Banner
    Like Freedom? Thank A Scientist - How Science Made America Possible
    By Hank Campbell | April 7th 2010 08:31 PM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    Science, outside some in the climate community (*), is anti-authoritarian.   There is no voting to create a consensus in science, no appeals to authority - science is vulnerable every single day of the year, to experiments, to revisions and to complete debunking by new generations of scientists who, like gun-slingers in the Old West, want to make their name taking down the big guys.   

    Great thinkers like Einstein and Aristotle have been slain by the scientific method so it can happen to anyone - and that power is what made freedom possible, according to Timothy Ferris, emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, former editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and book author.

    That's right, you have science to thank for freedom, he claims.  The American Revolution?  Scientists and fans of science, he says.  Other countries with freedom, like England and Holland,  were leaders in science while 20th century Communist states, like the USSR and China, were spectacular failures.   If you have any sense of history you will put up a hand and note that Germany was hardly a liberal democracy yet had science success.  True, acknowledges Ferris, but Germany benefited from earlier humanistic values and freedom to conduct science in a collaborative way.

    It's not to say that scientists should be running the government - nothing was more ridiculous than a list of Nobel prizer winners endorsing a Democrat (surprise!) for President - or that governing is a science, but rather that the qualities that make great science possible make great societies possible.

    He's right.   In a prehistoric tribe that relied on hunting for its food, an Al Gore faced with rising population and thus less wild game would talk about mitigation and rationing and regression - scientists instead created domesticated livestock and agriculture and made progress possible.  That is not to say there is any evidence at all scientists running the government would make any less of a mess of things.

    Writing in The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature(at fine retailers everywhere, though we get a nickel or something if you use that link) he makes his case.  First, modern politicos have to accept some old-school definitions of terms without the modern goofiness that happens when progressives actually want society to go backwards and conservatives think small government only applies to porkbarrel projects a Democrat likes - the word in question is 'liberal'.   There are some scientists who think science should concede some words to the opposition, like 'Darwinism', and others want to take words back.  One of those words is 'liberal' and Ferris uses it in the Latin 'freedom' sense.   My degree is from an older university and the college was Liberal Arts&Sciences and it had nothing at all to do with forced organic food zones or a right to an abortion in the 39th week of pregnancy.   He uses the phrase liberal democracy ... well ... liberally throughout the book.   To him it is non-partisan and its very nature causes it to reject absolutes, be they religious demagogues or rationalist ones.

    Like a snowflake smashed into two dimensions, he says, letting progressives have a monopoly on the word 'liberal' is a real disservice and bless 'im for that.  So he must be a conservative, right?  Not to my knowledge.   He wrote for "Rolling Stone", after all, and I think P.J. O'Rourke was the only conservative they ever had, and only by necessity when Ronald Reagan took the country by storm.   He just likes words to have known meanings so we can all communicate a little better - and he wants a good word back where it belongs.  He is a big fan of precise thinking and the freedom it brings.  Freedom, he says, is efficient, and that is why scientists embrace it.

    Like us, he also believes that non-science people are smarter than they are often given credit for, including by scientists.   Ask a random scientist how many jelly beans are in a jar and he is unlikely to be correct but ask an auditorium full of random people off the street and the mean value of their answers will be eerily accurate.  Why are people so smart?   The benefits of a liberal education, of course.

    And that science heritage is so ingrained in American culture we barely notice.   On July 4th, 1776, while the most important act of the Continental Congress was in progress, Thomas Jefferson noted the temperature on four separate occasions.   The document they were signing, the Declaration of Independence, contained the words "self-evident" - a science term if ever there was one.  He contrasts that with the French Revolution, a resounding failure because it was grounded in philosophy rather than science.

    Health?  Thank science.  Technology?  Science.   Even economics, in the soft science sense, has benefited from the liberalism of a free market - it's enough to make modern liberals reach for an organic oxygen mask, but of course Ferris is right.   The biggest state disaster of the last decade, California so rigorously regulating energy de-regulation that power companies and consumers were much worse off in the early 2000s and got stuck with rolling blackouts because power companies were forbidden to sign contracts or change rates, and the biggest federal fiasco, a de-regulated mortgage system that regulated who mortgage companies could not refuse to lend to and caused a boom in low-end housing prices because everyone got loans guaranteed by the government, are perfect examples of where a science mindset would have been better for us all - namely, deregulate or not but don't pretend you can micromanage liberalism and have it go well.

    And he doesn't turn the guns on just politicians.   Totalitarian antiscientists - postmodernists - get socked squarely in the jaw for their belief that science is one of many 'truth games' along with the fascist left in academia (confusing to modern liberals because 'fascists' are always someone else but they really exist!) who persevere to this day.  Yes, an emeritus professor at Berkeley saying these things about the left.  It gives us all hope for the future.(**)  

    Anti-science, anti-evolution religious types?   Almost exclusively American he notes, even among all the world's (albeit few) liberal democracies.    Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East?  He has a liberal-scientific diagnosis for you too.  It's downright invigorating as long as, in true Bertrand Russell fashion, you introduce no contradictions into his closed system.  And for a solid night of reading science history and perspective I was willing to do just that. Maybe you will be too. 

    His take-home message is that science is invariant in all those scenarios.   Since the scientific method is practiced the same way everywhere, the benefits of a scientific society can only be granted everywhere.   Science and liberalism, again in the classical 'freedom' sense, have "an unequalled capacity for doing good" and that's a sentiment I couldn't agree with more.

    --------------------------------------------------

    (*) Astronomy has fallen prey to this silliness as well, as those in the Pluto debate made so plain, but bold statements don't always make the same sense with multiple examples, so one goes into a footnote.

    (**) As does invoking my favorite shape, the triangle, for political views, instead of that messy left-right business we get in America.  I have made a whole career on triangles, I can make anything a triangle and have, including politics. It is essentially perfect for every need.

    Comments

    rychardemanne
    Ah, different guy to Timothy Ferriss (double s) who write the '4 hour workweek'! Got that out of the way!

    Yes, modern science was born out of the liberal arts in Europe, and as people seem to forget it is well worth reminding them that such studies were to set people free - liberation philosophy.

    However, what happens when technology is used to enforce control rather than spread freedom? Being intelligent is not the same as being moral. That science should progress further in a liberal climate is not the same as saying that science created that liberalism. And if the argument is that science has played a role in creating greater freedoms then there is a case that more scientists should enter into politics and government. (Supporting Obama because he said nice things about science and made a few promises is not in itself a political stance but looks merely self-serving.)

    In the UK, scientists have been deliberately kept at arms length from real power as many are not 'one of us', from the point of view of the oligarchy. Looks like an interesting book.
    logicman
    But for the stand taken by science against politics we would all be living in a feudal society where children are indoctrinated into the notion that "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, gode made them high and lowly and ordered their estate."


    Don't argue with me, you nasty heretic!  Just go and do whatever it is that you scientists do and leave the important stuff like the flatness of the earth and the sun's orbit around it to your elders and betters in the church. Oh - and another thing.  What's all this crap about typhoid being caused by invisible creatures in drinking water?  Don't think I don't know it's just a scam to get money for new water pipes.  You can't fool me.  I know an antichrist when I see one.
    Gerhard Adam
    While there is certainly an element of truth in connecting science and freedom, it's also a bit misplaced.  Most of the examples and comments refer to science within the context of public policy which is decidedly unscientific.  Science cannot be rushed, nor does it possess all the answers.  It is a process whereby ideas are built up over time and knowledge is gradually acquired.  This is not something that can be done within the realm of public policy.

    Ready or not, ideas have to be implemented in the daily running of society.  Often ideas are incomplete and must be responsive to a variety of interests for which there is no clear cut solution.  We have seen time and again how many social "sciences" fall far short of being capable of predicting outcomes (i.e. economics).  It can also be argued that science is responsible for many of the problems we have, since it tends to reduce complexity into smaller workable units.  As a result, it is common to see public policy being addressed as if human society were simply a giant engineering problem that simply needs to have it's citizens "tweaked" to bring them into line (this is the idea of social engineering and legislation to attempt forcing certain behaviors).

    So, in one respect the idea of science and freedom is simply the obvious one of making skepticism an option and recognizing that there may be better ways of determining the truth of preconceived notions.  Beyond that, it's a bit of a hard sell to argue that science has had much of an impact in actually achieving many of the things mentioned. 

    While there is no doubt that many of the architects of our modern society may have been better critical thinkers, there isn't much about our modern society that could be considered scientific.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think the scientific thought process lends itself necessarily to the idea of freedom in that it can thoroughly debunk the basis behind the idea of the feudal and class system (i.e. some men being of a "higher order" than others). However, am I off-base in thinking that the argument can be made that the scientific process could also lend itself to the idea of a communist society? The theory of evolution puts all humans on the same level as members of the same species, as well as essentially putting the idea out there (and this may only be my opinion, and it sort of sounds harsh) that the purpose of life is to avoid extinction, therefore everyone sharing resources for the betterment of the human species in the form of communism could be a reasonable conclusion. I know communism is generally thought of as a philosophical idea more often than not, but does my approach make any sense (and please note that I am fully aware that communism is an utopian idea that doesn't translate into the real world, but isn't that more of an engineering/applied sciences problem than a problem with the actual scientific thought process used to come to the conclusion--an anti-matter engine if you will?)?

    Maybe I'm missing the point of his idea, though.

    Gerhard Adam
    ... therefore everyone sharing resources for the betterment of the human species in the form of communism could be a reasonable conclusion.

    I don't think you're wrong, because that's precisely what's taking place.  The difficulty comes from examining a species as an external observer versus an internal observer.  In other words, humans are clearly a cooperative species that exist as a collective.  To an external observer that may be sufficient to classify how the species behaves.  However, from an internal perspective we are also able to see the competitiveness that occurs within such a social arrangement.

    To say that humans are cooperative and exist as a collective is true, but the problem with 'isms' like communism is that they attempt to invoke the same mechanism to the internal dynamics of that species.  That's where it breaks down.

    It's like watching a colony of ants.  It is clear in watching the dynamics of the colony how overall behavior determines success or failure, but it would incorrect to presume that we also know how an individual ant would view the world.  Clearly they operate at their own tasks, for their own reasons (whatever those may be), and we can't begin to understand what may be taking place there regarding "status" within the colony (or if such a thing exists).  Certainly we can see it in "higher" animals where there are "rules" that define how one competes for status.  In some cases, there might be subterfuge, but invariably the leader must comes to terms with managing that situation.  A direct challenge may occur, etc.  In all cases the group understands and accepts the rules for maintaining the cohesion of the group, even though individuals may compete within it for their own ends.

    Every social animal demonstrates cooperative behavior, but they also demonstrate competitive behavior within the group, so it is really misleading to apply only one label to a species.  Basically it comes down to cooperate as a group and compete for position within that group.
    Mundus vult decipi
    " The document they were signing, the Declaration of Independence,
    contained the words "self-evident" - a science term if ever there was
    one."Huh? Are you saying that it is scientific to declare that no evidence is needed to reach a conclusion? This sounds like turning "common sense" into political dogma. Did you even notice how the "self-evident" comment referred to religious principles and was full of wishy-washy nonsense words ("created equal and endowed by their creator")?

    Regarding the word "liberal", there is also the problem that the American definition is fundamentally different than the definition used by the rest of the English speaking world (which is more in line with the classical definition).

    Hank
    He addresses that in his book, though obviously there is too much to go into in an article about it.   He does not hold back on castigating progressives for conscripting the word (and he is correct - most leftwing people in America are not simultaneously for more freedom and want laws and government to enforce their cultural beliefs) and conservatives for turning the word they conscripted into a bad one.    It's easy logic.  Freedom and equality and conservatism are 3 points on a triangle and most people are interpolated somewhere within it.
    Wikipedia has some extensive articles on "modern liberalism" and "social liberalism". I don't think it mentioned corporate liberalism, liberal corporatism, or technocratic liberalism: which are other ways of describing the modern liberalism in the USA

    AdamRetchless
    Our justice system may also bear the marks of scientific skepticism. The requirement that the burden of proof lays upon the prosecutor is comparable to how scientists place the burden of proof upon the demonstration of a new phenomenon or force.
    Hank
    Indeed, an artifact of British common law courtesy of the Enlightenment courtesy of science. In marked contrast to the Napoleanic Code. But not a lot of great science coming out of France ... or any other primitive country ... these days.
    Actually, the locution "self-evident" was Benjamin Franklin's doing. Jefferson originally had written 'sacred' in the Declaration of Independence, but Franklin, being most definitely a product of the Enlightenment, persuaded Jefferson that "self-evident" would be a more effective locution. So, it was edited in.
    Hank
    Indeed, Franklin the scientist ... Jefferson the statesman was more inclined to use words like 'sacred' but "these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" carries a different meaning that can resonate throughout the ages.
    Oh, I agree, Hank! Franklin is one of my heroes in history and the Enlightenment is my favorite period of history! : )
    Mr Campbell,
    full marks for scientistic sass, but a piece like this does not meet our standards in the humanities. You might be very happy that you know & love 'science', but it is by no means clearly delineated from other viewpoints. Like, if you define 'science' for your own self-serving & promiscuous purposes, you can indeed explain all fields of successful human endeavor as its fruits.

    Eg.,
    "Science, outside some in the climate community (*), is anti-authoritarian. There is no voting to create a consensus in science, no appeals to authority - science is vulnerable every single day of the year, to experiments, to revisions and to complete debunking by new generations of scientists - - - - ".

    Counter-examples: Rupert Sheldrake - run out of biology for 25 years for anti-Darwin heresy? Fred Hoyle, similarly given the bum's rush from astronomy? Very illiberal, however you define that other multi-affectioned word.

    And are distinguished scientists of the past 'debunked'? You should at least examine the argument that established theories are not overthrown, but discretely removed from the cold, dead hands of their last, tenured, old guard. They are then stuffed & mounted in science's own pantheon.

    Lastly, linkage of scientific progress to 'freedom'. One state prisoner waterboarded 200 times? This eg. could equally indicate a current collapse back into medieval ignorance & frightfulness.

    If you wish to demonstrate the advantages of scientific, liberal education, you really must try to grasp broader viewpoints & criteria. OGT

    Hank
    full marks for scientistic sass, but a piece like this does not meet our standards in the humanities. You might be very happy that you know&love 'science', but it is by no means clearly delineated from other viewpoints. 
    I dig that you think that the natural laws of the world are just another 'viewpoint', but that's why everyone makes fun of people in the humanities except people in the humanities, who all take each other and everyone else way too seriously.

    Hot buzz words like 'pantheon' and references to waterboarding make me giggle.  It's almost like you had this comment laying around somewhere and were just looking for a place to use it.  It certainly has nothing at all to do with the article I wrote.
    Mr Campbell,

    the idea that there are fixed, inflexible, & unchanging 'natural laws' is one just scientistic belief. You seem elsewhere to believe that outmoded theories are regularly 'debunked'. You can't have it both ways. Which is it?

    I prefer Poincares formulation (scientist chum of Bertrand Russell - details on request). The usually conservatively educated scientific positivist is unaware of varying 'scientific' outlooks - so the value of a liberal education

    Not surprised mentions of 'pantheon' & 'waterboarding' make you giggle. That is at least the honest response of a narrow outlook. How telling you are unable to handle counter-examples to your crude coupling of 'science' to 'progress' in general. The humanities can introduce you to non-mathematical values, like compassion, or sympathy. 'Science' of itself cannot. Hence your titters at the idea of a state prisoner being tortured 200 times. Nothing to do with science, eh? Precisely! But everything to do with your sweeping claims for scientific omniscience & benificence.

    Point being, things aint getting better & better, are they? You don't need a microscope to see that the Whig view of history is bunk. The world is in a very perilous state. Not the fault of science? Of course not, becos it covers but a small spectrum of human concerns, & has never been a universal methodology.

    'Pantheon' the global celebration of secular saint Darwin has just passed by, with brass bands & dancing acolytes. The recent findings of epigenetics suggest that his predecessor, Lamark, was more correct. Poor old Lamarck was kicked out the anglos' pantheon long ago. To know why, you have to know something about the internal & external politics of science. You have to know a bit more than the difference between a test-tube & a bunsen burner. Enter the humanities to fill the gap.

    The world is full of narrow specialists who know more & more about less & less. Thank god for the lingering liberal arts. OGT

    Hank
    The humanities can introduce you to non-mathematical values, like compassion, or sympathy. 'Science' of itself cannot. Hence your titters at the idea of a state prisoner being tortured 200 times.
    This may be too simplistic for a humanities person but this is a science site.  For my part, I am not interested in compassion, fairness or sympathy in science data, I am only interested in excellence.

    I giggled at your attempt to hijack the conversation using emotional verbage because no scientist here, or in the article, advocated or participated in waterboarding, yet you seem to believe that because you claim to 'sympathize' more than anyone else with victims of torture, the humanities are superior to science.   That makes no sense, though in true Bertrand Russell fashion, you introduced a contradiction into a closed system and used it to prove what you wanted to prove.  That does not make you right, it makes you a sophist.
    Mr Campbell,
    “This may be too simplistic for a humanities person but this is a science site. For my part, I am not interested in compassion, fairness or sympathy in science data, I am only interested in excellence.”

    If you are really into excellence, you must be disturbed that despite so much sci progress, waterboarding suggests we are slipping back into the Dark Ages – just one counter-example to your major claim.

    To feed you another supplement, ‘cruel & unusual punishement’ was banished by the US Constitution. That was once seen as a cut-off point between the bad old world, & the new age of democracy & justice. So are we going forwards or backwards?

    And as I said, you appear to be making sweeping socio-historical claims outside science, while also unwilling to define what science is (there are several formulations – See Wiki for current one). This allows you both to take any plaudits for progress, then smartly dodge any responsibility for negative outcomes. You cannot have it both ways. Like God, science is either omnipotent or it aint. It’s either some organum universalis, or just a new tune played on Bacon’s old organum novum.

    “I giggled at your attempt to hijack the conversation using emotional verbage because no scientist here, or in the article, advocated or participated in waterboarding, yet you seem to believe that because you claim to 'sympathize' more than anyone else with victims of torture, the humanities are superior to science.”

    Science lacks emotion? Then still your recurrent giggles. Consider the paradox of your claims. First you boldly attribute economic progress, liberty & freedoms (whatever) solely to science. Predictably, when the limitations of science are exampled, you swiftly wash your hands - ‘This is not science’s business’.

    Well yes, we agree then. For all its manifold advantages, science is just one narrow mode of problem-solving. It is not & cannot be universal. It is necessary but not sufficient.

    Another eg: that’s why ‘science’ currently cannot address the looming energy crisis. This lurching giant, devoid of social or political skills, is largely an impotent geek when confronting the dark powers of the fossil fuel lobby. Its massive brain can be turned off by a flick of the hand that controls the research funding.

    “That makes no sense, though in true Bertrand Russell fashion, you introduced a contradiction into a closed system and used it to prove what you wanted to prove. That does not make you right, it makes you a sophist.”

    Why hostile to Bertie? For most of his life, Russell was one of you scientific positivists. He tried & failed to mathematize language. But I actually cited his chum Poincare, who was a scientist, & produced a very sharp definition of scientific laws. What’s your objection?

    Sophists were teachers who believed persuasion could be reduced to a taught methodology or skill – not my bag. I am with Socrates rather. He tried to show the under-informed how little they/we really know. Oldgittom

    Hank
    If you are really into excellence, you must be disturbed that despite so much sci progress, waterboarding suggests we are slipping back into the Dark Ages – just one counter-example to your major claim.
    Not a valid one at all.  You are saying if a bad thing happens by someone in modern America, then my entire point is negated.  It isn't like the humanities prevented it either.  If anything, relativism promotes that kind of activity.  Science and democracy both expect a lack of perfection.
    Why hostile to Bertie? 
    I wasn't, I am actually a fan.  But he used his skills to goof on people in the humanities, much like I did.   You didn't get the joke but the humanities are legendary for being humorless.

    Did I make a sweeping claim?  Sure I did and science is the common denominator in the examples I used.   I have a hard time believing the humanities are responsible for semiconductors or the Internet or freedom.   Or even the humanities themselves.  In actuality, science grounds the humanities because, as Nozick said, 'Far from being relative truths, scientific results tend to make everyone's truth property the same across cultures'.

    The American Revolution was an obvious outcome of a science mentality and the French Revolution was the outcome of a philosophical one.; rationalists had no problem using the legal weapons of suppressing liberty to enforce equality, even where none could exist.
    Hank Campbell,

    (of Bertrand Russell) “I am actually a fan. But he used his skills to goof on people in the humanities, much like I did. You didn't get the joke but the humanities are legendary for being humorless.”

    And some areas of science are notorious for mimicking virtuous objectivity, while hawking their assets to the highest bidder. Goof on?? I think you will find Russell aimed his dead-pan humor mostly at religion & philosophical idealism. His venture into humanities was a small book on ethics, which was one of the worst thing he ever wrote.

    “Did I make a sweeping claim? Sure I did and science is the common denominator in the examples I used. I have a hard time believing the humanities are responsible for semiconductors or the Internet or freedom. Or even the humanities themselves. ”

    You fess up to exaggeration! But then you try to pervert the discussion into a ‘science’ versus ‘humanities’ wrist-wrangle. That is not the issue. The two are complimentary. Like so many scientific positivists, you wish to blow your triumphalist trumpet over all other forms of human knowledge. That’s my objection.

    There is vastly more to human history than science is able to address, tho it unquestionably is immensely helpful. But philosophy, eg., teaches us to try to be self-consistent. You are not. You claim the omnipotence of science, you claim all kinds of benefits from science, yet at the same time, you wash your hands of any negatives.

    You’ve boxed yourself into the same corner as Christian theologians – if God is all-powerful, how to explain evil? I simplify: IF science is solely responsible for America, democracy, freedom, & mom’s apple pie, it must also take the rap for reintroducing judicial torture & the current decay of US democracy. You haven’t noticed? Well, why should you? It’s not part of science’s remit. That’s all the unscientific stuff that happens outside the lab door?

    “In actuality, science grounds the humanities because, as Nozick said, 'Far from being relative truths, scientific results tend to make everyone's truth property the same across cultures'.”

    Fair enuf, but then why is waterboarding truly good to some in the US, & truly bad to other cultures? After 200 years, which way is the tendency?

    “The American Revolution was an obvious outcome of a science mentality and the French Revolution was the outcome of a philosophical one.; rationalists had no problem using the legal weapons of suppressing liberty to enforce equality, even where none could exist.”

    Obvious to you; recent science tells us the French Rev was down to catastrophic weather. More generally, mass democracy has its distant roots in the democratizing philosophies/aspects of Buddish, Christianity & Islam (equal before God, etc.). It’s material means of more modern expression was the printed text (free flow of ideas). Cheap printing also made modern science possible. For printing, we thank medieval China.

    To take another eg. For the advances of Copernicus & Kepler, etc., we can trace beginnings in those remarkable observers of ancient Babylon. For the preservation of that data, we must thank later Islam’s reverence for scholarship.

    Such results were ferried by monk-scholars from Moslem Spain. Amongst them were the treasure of decimal mathematics. I’ve seen the ruins of the monastery. Didn’t see any scientific pilgrims.

    There is no neat cut-off point where ‘science’ began, & ‘the liberal arts’, ignorance & superstition were banished for ever. With no historical grounding for it, positivists talk too glibly of ‘science’. Where they do, it’s becos they know insufficient history. OGT