The marriage of science and liberty

I’m two chapters away from finishing yet another fascinating library book on my bedside table, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, by Timothy Ferris. (Oh, Jennifer Michael Hecht: will I ever find the time to return to blogging about your excellent Doubt: A History? Yes, I will. I promise.)

After trying to follow the many heated arguments in the wake of Sam Harris’s claim that science can answer moral questions (see, for instance, the debates here, here, and here) it seems to me that many of Harris’s defenders and critics (as well as Harris himself, when he participates) are really striking philosophical stances that don’t look like they have much to do with scientific inquiry at all: they say either that the apparent distance between “objective” facts and “subjective” values can be bridged, or that it can’t. The back and forth is all very interesting, but few of the arguers seem interested in backing up their propositions with real-world observations or empirical proof. I can’t help thinking that in a conversation with a more genuinely scientific spirit, more people would be saying: “Does science have something to say about morality? Clearly we don’t know enough yet to answer that, so why don’t we find out?”

This is where I think Ferris’s book offers a fresh take on the question. The Science of Liberty makes the compelling case that, if we look at the history of how science actually developed in the world, we see that science and liberal values are inextricably linked: each flows from and feeds the other. From his introduction:

The more closely science is examined, the more evident it becomes that science has an ethos and perhaps an ethics. The mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski was especially perceptive about this. “The society of scientists,” he wrote, “is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth.

“Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between man and men. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honor, human dignity, and self-respect.”

These are humanistic values, and the social impact of science has been quite the opposite of popular notions about its turning people into unfeeling robots. “Like the other creative activities which grew from the Renaissance, science has humanized our values,” Bronowski notes.

“Men have asked for freedom, justice and respect precisely as the scientific spirit has spread among them. The dilemma of today is not that the human values cannot control a mechanical science. It is the other way about: The scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of governments.”

Science and totalitarianism

Some may object: What about totalitarianism? What about the impressive scientific achievements of the Nazis, the Soviets, the Chinese under Mao? Mostly illusion, says Ferris:

The communist ideology espoused by Stalin and Mao talked a great deal about science — indeed it portrayed itself as a scientific form of government, its universal triumph as inevitable as the outcome of a demonstrative experiment in a high-school physics class — but was unable to adapt when social experiments failed. Instead, each was proclaimed a great success by the controlled news media, to be followed by another Five Year Plan or Great Leap Forward based on faith rather than empirical evidence. The Nazis imagined that science could be put to work generating technical advancements while substantiating their weird biological and cosmological notions. All three regimes tried to exploit their most talented scientists, but wound up silencing, imprisoning, or murdering many of them.

The technological achievements of these totalitarian regimes — such as Germany’s rocket program and the Soviet space effort — impressed and alarmed many in the liberal nations, but were based on little more than the momentum of earlier science plus the short-term torque of intense government spending […] In the end, totalitarian science collapsed in a morass of scandals […] and in catastrophes such as the mass famines that resulted from communist agricultural reforms, killing millions.

Elsewhere, as he traces the history of the joint development of science and liberal democracy, Ferris similarly criticizes the French Revolution — which proclaimed itself driven by scientific ideals, and later devolved into the Terror — as not being very scientific at all: “Philosophy, not science, drove the French Revolution. Revolutionary French thinkers initially drew on John Locke’s scientific empiricism, David Hume’s skepticism, Montesquieu’s practicality, and Voltaire’s wit […] but the revolution soon devolved into the hands of radical firebrands like Maximilien Robospierre and Jean-Paul Marat,” bloody-minded philosophical zealots who fell under the sway of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — upon whose completely speculative notions of prehistory and human nature Ferris heaps particular scorn:

Rousseau’s fact-free thought […] 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. The pragmatist philosopher John Randall observes that ever since Rousseau, “reformers have been divided into two groups, those who followed him and those who followed Locke….Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill, of Locke.” Randall was not being hyperbolic: The fascist ideal of an all-powerful ruler who embodies the spirit of the people came straight from Rousseau.

Thus the totalitarian regimes, bound to rigid ideologies, pretended to honor science while in fact practicing just the opposite. The Nazis’ racial doctrine of a superior “Aryan” race free from “genetic impurities” was sheer unscientific idiocy: “Nor would genetic purity confer an advantage on any population: The strength of a species resides in its genetic diversity, which improves its likelihood of surviving environmental changes.” Similarly, with communism:

Although the communists spoke enthusiastically of conducting social experiments, the inherent certitude of their philosophy barred them from providing the mechanisms by which a society could respond and change course when the experiments failed. Instead it soon became a crime even to call attention to communism’s failures, so that the social experiments collapsed amid a graveyard silence.

Hence the disastrous Lysenko affair, in which the agricultural director Trofim Lysenko’s delusions of “socialist genetics” resulted in massive crop failures — the admission and correction of which would have been unthinkable to Marxist dogma. The same problem plagued (and continues to plague, to some extent) China under communist rule: “The education of generations of Chinese scientists was blunted by mind-numbing classroom indoctrinations in communist doctrine, those who emerged with any freedom of thought intact having to choose between keeping silent or being oppressed as ‘dissidents.'” Ferris claims: “If the world is relatively anti-intellectual today, it is because the world got a bellyful of the communists’ pseudoprophetic intellectualism and turned its broad back on the lot of it.”

In other words: these totalitarian regimes went astray not because they adhered to scientific values like skepticism of authority, free exchange of information, and respect for empirical evidence, but because they were enslaved to dogmatic ideals that demanded to be upheld without question. They were evil not because science was evil, nor did they fail because science went wrong; they committed atrocities and ultimately collapsed because they rejected the scientific enterprise and all the conditions that make it possible. Ferris makes the connection clear (emphasis mine):

The spectacular failure of totalitarian science spotlighted the futility of attempting to treat science as a tool that could be divorced from its ethical imperatives. It is often said that science is ethically neutral — that it shows how things are, not how they ought to be — but there is less to this claim than meets the eye. Applied science has placed enormous power in human hands, and power can be used for good or ill, but to exploit that power without accommodating the scientific culture that produced it, as illiberal states have done, is to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

It’s interesting to note that many of the dissidents who dared criticize these regimes — Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, Fang Lizhi (who was blamed by the Chinese government for fomenting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests) — were scientists. Fang in fact explicitly links science to democracy: “The universe has no center […] Every place in the universe has, in this sense, equal rights. How can the human race, which has evolved in a universe of such fundamental equality, fail to […] build a world in which the rights of every human from birth are respected?”

Science and democracy

As for the link between science and liberal-democratic values: the parallels between the two are striking indeed. It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers were scientifically inclined (with Benjamin Franklin the greatest American scientist of the age), and that they continually referred to American democracy as a great experiment. (And it’s worth noting that even the Constitution, the nation’s central document, is open to amendment and improvement — much like scientific hypotheses may be revised in light of experimental results, and unlike the pronouncements of religious and secular dogma, which insist on their own rightness regardless of any evidence at all.) Just a few of the points that Ferris lays out in his introduction:

First, science is inherently antiauthoritarian. In order to qualify as scientific, a proposition must be vulnerable to experimental testing. If it repeatedly fails such tests it tends to fall by the wayside, regardless of who supported it or how much it may have seemed to make sense. The verdict of experiment has rudely dismissed the pronouncements of great thinkers from Aristotle […] to Einstein […] and has sufficed to unhorse the claims of alchemists who sought to turn lead into gold and the folk wisdom behind a thousand racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes.


Second, science is self-correcting. Corrupted data, ill-begotten theories, and instances of outright fraud may not be caught at once, but if significant are unlikely to go undetected for long. […] In this manner science presents a model for liberal governance, where it is similarly useful — although often frustrating — for plans and proposals to be widely debated and repeatedly altered before being enacted. Indeed a major failing of liberal democracies is that they are not yet sufficiently self-correcting: Programs that fail to accomplish their intended aims frequently survive anyway, by virtue of their popularity among the few who benefit from them or the many who assume that they are working.

Third, science in order to flourish must draw on all available intellectual resources. Nations aspiring to compete in the front ranks of science and technology cannot afford to suppress any element of their society — since none has a monopoly on brainpower — and so are obliged to educate their people and to maximize individuals’ opportunities to advance on their merits. Liberal democracy approaches this ideal more closely than any other known system. As Francis Bacon put it, “There is but one state of learning, and that ever was and ever will be the democratic.”


It helps to consider that whereas prior systems dealt in claims of certitude, such as philosophers’ allegedly airtight reasoning and monarchs’ god-given right to rule, science and democracy are steeped in doubt. Both start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof. Both are bottom-up systems, constructed more from individual actions in laboratories and legislatures than from a few allegedly impervious precepts. A liberal democracy in action is an endlessly changing mosaic of experiments, most of which partially or entirely fail. This makes the process frustratingly inefficient, but generates its strength.

Which reminds me of what Winston Churchill once said, to the effect that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And it makes me think that if answering the question “Does science in principle determine our values?” is a thorny prospect, it’s easier in practice to see that the habits and methods of scientific inquiry do influence what we choose to value in society.

There is much, much more to Ferris’s argument, and if anyone reading this is at all intrigued by what I’ve quoted so far, I strongly suggest finding a copy of the book (at your awesome local library!) and settling in for a very thought-provoking read. Ferris touches on a couple of other themes that I want to explore in connection with humanism — and his attack on “academic antiscience” and concluding thoughts still lie ahead — so I’ll revisit this book in another post soon.

(Reichstag image via Wiki Commons)


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