In a 1963 lecture, Nobel-prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman opined on the nature of politics, arguing that the US governmental system “is new, it's modern, and it is scientific”. Feynman reasoned that the way in which the system had been designed from scratch in the eighteenth century made it flexible enough to evolve as ideas were “developed and tried out and thrown away”. The writers of the Constitution, he noted, knew of the value of doubt.
Most science historians attribute the rise and success of the scientific enterprise to the Enlightenment values of reason, empiricism and anti-authoritarianism. Ferris reverses the causal vector. Most of the founding fathers were serious amateur scientists who deliberately adopted methods of data gathering, hypothesis testing and theory formation. Thomas Paine, for example, was an amateur astronomer who speculated that every star is a sun like our own, with orbiting planets. Assuming that science is universal, he believed that inhabitants of other worlds would discover the same natural and social laws as ours. “All the great laws of society are laws of nature,” Paine wrote in his 1791 treatise The Rights of Man.
These laws are discovered through experiment. Paine protested against ridiculing unsuccessful experiments because through trial and error comes progress. Moreover, political elections are scientific experiments. “I smile to myself when I contemplate the ridiculous insignificance into which literature and all the sciences would sink, were they made hereditary,” Paine growled, “and I carry the same idea into governments.”
The 1776 US Declaration of Independence, Ferris says, is steeped in the language of science. Its opening reference to “the laws of nature and of nature's God” echoes René Descartes' and Isaac Newton's laws of motion and nature. The assertion that there are “self-evident” certain truths — among them that all men are created equal — was added to Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the declaration by Benjamin Franklin. Both men were schooled in the axioms of Euclid's geometry, an axiom being a statement that is self-evidently true.