Wednesday, February 17, 2010

freedom's laboratory

NYTimes | To say that the scientific frame of mind has played an important part in the rise of the West is not exactly controversial. Science always gets its moment in the spotlight in “Whig history,” as historians (dismissively) call grand narratives of political and material progress. In “The Science of Liberty,” the veteran science writer Timothy Ferris makes a more extravagant claim, assigning not a mere supporting role but top billing to the celebrated experimenters and inventors of the past several centuries. As he sees it, the standard account of the history textbooks — with the Renaissance giving rise to the Scientific Revolution and thus preparing the way for the Enlightenment — fails to identify the primary causal relationship. Democratic governance and individual rights did not emerge from some amorphous “brew of humanistic and scientific thinking,” he argues, but were “sparked” by science itself — the crucial “innovative ingredient” that “continues to foster political freedom today.”

Ferris, the author of “The Whole Shebang” and a number of other books about cosmology, usefully reminds us that science was an integral part of the intellectual equipment of the great pioneers of political and individual liberty. John Locke was not just the most eloquent philosophical advocate of the social contract and natural rights. He was an active member of the emerging scientific culture of 17th-century Oxford, and his intimates included Isaac Newton, who likewise was a radical Whig, supporting Parliament against the overreaching of the crown. Among the American founders, the scientific preoccupations of Franklin and Jefferson are well known, but Ferris emphasizes that they were hardly alone in their interests. He recounts a charming episode, for instance, in which George Washington and Thomas Paine floated together one night down a New Jersey creek, lighting cartridge paper at the water’s surface to determine whose theory was correct about the source of swamp gas. Ferris also neatly summarizes the prehistory of modern science’s ascent, with subtle takes on Galileo’s clash with church authorities and Francis Bacon’s inductive method.

The most engaging chapters in “The Science of Liberty” concern the dynamic interplay of technology and commerce. As Ferris recognizes, the seemingly irresistible spread of modern principles of liberty derives in large measure from the capacity of modern industrial democracies to deliver the goods in terms of general prosperity, health and diversion. The practical side of the scientific outlook has generated endless rounds of invention and innovation (Watt and his steam engine, Morse and his telegraph, Edison and his electric lights, etc.), and the human benefits of these time- and labor-saving improvements have been extended dramatically, if haltingly, by the free market. The singular insight of Adam Smith, Ferris writes, was to recognize that wealth creation and the production of material comforts might be “increased indefinitely if individuals are free to invest and to innovate.”

By this point in his ambitious narrative, however, Ferris has given up on any real effort to argue for the decisive influence of science as such. He is content to speak of science metaphorically, as the model for openness and experimentalism in all the major realms of liberal-democratic endeavor. Thus, just as in his account of Smith’s free-market economics, Ferris finds in the United States Constitution the underlying principle that citizens should “be free to experiment, assess the results and conduct new experiments.” The American Republic might be compared to “a scientific laboratory,” he writes, because it is designed “not to guide society toward a specified goal, but to sustain the experimental process itself.” Fist tap Nana.