Timothy Ferris Explores The Science of Liberty


Edison’s search for a passable filament in his electric light may have become synonymous with the scientific spirit, but perhaps functioning just as well is a parable that also happens to operate in the realm of the real life: Thomas Paine and George Washington once took a boat out on the creek of Washington’s New Jersey estate in Rocky Hill in order to determine the reason why the water caught fire at night. Washington surmised that it was the product of bituminous matter, but Paine theorized that it was inflammable air. Both of them held a lighted roll of cartridge paper over the water and waited.

While some people greet such curiosity with antipathy and indifference, Washington and Paine wanted to have knowledge of and mastery over “brute want and dumb matter,” as Joshua Ferris called it in The Unnamed, since it is difficult to see as anything other than a noble pursuit the way in which humanity strives to conquer the things that he is sometimes subordinate to.

What is even more remarkable about this story, which Timothy Ferris recounts in his latest book, The Science of Liberty, is that these venerated men allowed for the potential of their own specious reasoning, and even celebrated it, instead of transmuting their practice into an authoritative fiat, science and knowledge by proclamation (Edison said let there be light, and there was light). Richard Dawkins often describes the story in which a scientist congratulates the man who proves the errancy of his life’s work. This sort of behavior isn’t always the case in science, but it is one of those rare practices in which this ideal can be achieved.

Timothy Ferris makes even deeper connections between science and liberty. The qualities that fueled one – anti-authoritarianism, experimentation, freedom, and skepticism – fueled the other, since all human endeavor is quantitative. The Renaissance, galvanized by such traits as diversity and competition, was neither a planned event nor a historical accident, but a mixture of felicitous events. The scientific revolution that was fomented gave birth to the Enlightenment, from which democracy and the liberalization of markets are its best expressions and it’s most elastic and adaptable elements. Freed from the tragedy of blind circumstances, nations that avow science and liberty also create the potential for their citizens to live richer, more fulfilled lives than at any point in history.

Liberalism in this sense means the classical definition of freedom and not liberalism in the left/right dynamic, which Ferris eschews entirely for a liberalism/totalitarianism and progressive/conservative distinction. Both progressives and conservatives could advocate either liberty or totalitarianism given the circumstances.

Timothy Ferris is such a great mediator between these subjects, of course, because he is both a journalist and scientific writer. The narrative he creates within the pages is one of discovery and illumination, which is the very spirit of scientific endeavor.

Whether or not liberty is empirically true, it is the one thing that makes sense of human experience. Nations that think they can control their citizens have failed ingloriously so, but modern nations that have thrived also are adept at cultivating diverse opinions, as long as those opinions are smart and well-informed. Some of history’s most prominent and celebrated figures, such as Churchill and Franklin, have also been those who celebrated and understood science.

Political revolutionaries such as the founding fathers have also endeavored to predicate their systems upon the bedrock of natural truths, which only seems important so much as the connection between science and liberty, because in nature any analogy can be made to human behavior (Communists, for instance, might very note the self-sacrificial behavior of certain animals in protection of their DNA).

Since the vitality of science rests on its potential for change, it is also above any one person or group. As Ferris argues, people such as Hitler and Marx misunderstood science completely. Hitler himself believed predominantly in pseudoscience and failed to appreciate the scientific method.

In attempting to create a pure race, Hitler didn’t seem to understand that Darwin’s theory of evolution advocated the importance of diversity (indeed, Hitler seemed to believe in the mutability of species), since a smaller pool means less adaptability and more potential for harmful genes, which shows that “social Darwinism” is more of a product of Mendelian genetics than it is the theory of evolution, and the evolution of culture and behavior is a better indicator of human activity rather than trying to understand it through the act of competition. Fitness is measured by survivability, not strength – a rabbit might be fit because it has the good sense to run when danger approaches. Human empathy, it can be said, is also a product of fitness if it helps the species survive.

So it is no surprise that Nazi’s iron grip constricted science until the point of death, its blood flow and source of life cut away in order to elevate the regime’s most reprehensible elements. Great scientists such as Einstein and Lisa Meitner absconded from Germany, and the ingenuity of German science quickly thereafter desiccated. Nazi experiments could be called science only in the Sam Peckinpah sense of the word – as soulless observers of nature’s most brutal elements.

Marx also was rather misguided because he failed to apprehend Darwin’s basic theory (one of those great societal themes, it seems, is to misunderstand Darwin) and was convinced that evolution had a goal, but the notion of progress is almost anathema to evolution. Whereas Nazism buried basic human inquiry beneath the despotic fervor of hegemony and bureaucracy, Communism attempted to subvert science through ideology, which led to dire consequences. Massive famines in China and Russia were precipitated by those who were resistant to the lessons of science, despite every indication that they were on a tragic course.

Americans, of course, were transfixed upon Russia’s nuclear might. But what many assumed to be a robust Russian science galvanized by central planning was, in fact, nothing more than scientific torpor. After their initial success with rocketry and space exploration, scientific advancement dissipated. Technologically, America surged ahead (although the greatest triumph over Russia was actually a miracle on ice). Ferris argues that China, too, will hit a wall if it continues resisting liberalization.

In spite of claims to the contrary, there is no such thing as Nazi or Communist science. Science is intractable, resistant to all ideology. Any attempts to control it will be met with limited success since liberty is the key ingredient that makes the entire enterprise function. Some of the greatest acts of sedition against authority throughout history have been scientific in nature. Whether or not Galileo ever really uttered, “And yet it moves,” the fault lies in the denier. Because science itself is an extension of liberty, science must have unalienable ethical precepts, above all honesty and virtue. Some people ask whether science should be ethical, but it must be ethical in order to function.

That alone elevates it beyond two of its other fiercer critics: Islamic fascism, which is an extension of European fascism (what is the point of a near-infinite universe, from a religious perspective, if one does not have the freedom to explore it?), and, surprisingly, anti-scientific thought in the academic realm, which is a production of postmodern philosophy.

The latter rests on the erroneous premise that science is a series of revolutions (rather than a systematic buildup of knowledge, since Einstein complimented Newton and did not eradicate him) that merely reflect subjective cultural norms of the time. Philosopher Bruno Latour advocated the position that the settlement of scientific controversies is as much a cause or prescription of scientific beliefs, even though, as Ferris points out, we know that an object on the surface of the moon will not sink into layers of dust because it is empirically testable. Science works because experimentation is not an axiom embedded in cultural norms. Any human can see that Newtonian physics still works.

This attempt to reduce subjective “ways of knowing” into a single plain is as much a breeding ground for totalitarian thought, which is at times a weakness of certain intellectuals. In fact, Ferris mounts a better criticism on intellectuals and academics than Thomas Sowell (whose chief prospect in his previous book was to criticize intellectuals), even though they both advocate the advantages of liberty and diversity, because Ferris is beyond ideology. I hate to say “beyond” as if it means non-existent, since we all have our beliefs, but Ferris is fair with his criticisms.

Ferris appears to be writing on several occasions directly to skeptics of liberalism, but there is also the danger from within America presented by anti-scientific populism (you will never hear, “So Sarah Palin went out on a boat to test her scientific theory…”), which Ferris speaks of often but not quite enough. However, the existence of anti-scientific populism is itself paradoxical: the same people who reject science also take advantage of its virtues, which allow them to degrade the image of science in public without wholly touching its institutions. Scientific thought carries on in some other firmament.

These populist attacks are typically couched within postmodernism – even though the same people who claim that science rests on certain assumptions also tend to advocate objective, knowable truth – or pseudoscience – that is, the total misinterpretation of facts to support a pre-arranged and unscientific position.

And when these unscientific beliefs cannot gain headway, these populist advocates accuse science of acting in a manner that is its very antithesis – a monolithic ideology – of what it is in reality – the practice for the pursuit of truth. Science in a liberal society, even when a hoax or falsehood has been perpetrated, is a self-correcting enterprise, because only the truth is useful. And in a free market, people ultimately benefit from the truth. If Lysenko is wrong about his crops, then millions die, and such a consequence trumps (or should trump) all ideology.

Ferris rightly ends his book with global warming because the stakes of a technological society are high. Those great advantages generated by our ingenuity are unparalleled wealth and freedom and well-being, but we also cannot continue to flout the dangers. Set aside the veracity of global warming for a moment; the issue is that people have access to various facts but do not know how to interpret them in a scientifically literate manner.

Reality is not going to change to suit the interest of personal conviction. What is dangerous is that we are willing to bet our future on that scientific illiteracy. On the other hand, the interplay between science and liberty offers hope, for the promise of liberty’s benefits advocate for a freer and more rational world. The opposite promises only stagnation. That way is the graveyard.

Paine was ultimately right, by the way. Inflammable air was the cause of the strange fire. But the humbling thing is that there was no reason why he necessarily should have been correct. It was the testability of his ideas that proved their efficacy.

Jacob Stutsman is an informative, entertaining storyteller and book reviewer from Michigan.