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Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

by Timothy Ferris

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-078150-7
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Prolific science writer Ferris (Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, 2002, etc.) explains how liberal democracy and a robust scientific environment walk hand in hand.

If one thinks of democracy as an elected government that guarantees human rights and freedoms—in its most basic, unadorned form—and science as the social enterprise of research involving observation and experiment, then what follows is self-evident: Liberal democracy’s anti-authoritarianism and freedom of speech, travel and association allows for all available intellectual sources to be tapped in the service of scientific skepticism and experimentation. Science flourishes in a flexible milieu, increasing knowledge, power and wealth, and thus demonstrating that liberal governance works, no matter how inelegantly. As Ferris writes, “this book favors the messy, selfish, and often foolish and greedy push-and-pull of democracies as they are—neither rational nor expert but experimental—as better tuned to the spirit of science than are enchantments with authoritarian expertise and top-down planning.” The author thoroughly and eloquently establishes the link between science and liberty, starting with the Renaissance and running through today, providing overviews of turning points in the progress of democracy and science and vest-pocket profiles of important personalities like Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Locke and Paine—not to forget the venalities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Questions that flow from the narrative—When does the state put a governor on free enterprise? How does the Tuskegee syphilis experiment apply? What is the role of science in imperialism and colonialism?—are handled with intelligence and sensitivity, taking a cue from the invariant ethics Ferris would like to see guide science, which include truth-telling and ethical, even humanistic practices.

Ferris keenly demonstrates that the health and happiness of the planet is tied to a strong marriage of science and democracy.