Saturday, May 22, 2010

Science and Democracy

Timothy Ferris is an excellent science writer. If you haven't read his books, check them out. I particularly like Coming of Age in the Milky Way. He usually places science in a larger humanistic context. His new book is The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature and as you can guess from the title, it looks the influence of science in the shaping of the US constitution. This argument, to a certain degree, was also made in the excellent book, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison (yes, the title is really this long) by I. Bernard Cohen. If you get a chance, read Cohen's book.

Back to Ferris' book. Here is a review by Michael Shermer (you may need subscription to access the article) in this week's Nature, and he starts with Richard Feynman (I personally think that every review should start with Feynman):

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.”

This idea of equating the ever-changing error-correcting mechanism of science with governance and laws of society is fascinating. Of course, this is also challenging as we also have to find ways of evaluating the results of experiments - and this is certainly easier in science than in politics. But the idea of an ever-changing or an evolving political structure is certainly very powerful.
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 RenĂ© 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.


emre said...

If they had more mathematicians on board, maybe they would have used fewer axioms.

If one person can take as self-evident that all people are equal, then another can claim that all people are equal except some are slightly more equal, and yet another that equality is clearly bunkum, for a woman, deficient of mind, is obviously worth half of a man.

Salman Hameed said...

Hey - cut them some slack :) . They were after all writing this in the 18th century. You are right about competing axioms - but this is where an evolving political system comes in.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Salman, you have of the titles as "Science and the Funding Fathers [...]." Given all these people are statesmen and in light of what we talked about a few weeks ago, would it be fair to call this a Freudian slip?

Salman Hameed said...


Will check up with Freud... :)