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Freedom’s Laboratory

February 16, 2010

Gary Rosen in The New York Times:

To say that the scientific frame of mind has played an important part in the rise of the West is not exactly controversial. Science always gets its moment in the spotlight in “Whig history,” as historians (dismissively) call grand narratives of political and material progress. In “The Science of Liberty,” the veteran science writer Timothy Ferris makes a more extravagant claim, assigning not a mere supporting role but top billing to the celebrated experimenters and inventors of the past several centuries. As he sees it, the standard account of the history textbooks — with the Renaissance giving rise to the Scientific Revolution and thus preparing the way for the Enlightenment — fails to identify the primary causal relationship. Democratic governance and individual rights did not emerge from some amorphous “brew of humanistic and scientific thinking,” he argues, but were “sparked” by science itself — the crucial “innovative ingredient” that “continues to foster political freedom today.”

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. [More]

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