Tuesday, February 16, 2010

HoS Micropost: Liberal Democracies foster Science

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/16 at 01:12 PM

The Wall Street Journal recently published a review of Timothy Ferris’s new book, The Science of Liberty. The following thoughts are based entirely on the review. I will have to modify them once I read the book.

The Science of Liberty has a provocative and, from one perspective, promising title. As an analysis of “the science” employed by liberal democracies, this could be a brilliant and challenging study. That is to say, as an analysis of how liberal democracies have invoked science, and how they have characterized that science, The Science of Liberty could deepen our understanding of the interaction between politics and science. However, it seems that Ferris approaches the question from the other side: assuming science to be a particular intellectual/experimental activity, Ferris shows how that implicitly laudable activity has only flourished in liberal democracies. So, rather than probing how politics enlists particular types of science, Ferris focuses on how “science” thrives only in particular political regimes. Clearly, the politics does not infect the science and, equally clearly, both the science and the politics deserve praise and emulation.

Cover image from Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty

Ferris’s object of study is the scientific activities of the founding fathers, especially Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin. And the relationship between these scientific activities and their approach to government. Like their investigation into the natural world, the Founding Fathers approached self-government as an experiment, one that would be refined through subsequent experience and observation.

The review brings up some interesting criticisms of Ferris’s book, most significant among them is the scant attention Ferris devotes to the Scottish Enlightenment. As the reviewer, Alan Crawford, points out, the Scottish Enlightenment was probably more important for Founding Fathers.

The relationship between science and democracy is a well trodden subject. Philip Kitcher’s recent book, Science, Truth and Democracy is an excellent treatment of the material.1 Indeed, various incarnations of this thesis recur throughout 20th-century Anglo-American scholarship. In many ways, Ferris’s thesis seems to be some Franken-thesis forged from the marriage of the Merton Thesis with Butterfield’s Whig history.

One final thought, this book demonstrates once again that there is a considerable market for well-written books on the history of science. And yet, historians of science continue to ignore that avenue for communicating their work to broader audiences.

1See also William Rottschaefer’s discussion of Kitcher’s book: “Naturalizing or Demythologizing Scientific Inquiry,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34(2004): 408–22.

Tags: benjamin franklin, democracy, early-american science, thomas jefferson, thomas paine, timothy ferris