same time, the entire model of collaborative, group discourse as ultimately yielding better solutions that just trusting in one individual, no matter how brilliant (although they were in fact usually inbred) is the model that science created and democracy borrowed. 

      We live in a world where many people are far too ignorant of the history of the planet they live on. I think about this every time I see Li-Lo being escorted in and out of rehab or prison on national friggin' news. I think, "I wonder if this dumb bitch, or any of the people that care enough about her that  the media feels compelled to keep her ugly face in front of me daily, could tell you which happened first, the French Revolution (Ferris also explains why this was different than the American and subsequently was such a disaster) or Genghis Khan's invasion of Europe?" Having a broader sense of your place on this planet and in history, let alone the universe, is a sure-fire way to prevent yourself from doing the kind of stupid shit (or caring when someone else does it) that gets you in the train-wreck segment of the so-called news. 

     We live in a society that has benefited more from science and democracy than any other in the history of the world. If you are a middle-class American, you have more material wealth and comfort than 99% of the people who have ever lived. Yet, it is these two things that so many people in our country take for granted, or even distrust. (The assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords yesterday was a horrific reminder of how much some elements in this country distrust the process when their picks aren't in power. And don't even get me started on teaching evolution in schools. ARGH!!) Ferris' book is an excellent reminder of just how much of what we enjoy, and take for granted, our truly unique experiment in the broader scope of history, and how much this experiment needs vigilant defense against the forces of ignorance and superstition that would subvert it. (Remember faith-based medicine? FFS.)


  1. Have added this to my list of books to get on Kindle, though I'm always a little miffed when the Kindle price is higher then the hard cover. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Hmm... so emailing in response does not land my reply here... good to know.

    Like I said, yeah, that's lame.