Winston Churchill famously remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others,” a reflection on the necessarily messy process of electing a representative, throwing the bum out if things don’t improve, and starting again from scratch. Likewise, the history of scientific inquiry is strewn with spent ideas and useful fictions discarded the moment something more effective or all-encompassing came along. In The Science Of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, And The Laws Of Nature, Pulitzer Prize-nominated science writer Timothy Ferris argues for a causal relationship between science and liberalism, providing dense, illuminating accounts of everyone from John Locke to Galileo who helped wrestle humanity out of the dark ages. Then he sets his sights on academics who would pin 20th-century atrocities on enlightenment ideals.
Building a master narrative of human progress brick by brick is no easy task, and the first hundred pages of Liberty groan under the weight of its anecdote-laden, quotation-stuffed accounts. Many of the stories would be recognizable to any 5th grader who just finished a unit on America’s forefathers: Thomas Jefferson was an inveterate tinkerer who created the dumbwaiter and the pedometer; Benjamin Franklin established the link between electricity and lightning with a bit of silk string and a kite—but familiar stories take on heightened significance as Ferris meticulously links empiricism and the drive to experiment to that dirty, dysfunctional laboratory called democracy.
Along the way he demonstrates a knack for evocative examples of his thesis: Why did the French Revolution fail where the American Revolution succeeded, grounded as they both were in the values of equality and inalienable rights? The missing ingredient was science, which by its very nature is anti-dogmatic, anti-authoritarian, and self-correcting. Little wonder that “The Incorruptible” Maximilien Robespierre would have no use for checks and balances. After all, if you’ve built your government atop “infallible” a priori principles, why tolerate dissent?
Liberty becomes more impassioned and engaging as it progresses into the 20th century and begins examining the anti-science at the heart of Nazism, the Chinese Communist Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, all of which paid lip service to empirical observation and experimentation, but actually trafficked in dogma and brutal coercion. Downshifting from denunciation to tongue-clucking, Ferris devotes a number of pages to what he sees as the anti-scientific, illiberal tradition of postmodernism in academia, with its corrosive skepticism of the very idea of objectivity. Considering the generosity he’s willing to extend to slave-owning scientist-statesmen in the first half of Liberty, Ferris comes off as strangely mean-spirited and dismissive when discussing figures like Martin Heidegger, Thomas Kuhn, and Jacques Derrida—men who “misled millions of students” and “made a laughingstock of the academic left.” Some of the stories he dredges up are sordid, to be sure, but taken together they feel mismatched with a book that touts the virtues of self-examination and the power that comes from giving dissenting viewpoints their due.