or how to keep one's feet planted firmly on the Terra Firma....


Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

By Timothy Ferris

Timothy 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.”

Ferris’s refrain of “experiment” is a well-chosen trope. Few other words in the vocabulary of Western progress can match its prestige and practical appeal. To rely on experiment is to doubt authority, to cultivate self-awareness, to seek the reality behind natural appearances and received opinion. The experimental frame of mind encompasses the scientist in her lab, the inventor in his workshop and even (with some literary license) the reflective bohemian, the calculating entrepreneur and the shrewd democratic leader.

As John Dewey, one of his heroes, put it, “freedom of inquiry, toleration of diverse views, freedom of communication, the distribution of what is found out to every individual as the ultimate intellectual consumer” are all as “involved in the democratic as in the scientific method.” In a like vein, Ferris also cites the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin: “Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about.”


It's true that some science can exist without democracy, but what kind? Ferris precedes his analysis of Nazi science by recalling the brief period of "liberal and progressive reform" that marked Germany before World War I, when Max Planck founded quantum physics, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays and Einstein published his general theory of relativity.

Then Hitler took power after the war, and real science was murdered along with all the victims of the Holocaust. The Führer encouraged his "scientific" view of the cosmos, in which stars were made of ice, Ferris tells us; nuclear weapons were "Jewish science"; and teaching science in schools was "last in importance."

Jewish scientists were murdered by the Gestapo or died in the camps, and ultimately there began the great exodus from the entire totalitarian world: Max Born, Erwin Schrödinger, James Franck, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi - all left for freedom, and what a list it was.

Nor does Ferris forget the Soviet Union in his history. More than 100 members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences were sent to labor camps or otherwise imprisoned. Lev Landau, who later won the Nobel Prize in physics, nearly died in prison until his colleague Pyotr Kapitsa threatened to stop his own research unless Landau was freed; he was, and Kapitsa, too, later won the Nobel.

And then there was Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet agronomist, whose bizarre theories that virtually denied genetics became the undisputed ruler of Soviet agricultural policy and indeed of all biology. He promised to double crop production by his methods and policies, and although grain yields fell year after year and fruit trees withered, he remained in power as the farm leader of "socialist science." One brave biologist who opposed him publicly was sentenced to death in 1940, and died in prison.


Have we seen attempts to obfuscate science here in America? We all know the answer to that question....