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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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

Timothy Ferris is a prolific bestselling author of 12 books on cosmology, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the recipient of several awards for popular science writing. The Science of Liberty is a welcome treatment of a subject often and regrettably neglected by intellectual historians in the social sciences.

Ferris’s interests center on articulating an understanding of liberal democracy informed by science and its achievements. The book’s narrative draws on the connections between ideas in the moral sciences and discoveries in the hard sciences. The writing is lively and clear, especially concerning the development of science and the ways scientists like Galileo and Newton influenced Locke, Paine, Madison, and others. Overall this book is well worth the attention of anyone concerned about the requirements of a free society and science.

In the book Ferris studies the dependency between science and liberal democracy and, by implication, the dependency between science and material wealth and sustained prosperity. That scientific achievement can make our lives better is probably universally accepted—assuming everyone agrees on what “better” means. Ferris wishes to push this dependency a step further by claiming science as causal to liberal democracy. His conception of science as anti-authoritarian and self-correcting highlights the necessity that scientific inquiry be founded on open and critical discourse with an absence of government meddling. Ferris’s chapter on “Totalitarian Antiscience” shows how science is throttled and sometimes destroyed, as happened to genetics under Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, as government increases its control over science.

While Ferris argues for the autonomy of science as requisite to liberal society, it becomes evident as he discusses the progress of science (and its perversions under Stalin, the Nazis, and Maoists) that causality between science and liberal society is bidirectional. He seems to be aware of this when he writes, “Liberalism nourishes science by fostering a free and flexible milieu in which scientific activity can flourish, which in turn increases the knowledge, power, and wealth of liberal societies. In doing so, science helps demonstrate that liberal governance works; and so the cycle continues.”

That quotation hints at a more complex conception of science and its connection to the broader society in which it functions. It is hardly a coincidence that liberalism and unrestricted discourse (including science) generally move together via adaptive feedback processes, much the same as liberalism and free markets do. Unfortunately Ferris tells only part of the story.

First, Ferris does not examine science as a Polanyi-Hayek emergent social order, as tipped off by his nearly exclusive treatment of scientific progress as proximate to achievement by individual scientists. While individual achievements matter, there is an important sense in which modern science should be seen as a knowledge-generating order whose functional properties hinge on the interactions of many scientists and the conventions governing their interactions, including the processes that confer legitimacy on what constitutes scientific contributions. For Polanyi the nexus of conventions, procedures, and criteria that scientists use to evaluate claims is largely endogenous to the scientific order and has emerged over time. Just as important, what we take as scientific knowledge bears the imprint and certification of untold peer contributors and critics. Science as a social process isn’t just the progression of individual achievements.

The social context, whether it provides a friendly or hostile environment for scientific inquiry, thereby cannot be disassociated from the kind of science likely to emerge. Under liberalism we don’t see scientists imprisoned for non-State-sanctioned scientific views or political prisoners used in medical experiments.

The second factor missing from Ferris’s account of science is the question of how it is funded. Up until the early twentieth century most scientific activity was privately funded. But with the rise of large, powerful, and illiberal nation-states, science took on greater significance as a means of securing the aims of State policy. In the United States, for example, government funding of science was intermittent, modest, and closely connected to the exigencies of war and defense until the Great Depression, when President Roosevelt institutionalized an array of government entities that brought science and government closer together under the rubric of improving “the general welfare.” Since the end of World War II fundamental or “basic” science funding has largely become a government function. The problem is that governments are not simply disinterested conduits of research money from taxpayers to scientists.

Ferris notes that because science confers power on those who control it, we expect governments to use funding as a means to advance their policy agendas and political power. A large literature analyzes such questions, but none of it finds a voice in The Science of Liberty, partly because, it seems, Ferris is content to examine the effect of science on liberal and quasi-liberal social systems without examining the effects those systems have on science.