Book Review
Tim Ferris, The Science of Liberty:
Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature

by Lorna Salzman

Tim Ferris gives science a bad name.

At the end of this I have reprinted something I posted about a review of Tim Ferris book by the NY Times Book Review. I had not read the book itself at that time but I have just finished it. And I regret to say that Ferris has possibly damaged science more than any creationist could have dreamed of doing.

I am embarrassed to have prematurely praised this book, whose title (The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature) led me to believe that Ferris, a noted science writer and fellow of the AAAS, counted himself among the important secular humanists of our day such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and their cohorts at the Center for Inquiry.

If you read only the beginning of the book, and the end which analyzes the reasons (quite convincing) for the present-day barbarism of Islamic countries, you would not know that Ferris is more accurately placed in the neo-liberal camp, and even in the neo-conservative camp that has tried to equate contemporary capitalism and free markets with the Darwinian theory of natural selection.

Ferris has sucked the liberal reader in by, first, polishing his own liberal credits and beliefs (pro-environment, anti-racist, etc.), and then, through the use of historical references to the origins of science and the Enlightenment, trying in a sneaky way to prove that these predecessors shore up his views about liberty and freedom of thought.

He throws the word liberty around a lot, but soon you realize that what he mean by liberty is economic liberty. In fact he himself distinguishes between liberals and progressives by saying that the latter are more concerned about equality than liberty. He may be on to an interesting idea here, but he refuses to elaborate on or prove this point satisfactorily, a point more accurately applied to socialism in any case.

In his quite strident defense of economic growth, globalized capitalism and complete freedom of markets, he is actually the mirror image of the equally strident socialists like Chris Hedges and John Bellamy Foster, and Canadian Ian Fergus, who argue for the superiority of socialism as the best way to further human welfare and remedy inequality. It would not be far fetched to suggest the resemblance of Ferris' claims for capitalism to Christian fundamentalists who follow their own articles of faith..

Here are some quotes from Ferris. Note that all of his claims about progress, using criteria such as education, poverty, health, gap between rich and poor, population growth, literacy, paint a rosy picture that is the exact OPPOSITE of all the news and studies coming out of credible studies by the UN and specialized NGOS.

His picture is one that is unrecognizable and unsubstantiated in its totality, based as it is on pro-growth, pro-capitalist, pro-globalization propaganda, selected to shore up his views. No contrary views or data contesting his conclusions are included. NONE. The world he sees is one with few problems except global warming, economic growth and global capitalism having nearly solved all of the world's problems. This is the classic neo-conservative view, not the liberal view, nor the view of most scientists who daily produce data and studies directly rebutting everything Ferris says.

"Except in sub-Saharan Africa...nearly all the world's children are enrolled in primary schools, 70% of those of high school age are enrolled, and one in four goes onto to some form of higher education".

(LS: in the Muslim world, the female half of the population lacks any form of education. In Pakistan, 70% of the population is illiterate. In India and Pakistan, child labor replaces education. Etc, etc.)

"An objective (sic) analysis of the best available data..indicates that while larger inequalities did crop up here and there, global inequality overall ceased growing from 1980 to 2000 and in many respects began to shrink".

(LS: he attributes this, a palpable lie, to the impact of globalization. He goes on to say that the proof of how the less well-off have benefited lies in the fact that "Worldwide, one in every five persons circa 2008 had access to a computer, and more than half had mobile phones". One wonders how these gadgets could be converted to food for the very poor, who I suspect might prefer food to gadgets. It reminds me of a claim Gregg Easterbrook once made that poverty in the undeveloped world could be ended by providing the poor with refrigerators powered by hydroelectric dams.)

"One of the most hopeful, if least appreciated, signs of world progress is growing, for the first time in history, the majority of people live in the main it appears to be the result of free individual choice".

(LS: hardly. The unequal distribution of land and resource wealth plus the consolidation of large agribusiness corporations has forced small peasants off the land and into the huge fetid slums which we see today in Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Karachi, Delhi and Bombay. These people "choose" to relocate there because they have no other source of income; yet all Ferris can say is "Even the most hard-hearted capitalists should like to see their living conditions improved, if only for the self-interested reason that slums are potential breeding grounds for epidemics..".Note that he refers only to improving their living conditions, not providing them with clean, decent housing elsewhere.)

".....research (LS: by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, a favorite of the rabidly libertarian neo-con Cato Institute), indicates that in many developing nations, needless government regulation has driven THE MAJORITY (Ferris' emphasis) of economic activity off the radar screens and tax rolls".

LS: Sound familiar...needless government regulation? How about the refusal of government and the wealthy elite to employ and adequately pay the poor? How about their refusal to invest in projects that benefit their poor citizens instead of just lining the pockets of the rich ?)

" the world becomes more urbanized and its population growth rate slows (sic), it now appears that the human population will stabilize at something under twelve billion by about the middle of this century".

(LS: population growth, far from stabilizing except in a few countries like Italy, France, Japan and Russia, is exploding in Africa, Asia and Latin America, for religious and cultural reasons, notably the Catholic Church and sexist patriarchy and the lack of female reproductive choice. As for the twelve billion number, he is way off the mark, because long before we reach that number - we are about six billion now - there will be major epidemics, droughts, floods, fires, and catastrophic loss of arable lands and fresh water.)

"..the production of consumer goods can be increased indefinitely if individuals are free to invest and to innovate".

(LS: This removes all doubt about the neo-conservative free market doctrine Ferris promotes. Liberty for him has less to do with freedom of thought and inquiry than the freedom to accumulate and invest wealth as one pleases regardless of the social consequences. Read on....)

"The beauty of a free market is that it benefits society as a whole without requiring its participants to act out of any loftier motive than the self-interested pursuit of personal gain".

(LS:This is a paraphrase of something written by Adam Smith. I find it awesome, if that is the right word, that so brutal a display of greed can be displayed so explicitly, without rationalization or apology.)

"It has now become clear that economics has helped bring about the greatest increases in wealth and reductions in poverty in all history....Free markets...are more efficient, and grow economies faster, than do markets that are excessively regulated, controlled or shielded from competition....the growing ascendance of science and liberalism make it increasingly unlikely that the world will be plunged into another Great Depression".

(LS: a cloudy crystal ball here, given the global economic chaos we see around us).

"...there ARE (Ferris' emphasis) no other human rights without the right to possess property..not just land and money but intellectual property."

(LS: Not being content with this assertion, he puts icing on the free market cake and says: "The virtuous circle of science increasing productivity - which generates wealth, which in turn provides the capital required to underwrite further scientific and technological progress - may well extend to actual virtue". And we thought social Darwinism was dead?. Add your own slogan here:Might Makes Right. God invented capitalism. Wealth cannot be diminished except by its owner. Etc, etc.)

"Links between wealth, liberty and virtue had been glimpsed before. Montesquieu..argued that commerce nourishes such virtues as 'economy, moderation, work, wisdom, tranquility, order, and rule'. ...August Comte maintained that 'all human progress, political moral and intellectual, is inseparable from material progression'.

(LS: How cleverly selective Ferris is in choosing historical justification for greed.)

By now you are all probably as enraged as I was after reading this book. Let me remind you that the NY Times book reviewer made no mention of these ideas despite their occupying well over half the whole book! It is entirely possible that he only read the beginning and the end.

The worst part of this is that, by basing his arguments on the quite reasonable and credible belief that science requires the liberty offered by secular democracy, he has thrown huge piles of toxic mud on the whole enterprise of science. The left will have a field day using this book to prove that post-modernist thought and social determinism in scientific theory are valid...which of course they are not, and their discrediting by Ferris is one of the few valuable parts of this book.

If I were part of the scientific community, I would do my utmost to shred this book, figuratively and literally. One wonders about the dedication of the book to H.S.T., who he then praises with a quote from Nietzche. If anyone has any guesses on who this might be, please let me know. It might shed light on the book.

Lorna Salzman

( LS earlier comments on NYT review:

I heartily recommend Gary Rosen's review of "The Science of Liberty", by Timothy Ferris, in the NY Times Book Review, Sunday, Feb. 14th.

There is a straight line from the beginning of scientific inquiry to the freedoms we possess today. Without freedom of inquiry, dissent, critical and objective thinking, the demand for evidence, and the interplay of scientists in their community, there is little doubt that we would not only be living in a secular democracy here and in western Europe but that we would still be ruled by harsh, unbending religious doctrines and structures....precisely those that today characterize the Muslim world and which have made Muslim countries medieval backwaters of oppression, irrationalism and authoritarianism.

Here are some quotes from Rosen's review:

"(Ferris) 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'..

Ferris says...(the American republic) is "a scientific laboratory", designed "not to guide society toward a specified goal, but to sustain the experimental process itself".

Rosen says:"To rely on experiment is to doubt authority, to cultivate self-awareness, to seek the reality behind natural appearances and received opinion".

Rosen then quotes John Dewey: "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".

And quoting 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".

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.