Timothy Ferris on "The Science of Liberty."

September 22, 2010
John B. D. Potter '11

FerrisAt Hampden-Sydney, the Center for the Study of Political Economy (CSPE) educates students in the classical liberal tradition of political economy. As part of its ongoing mission, the CSPE regularly sponsors public lectures by scholars from across academic disciplines. The most recent CSPE lecture took place on Thursday, September 9th, in Crawley Forum.  Timothy Ferris, a Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gave a talk entitled "The Science of Liberty: How Science Enabled the Rise of Democracy and Helped Reduce World Poverty and Hunger."

Mr. Ferris's argued that science and liberalism (i.e. the belief in liberty and equality) are symbiotic. He supported this claim by citing the past 500 years of history. Beginning in the mind-1500s, a revolution in scientific thinking incited the Enlightenment, a movement which led to a revolution in the science of politics. One of the fundamental political values that resulted from the Enlightenment was the idea that legitimate governments are based on reason, and derive their authority from the consent of the governed. Moreover, such governments are liberal, in the sense that they base their decisions on the consequences of their actions. As Mr. Ferris put it, liberalism is scientific, because it is a rational, conditional process of discovery. In this regard, a scientific spirit precipitated the rise of liberalism and democracy.

According to Mr. Ferris, liberalism works in a similar fashion to the scientific method. Individuals in democratic governments develop a theory (i.e. something for the government to try), and test this political hypothesis through experimentation: elections, legislation, and/or legal adjudication. After analyzing the results, the political theory is either accepted--it becomes law--or rejected--it is removed from the government. Thus, the knowledge of governance advances with experimentation. Indeed, it is no coincidence that many of the Founding Fathers described America as an "experiment in democracy."

Mr. Ferris further emphasized the connection between science and liberalism. "Science and liberalism are antiauthoritarian, self-correcting," he said, "and both employ creative methods that require maximizing intellectual resources." In liberal democracies, science and its intellectual resources are utilized in ways that promote human flourishing and happiness. Indeed, Mr. Ferris observed that indicators of happiness are at their best in liberal democracies. Due in large part to the application of science, citizens of liberal democracies enjoy better health, more wealth, longer life expectancy, increased food production, elevated literacy rates, extensive education systems, and a higher per capita GDP. At the same time, there is a decrease in death, violence, and war.

Science helps unify the world, because its laws and theories are universal. Furthermore, science promotes liberty and equality through its political offspring--liberalism and democracy. Nevertheless, both face serious challenges: population growth, ecological crises, global warming, and dogma in the form of absolutism (ex. radical Islam) and cynicism (ex. postmodernism). However, Ferris has faith in the democratic virtues of science; science teaches that all human beings belong to single species, a species which is kin to all life on Earth.

As the age-old adage goes, a tree is known by its fruit. It is safe to say that the fruit of the tree of science--liberalism, democracy, knowledge, and happiness--speak for themselves.