JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members and guests to our breakfast program. Thank you all for joining us.
Today our speaker is the award-winning author Timothy Ferris. This morning Professor Ferris will be discussing his latest work, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature. It is a fascinating chronicle about how science sparked the spread of liberal democracy and transformed today's world.
Our speaker has been called the best science writer of his generation. His primetime PBS award-winning specials on astronomy and the origins of the universe have been watched by millions to enthusiastic reviews. Among his many books and numerous publications is The Whole Shebang, which was listed by American scientists as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century, and Coming of Age in the Milky Way, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and awarded the American Institute of Physics Prize.
These few pieces of information are given to encourage you to take a moment to read his fascinating résumé. When you do, you will note just how multifaceted he is.
During his inaugural address, President Obama proclaimed that he would restore science to its rightful place and harness the sun, the wind, and the soil to wield technology's wonders. In his own way, he was affirming the role that science can play in a democratic country in contributing to the well-being of its citizens. The notion of a democratic government within a scientific framework isn't a new concept, but this relationship will be brought to a fresh light under the guiding hand of our eloquent speaker.
In The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris argues that science was the inspiration behind the rise of liberalism and democracy, and in turn, it was democracy which encouraged science to flourish. As Professor Ferris investigates the co-evolution of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, he makes the connection that science has a direct link to liberal, Jeffersonian-style democracy and that the political freedom brought about by the Enlightenment, which we cherish today, is a direct product of the scientific revolution. He reminds us that many of the thinkers and political leaders of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were not only influenced by science, but were, to some extent, scientists themselves.
Our speaker revels as he reveals how political liberty and scientific advance have reinforced each other, benefiting society as a whole. He also shares his indictments of various liberal ideologies for their incompatibility with scientific theory and their deleterious effect on their people. In the end, he likens democracies such as ours to a scientific laboratory. Why? Because the processes and values, such as freedom of inquiry, sharing of ideas, and the open exchange and toleration of diverse views, are the same.
To further explore this connection between liberalism and science, it is my pleasure to ask you to join me in welcoming a most interesting and unusual guest, whose kaleidoscopic knowledge will explain how science is at the cornerstone of a free society, Timothy Ferris.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Thank you, Joanne. That's the best summary I have ever heard of this book. I suppose the positive way to look at it is that it saves me a lot of time. I don't know whether it leaves me anything to say, is all. But we shall soon see.
I would like to try, in the next half-hour, to go over the main points in the book. The book's thesis is, as Joanne was telling you, that science and liberalism are symbiotic. I suppose I should start by defining terms, so let me do that.
By science, I mean what is sometimes called modern science. It's a good principle that any modifier applied to science is a mistake. There's no such thing as Eastern or Western science. The modifiers are always a mistake. But just to clarify, when I talk about science, I mean science as we know it: A social activity involving lots of professional scientists, with universities, laboratories, refereed journals, international meetings—all that stuff. I don't know why, nor do I try to speculate in the book, science appeared when and where it did. My guess is that if you are a tool-making species and you keep improving the quality of your tools, at a certain point science will arise anyway. It's not important for my argument.
I do think it's a little misleading sometimes to try to call it science every time some lonely scholar answered something right 600 years ago. The real scientific enterprise begins in the last 400 years.
It has a method—although a great many academics have devoted an awful lot of effort to try proving otherwise—in which there is a kind of feedback loop. You have an idea. It is tested through experiment. That is the big new idea with science. Prior to science, the only way to test the validity of an idea, as Aristotle pointed out, was either to look for any defects in its internal logic or to compare it to other competing ideas. To compare it to the real world, you just had to look at kind of ordinary experience, and that's a very coarse measure.
So the essence of science was to conduct experiments. That's why tool making was so important, because until you get to a certain point, you can't do experiments accurately enough to get reasonably sharp-edged results.
Galileo, whose telescopic observation around 1609 could be as good a place as any to start the clock on science, was a great frequenter of the Arsenal of Venice, because there were so many different kinds of tools there. The stuff he used for his experiments with pendulums and rolling balls down inclines and so forth to investigate the laws of gravity benefited from the technological state of, particularly, Venetian sea power at the time that he was a professor up the river at Padua.
So science creates a kind of feedback loop in which you have an idea, you test it experimentally, and then if it passes the test, you may say that conditionally the idea seems to be okay. All scientific knowledge is conditional. You may modify the idea or you might have to discard it altogether. That loop is how science works.
I'll give you a quick example. One of the great things about science is that it has given us some examples that can apply to other fields of just what a good, rigorous hypothesis looks like in action. Paul Dirac, in 1928, determined an equation that accurately predicted, and still to this day accurately predicts, every aspect of the behavior of the electron. This equation, however, also predicted that there was an antielectron, what we today would call the first particle of antimatter. You couldn't get it out of the equation. Dirac was embarrassed by it. He tried to minimize it as much as he could in his publications, because he didn't know what it was doing there and he couldn't get rid of it.
Carl Anderson, in 1932, just four years later, without knowing about the Dirac equation, independently discovered antimatter in the course of his science experiments. That affirmed the Dirac equation.
That level of proof and that kind of cycle is what has really established science as such an important way of learning about the world—I would say, really, the most effective way of learning about the world. But that's really another subject.
So that's what I mean by science.
By liberalism, I mean the old-style, classical, original liberalism, a distinct political philosophy that holds that all humans have inalienable rights (as encoded in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the American Bill of Rights of 1789), that these rights are equal under law (they don't belong to just one category of citizens), and that it's desirable to try to limit the power of organizations that might threaten or do threaten to abridge those rights, including big government.
We have had a problem in political discourse in this country for decades—really, as long as I have been alive—about where you put actual liberalism on the political spectrum. The reason is that we insist on using a one-dimensional political spectrum. Nobody in science would do this for more than a couple of hours before they would invoke another dimension, because this happens all the time. You often see problems in science that look squashed up and you just try changing the number of dimensions until you find a phase space where it makes sense.
I encourage doing this in politics as well, and various people have tried this. If you just make, say, a diamond or a square or something and you put the right at one side, what we can call conservative, and the so-called left, or progressive, at another corner, you put liberalism at a third corner because it is an independent philosophy. You can be a conservative and be a liberal or you can be a progressive and be a liberal or you cannot be a liberal at all, as many people aren't. Then opposite liberalism I would put something like totalitarianism, something that minimizes human freedom. In that phase space, you will find that political dynamics make a whole lot more sense than if they are crushed down to a single dimension.
Now, liberalism in action has some similarities to science, or so I maintain in the book, in that liberal organizations, such as liberal democracy, which is just a democracy that guarantees human rights—one way to think of a liberal democracy is that a majority can vote pretty much anything as long as it doesn't infringe on individual rights—in a liberal democracy you are constantly conducting experiments. Every time you elect a person to office, every time the legislature passes a bill, that represents a kind of experiment.
We don't talk so much that way today, but the Founding Fathers did all the time. Thomas Jefferson and Franklin and others described the new republic as an experiment. Jefferson's second inaugural repeatedly mentions this, and one of the experiments he mentions, which is important to keep in mind these days, when so many people are dismayed at the state of our news media—Jefferson correctly points out that during his first term of office, he was attacked as viciously in the press as anyone in all of known history. "And yet," he says, "here we are. The republic still stands and I even got reelected." So the experiment is kind of working.
That's the spirit of liberalism. The one thing is, though, that in science you have the idea, you have the experiment, and then you modify or reject the hypothesis. A problem we have often in many of our democracies is that you have the idea all right, you pass the law all right, but the evaluation process isn't always so good, so we end up clogged up with a lot of programs that maybe aren't working so well, but they are hard to get rid of because they have constituencies and they put money in people's pockets. I don't mean anything nefarious about that. But if we recognize the scientific nature of liberal democracies, we ought to try to keep doing a better job of evaluating the results rather than just taking the first two steps.
Both science and liberalism have in common that they are antiauthoritarian in character. That was the origins of liberalism. They were highly antiauthoritarian. They are self-correcting systems. They are powerful, they are social, and they require maximizing intellectual resources. So they both are friends of education. John Locke wrote quite a lot about education because he realized that if you are going to expect ordinary people who had been systematically libeled by intellectuals for all of Western history—if you are going to actually entrust power to those folks, you have to have a decent system of public education.
In my book I argue that science incited the Enlightenment, out of which came the democratic revolution. We haven't time this morning to go through the details of those. I will mention one interesting observation, although it's sort of ancillary.
When Galileo did his observations in 1608 to 1609 and published his first book about what he saw through the telescope, which disproved the authoritative cosmology invented way back by Aristotle and Eudoxus, enshrined, with the saddest of religious authority, by the Roman Catholic church, his book sold like wildfire across Europe. But there was also a desire to get the information even faster and more popularly than you could from books. The way that happened was through newspapers. Newspapers were just being invented at that point. It's very interesting. The origin of newspapers had a lot to do with telling scientific stories, because it was real news; it was brand-new. So you find newspapers springing up in Germany in 1609 and 1610 to report scientific discoveries.
The reason I mention this odd little fact is that coffee was also becoming popular in Europe. It came in from Turkey at this same time. When you put together a place where you could go in the morning and read newspapers and drink coffee, the result invariably was seditious. Every ruler, from Egypt to England, tried at one point or another to close down the coffeehouses because this combination was so incendiary. Fortunately, they failed, and the result was the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment is customarily dated from 1688, the Glorious Revolution in England. I would suggest starting the clock one year earlier, with the publication in 1687 by Isaac Newton of the Principia. What science generally and Newton in particular did was put teeth in reason. The Enlightenment wasn't just about reason. Reason had been around for a long time. Sure, reason against superstition—it was an old fight. What science did was come to the aid of reason by showing that you could make predictions that could then be proven true or false and that you could invent new things that could make life better. The human imagination is not good at imagining those inventions. Francis Bacon, who was so sharp that a lot of people think he was Shakespeare, tried mightily to imagine what the future would be like once scientific technology got going. He wasn't very good at it. You can't think ahead that way. But you can build and get the results.
In my book I talk about Locke's friendship with Newton and how Newton was a more political figure than people think. But let me skip ahead to say a bit about the attainments of this alliance of science and liberalism, or science and liberal democracy.
In the book I tried to look at them in terms of three categories, which I believe people pretty much universally can agree have to do with human benefit. Those are health, wealth, and happiness.
In terms of health, human life expectancy at birth in 1800 was age 30. A baby born in 1800 had a 50/50 chance of living to see its 31st birthday. In 2010, life expectancy worldwide, for all of humanity, is 67. The life expectancy has more than doubled in a period of just two centuries.
During those similar periods, world food production has gone up. In 1900, the amount of land that it took a year's labor to feed one person now feeds ten persons in 1.5 days of labor. That's primarily due to the application of science to agriculture. World food production just since 1961 is up more than 50 percent per person, despite the growing population worldwide.
Wealth is a similar picture. World per-capita GDP in 1800 was around $700 a year. That's for everybody. Growth rate was less than 1 percent. In 2008, the world per-capita GDP was $6,640. It's now, despite the recession, about $7,000 a person. The growth rate prior to the recession was about 3 percent. Of course, at the moment it is taking a hit.
Those are real numbers. There was a fashion a few years back to try to scotch this sort of reporting by saying it was some kind of mathematical trick. The phrase that used to be used was, "Well, you know, if I'm in a coffee shop and Bill Gates walks in, suddenly everybody in the coffee shop is a millionaire." That doesn't work. You can run the numbers yourself in a half-hour on the back of an envelope and you will find that this is not a case of just a few people getting rich. All of humanity, all five quintiles, as the economists put it, are doing substantially better than ever before. Never in all of history have so many people been lifted out of hunger and poverty than has happened since the dawn of science and liberal democracy.
That's just a fact. How we interpret it is something else. But there are no empirical grounds for questioning the facts.
In terms of happiness, it's harder to measure. One thing I did was just look at literacy, because surely it's hard to have a happy, fulfilling life if you can't read or write. In 1970, about 63 percent of all adults in the world were literate, which was already quite an achievement over the past. But from 1970 to 1985, that grew 10 percent, from 63 to 73 percent. Today over 80 percent of all humankind, all human adults, can read and write. That's an astonishing accomplishment. And if you look at other indicators of education, they have gone up as well.
There is also a thing called the United Nations Subjective Well-Being Index, which attempts to measure happiness. I'm sure it's flawed, but it's an attempt. It uses a lot of variables. It's about an 18-dimensional phase space. They find a lot of interesting things, one of which is that people in socialistic countries are happier than people in less socialistic countries, just to mention that interesting fact. They also find an interesting thing—I'm not arguing how people ought to live here; I just found it curious—that people get happier if they make more money up to about $15,000 a year and then it levels out. If you make ten times that amount, you don't get any happier, which is sort of what people always said. It shows up in this thing.
One of the great achievements of this revolution has been liberal democracy itself. In the year 1800, there were, generously speaking, maybe three liberal democracies in the world, and that's if you ignore suffrage, because women didn't have the vote yet at that point; in 1850, about five; 1900, about 13, although still no universal suffrage. Small numbers. In 1950, 22 liberal democracies worldwide; this year, 89. Forty-six percent of all humans live now in liberal democracies. And they don't want to go back. The preference of the rest of the world is also for a liberal democracy, and that's a fact. It's interesting to look at the world in terms of where we have come.
Among the other accomplishments of this was the abolition of slavery. I won't go into detail about this, but it's quite intriguing. The Society for the Abolition of the British Slave Trade was founded in London in 1787. Within a century, the African slave trade was over with. You have to remember, this hideous institution, although we Americans naturally think of it in terms of our own historical sins, is as old as human history. It was as old as human history. It was eliminated in a century, through a single philosophy, and that's liberalism, with the help of science. Science pointed out—discovered, established, made it clear—that there was no scientific basis for one kind of people to be treated any differently than other kinds of people.
Women's rights I'll just mention very quickly. Women constitute the majority of American university students, and someday this year will become a majority of the American workforce, another unprecedented step, although—of course, you get lags in these things—only 2 percent of [CEOs of?] big American companies and 5 percent of those in England are women as yet.
There are some things that, when I was a kid, were just kind of dreamt of, that have happened. This is one. I know the science-fiction writers of the 1950s would have loved this fact. Half of the electricity currently being generated by U.S. nuclear plants comes from decommissioned Soviet warheads. Back when we had 12,000 nukes aimed at us—and you had about 300 of them aimed just at this city—it would have seemed awfully optimistic if you had predicted to your friends that in the 21st century we would be burning that stuff for nuclear power here in the U.S. But that's, in fact, what is happening—half of it, 15,000 decommissioned warheads.
There are, of course, a number of challenges to science and liberalism. Three I'll quickly mention are population growth, which is a challenge to all stable political systems, ecological stress, such as global warming, and the popularity of dogma.
There is some stuff in my book about Carnegie, too, who I find a fascinating figure in American history. You can tell a lot about a person by whether they have taken the trouble to actually understand who Carnegie was and what he did.
Population growth is very worrisome. When you get a biological population curve that rattles along very low, like humans did for a long time, and then it suddenly starts to take off, as the human curve did, it's going to do one of two things. It's either going to be what they call an S curve, which means it's going to stabilize up here for some period, or it's going to be U-curve and it's just going to crash right back down. Biology is full of U-curves. You will get a species that proliferates, eats all the available food, and the population collapses again.
So the big question for a generation or two now has been which the human curve is. We are starting to get some answers to that. Fortunately, so far, what it looks like is an S-curve. That is, there is nothing inherent in population growth that's going to make it come crashing back down. The growth rate is rolling over and stabilizing. The reason it's stabilizing is that people are moving to cities. This year, for the first time—I think the turn was a couple of years ago—for the first time in history, the majority of the world's people live in cities. They move to cities for the same reason people always have. Once it's possible to get off the farms, they do. I know that Jean Jacques Rousseau and other villains thought that it was wonderful to live on farms. He never lived on a farm. Virgil thought it was wonderful. He never did a day's farm work in his life. As soon as kids get a chance, they don't have to stay, and if they get a chance to get to cities, they do.
When they go to cities, they're poor, they're unwelcome, and they surround the cities with slums. This happened to London for more than 100 years. It has happened every time a country reaches the point that it is past sustenance farming and kids are free. They come to cities. They are treated horribly. All those photos we have all seen of the gleaming skyscraper rising above the hideous slum that are often used to indict free-market capitalism, which is part of liberalism—you can't have one part and not the other. If you're free, you're free.
What is really happening there is a dynamic that we have seen happen many times before. Cities aren't very good at ingesting these massive populations. The hideous conditions that incensed Karl Marx in places like Manchester were the result of huge sudden population infusions that the cities had trouble handling.
So we have a challenge around the world as to how these folks are going to be incorporated into cities. But they have to be. They have talent. They have energy. They are the future of those cities. And that ends population growth. Poor people on farms, which is where most of the poverty is, have large families because they need the help. Poor people in cities have small families because they don't have a lot of space. It's a universal human truth, and it's the solution, fortunately, to the population. The urbanization—I actually have the date here. The urbanization crossed about 2009, so last year.
I have one minute left, so I'm going to skip quickly through here.
I had a few words about global warming. I'll just say that the science of global warming is simple. It is not complex. We needn't be misled on that. Research on global warming goes back more than two centuries. This is not rocket science, folks. At its base, it's a very simple air-pollution problem. I think the debate has gotten hideously complicated and partisan. There is a kind of perfectionism, which is the enemy of both science and liberalism. This mentality that unless you have a model that perfectly models everything in the entire earth's atmosphere, you are not permitted to say anything about the ecosystem—we have seen that mindset before. It has never been right about anything, and it's not right about global warming.
Fortunately, we have lots of resources. The world annual expenditure on energy is approaching $7 trillion. You don't have to divert much of $7 trillion to start to have a lot of power to deal with housekeeping issues like global warming. The U.S. spends half a trillion dollars annually just on imported oil. Globally, we need about 15 terawatts a year annually, and 87 percent of that comes from fossil fuels. There's plenty of room for improvement.
Finally, just a word about dogma. The ongoing opposition to science and liberalism is dogmatic in nature. It includes political and religious absolutism, such as Islamist terrorism and the radical cynicism we see in places like postmodernism. I was interested to see that the first people to attack this book were postmodernists. You can read them on Amazon, where two postmodernists essayed against this book with great vigor, without either of them ever having laid eyes on it. The postmodernists are very good at telling you why you don't need to read books. That's why they are so popular on college campuses.
Dogma always ends up bifurcating the world into a faithful "us" and a rather more suspicious "other." Science unifies the world. It didn't have to unify the world. It didn't set out to do so. Science would still work if the world were divided up into lots of little universes that had different natural laws. But it turns out that it's not that way. It's one planet. All life on this planet is related. All humans are the same kin. It's one universe. That unifying message I think is a very healthy one, but it's not synthetic. It comes out of observing the world around us.
We have a lot of opportunities to do some good stuff in the future here, if we just keep our eyes on the empirical facts.
Thank you all for listening.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Tim, I suspect the bifurcation you disagree with is how we separate higher education into humanities and science. But if I could just ask you to accept it just for one moment, I want to ask you a question based on that, which is the alarm that a number of writers, columnists—I have in mind in particular Tom Friedman—even the White House are expressing about what they see as our falling-behind in the teaching of science in universities. I know you are a professor. You have been a professor across a number of disciplines, on both sides of that argument.
Do you share that alarm, that the Chinese and the Indians are training scientists and believing in science in a way that we are not, in a sort of competitive spirit?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: I think maybe I don't. I'm a big fan of China. I love China. I love the Chinese people. I love Chinese history. I wish nothing but the best. That's one of the great things that has happened in the world, that China has played a role in this tremendous antipoverty movement that we have had in the world in the last generation or two, really. It's an absolutely wonderful transformation. But I don't think China is even going to be a player scientifically until they are a free people.
So I make this unhappy prediction, based on this thesis: If China is a major scientific power in ten years and it's still a communist country, then my thesis of my book will have been proved wrong.
I'm afraid that's not going to happen. The numbers that get cited—and India is another question. India is doing quite well. America does have a concern about its scientific education. But those numbers tend to look more alarming than they really are. What it takes to get an engineering degree in China, and therefore show up in such a statistic, is quite different than what we regard as an engineer here. I hope that won't always be the case.
But Americans have been wringing their hands about this for a long time. When Sputnik went up, it was widely cited—and there are some quotes in my book about this—as an example of how a hard-driving totalitarian state that doesn't mess around with human rights and doesn't have to fiddle around with all these journalists objecting to everything can set its priorities, was the way it was always put, and can execute those priorities, and that's why they have gotten into orbit before we have.
That was all false. There has never been a totalitarian state that was more efficient than a democracy. That's just a myth.
And by the way, somebody finally went back and got the old Italian train records, and the trains did not run any better under Mussolini than they did the rest of the time.
QUESTION: Peter Padfield has a book, I think the title is something like Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind. His thesis is that democracy mostly comes out of commercial enterprise and naval and maritime supremacy. For the land-based powers, like France, success was territorial enlargement and the creation of vassal states and plunder from them.
It's interesting that you go back to Venice and the Arsenal. He traces, from Venice to the Netherlands to England to the U.S., that for countries that were primarily maritime in their organization, success was success in commerce. What commercial people wanted were very stable, very predictable governments and a fair degree of financial transparency, and the way to get stable and predictable governments was that you didn't want a strong central power. That's great for a country like France and for territorial ambition, but for commerce, you want a very much fettered government that can't make dramatic policy changes, and the best way to fetter your government is democracy. Democracy, therefore, came from the combination of commercial drive and naval supremacy.
How much complementarity do you see between that argument and your thesis?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: It's interesting. I haven't considered that argument, although there is some discussion of that in my discussion of imperialism, which in some political philosophies seems to have replaced original sin in the Bible as our narrative. We somehow can never escape this horror.
The British backed into their empire through trade. They would set up trade. Then they would get piracy, so they would invoke military force to protect the trade. Then they would have these shore depots to protect the harbor, and then the shore depots would get attacked. You get this incentive to inflate the danger of the attack. Who knows how many of these rebels are in the jungle? So then you go in and start punishing rebels and you piss off a lot of people. It's an interesting history in itself.
But as far as this thesis goes, one flaw that occurs to me is that the trading companies, like the Dutch trading company, these early trading companies that established footholds in India and elsewhere, were government-sanctioned monopolies and they invoked more and more government official protection. They were essentially asking to be insured by their governments. Maybe they wanted limited government in some other ways, but they basically went to governments asking to be taken over, and were. That step is what dragged those governments, many of them, increasingly into colonialism and world domination, rather than the other way around, which is interesting. The notion that, "Gee, we've got a little money now. Let's conquer the world"—that doesn't really seem to have happened so much.
QUESTION: The book and also today got me thinking a little bit about Fareed Zakaria and the notion of illiberal democracy. I wonder, thinking about Iraq in particular, as circumstances develop there—or don't develop—how often you think a situation might arise in which democracy wasn't worth it, if you will. If that's, in fact, how you think about Iraq, when are the costs of trying to build a democracy too high, if that's ever the case?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Was the cost of building a democracy in Iraq too high? I don't know. If Iraq turned out to be a stable democracy in ten years, would we feel that it was worth the cost? I suppose it would depend. There's no question but that it's a gamble. The technical term for Iraq is that it's an "adventure." Technically, it's a military adventure.
This is an unpopular position, particularly for a registered Democrat, Obama-supporting guy, but I really continue to feel the jury is out on Iraq. I just don't know. It's a gamble, where you can't really tell the answer for ten or 20 years.
I always felt that the incursion of Vietnam was clearly wrong from day one. It was transparently wrong. Anybody who understood the situation would think it was wrong. I gave my first speech against Vietnam in 1962. But Iraq, I'm just not so sure.
QUESTION: Would you please consider a kind of antimatter situation? In the Islamic world science flourished 1,000 years ago, but since then science has not had a very strong advocacy group behind it. We see lots of problems with the Taliban and Islamist extremism and so forth. Please explain this in terms of possibilities of encouraging more science and more liberalism in these worlds.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: The Arab world has parallels in this regard, in that it's highly undemocratic and it's highly unscientific. It is the most scientifically unproductive bloc of its size in the world and the least democratic, despite having more resources than many folks do.
The great era of Arab science is often cited, and I think it's misleading. Its purpose seems to be to reassure us that there is nothing wrong with the Arab people. But obviously there isn't anything wrong with the Arab people. It's not necessary to make that argument.
What you had in Arab history was court science, the same thing you had in China and in India. You would have some courts that were sufficiently opulent that they supported a lot of scholars. Some of those scholars did what looks like science. They would keep track of movements in the stars in order to chart horoscopes, they did some chemistry which was related to medicine, and they did some mathematics. Arab mathematics was and is a beautiful thing. The word "algebra" is an Arab word. The names of many stars are Arab. So it's easy to get that impression.
That's why I think it's important to define science clearly as a social institution. There were no scientific conferences of any frequency. There were no scientific journals. There was no referee system. There was no system to train scientists. What we call science never existed until just recently in history. I think it's clearer, really, to understand it that way than to go back and—the Ancient Greeks had a little bit of democracy and a little bit of science. That's intriguing, but it would be a mistake, I think, to look at the Muslim world as having fallen from some state of grace. It was never scientific; it was never democratic. It doesn't mean it can't be in the future.
QUESTION: I would like to come back to this question of liberal democracy and ask what definition you are using. I ask because so many of the books and groups that qualify democracies use electoral democracy as the basis, but there is much more that is involved, particularly checks and balances on power. If you look at democracies in Latin America, you often find things like executive decrees, which presidents will use for years. While they are elected president, they are at full power.
So I'm wondering what definition you are using as a liberal democracy.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: The definition behind the number that 46 percent of the world now live in liberal democracy is simply a state in which people get to elect their leaders and in which human rights are protected. So I use that shorthand form: People get to vote whatever they want, except to abridge human rights. You cannot in a liberal democracy do, for instance, what we just did in California, which was to have a referendum in which we tried to deprive gay couples of their rights. That's not legal, and we'll fix that.
QUESTION: I'll give you my question first and then I have a couple of comments.
You talked about no qualifier for science and then you talked about population going up in an S curve or a U-curve, or something like that. My question is, when you look at history, what is the likelihood, as you see it, that liberal democracy and science is going to be on an S-curve rather than a U curve? Less than 100 years ago, a few years before I was born, a local politician in my native country talked about "a new Dark Age" that would be made "more protracted by the lights of perverted science." I'm just curious.
TIMOTHY FERRIS: I don't know how to calculate those odds. There's always the potential for disaster. But because there is so much cynicism in this country and because organized cynicism is taught, particularly in our schools of education, whose students then become teachers who pass it on, I always try to remind those folks that cynicism, which is simply assuming the worst of everything, is a no more reliable guide than any other unearned form of pseudo-scholarship. To just assume the worst of everybody doesn't give you any better predictions than if you assume the best of everybody. They are both kind of useless methods. The question is, empirically, what can you find?
There are a lot of methods of trying to predict the future today that are more hazardous than they seem. In environmentalism, we have the concept of sustainability. It has a lot of people upset. But it's very difficult to ascertain what you really mean by sustainability. We have some issues that confront us right now, but for someone of my age—I grew up in a time when the world could end in 15 minutes. That went on for decades. The fact that we got through it doesn't mean we will get through the next crisis.
So I can't answer your question. I don't know which way it will go. But I would just say that I think we are on a much better path, because these liberal democracies are much more stable forms of government, than we were when the whole world was ruled by strong individuals who had a penchant for going to war with one another, for good economic reasons, and who kept moving their countries on rather capricious paths.
QUESTION: Are human rights fixed or are they evolutionary? Was there a concept of the right of gay marriage, for example, decades ago? Are they fixed or are they evolutionary?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: To my mind, they are fixed. Evolution is an amazing concept. The more you absorb evolution, the more—I think it is the greatest discovery, in terms of just how you think about the world, in the whole history of science. I think it has just barely begun to penetrate our thought process, how the world actually got to be the way it is. It's an astonishing change. There are people who have worked their whole lives in evolution who will say the same thing, that we are just now beginning to get it.
So to use it as a metaphor, just to say, "Oh, well things change, and so they're evolving"—I wouldn't want to do that. I'm sure you wouldn't either.
The reason I mention gay couples is that the government got in the business in this country—all governments at all levels in this country—of promoting heterosexual marriage. They created a situation in which there are real economic benefits to being married, like my wife Carolyn and I have been for 25 years. We have reaped a lot of economic benefits from being married. The state of California is one of the places that gives us those benefits. Yet it denies those benefits if you don't happen to be heterosexual. That turned it into a civil rights issue. If the government stayed out of it altogether, I'm not sure it would be a civil rights issue, because there wouldn't be any government involvement. But once you say, "It's better to be married. We are going to give you these tax breaks. We're going to allow your spouse to get insurance," and so forth, you can't then deny it to someone else because they have a different sexuality.
So that's why I mentioned that example.
QUESTION: I'm very concerned about scientific development and its control by corporations. As an example, we have the development of genetically engineered seed corn by Monsanto. They provide—or force—90 percent of the seed corn in America. That means that if you are an independent farmer, you will not be able to have corn that doesn't come from Monsanto. This is highly anti-liberal and is, in a way, a kind of corporate dictatorship. How do we control that kind of development with science in corporations?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: It's a good question. I don't know the answer. I know a lot of people are concerned about this. I feel a little sympathy, because in the early days of these GM plants, people were agitating about not releasing into the environment modified organisms that could reproduce. So I think it was Monsanto that then developed a line that couldn't reproduce. You had to go back each year and buy the seeds. And people were even more alarmed about that. It has to be one or the other.
But it is a concern. You are right that there are dangers of getting narrowly based genetically, whether it's a corporation or whatever else does it. I don't have an easy answer for that.
QUESTION: Your description of the scientific enterprise seems to exclude that classic thinker in the attic with a pencil and paper, which is how I thought of science way back in the beginning. The enterprise as you describe it seems to be expensive. Is science going to be dominated by the wealthy powers in the future or is there still some hope for individuals?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: Individuals have not done very well. It's a little bit like if you train for the Olympics entirely on your own. Even if you are, let's say, a skater in a solo event, imagine how much harder it would be if you skated for four years without seeing any other skaters or learning from them or seeing how you were doing. In science it's like that in spades. If you go to scientific conferences, they are insanely social. People are talking over breakfast, the way we are, and then all through the sessions. At 11:00 at night in the lobby of the hotel, they are just buzzing around. It's like bees.
The reason is that you can't compete very long in, say, theoretical physics unless you do that. So the future for the solitary person in science is a long-odds proposition.
So, yes, science does tend to be restricted to wealthy powers. That's one of the reasons you want to get wealthy. The way to get wealthier and to reduce the discrimination—the Gini ratio, the difference between the richest and the poorest people—is to have a liberal democratic government and free markets. Those countries are not only wealthier, they are less economically vertical.
We tend to forget that in the United States, because we're going through a period right now where—the United States hasn't been this economically vertical since the 1880s. But the rest of the world isn't like that. The world is not getting wildly—you read all these claims—"9/11 was due to the growing economic inequality worldwide." The economic inequality is not growing worldwide. It's probably shrinking. What is happening is that a whole lot of people are doing better than they were a half-century ago.
QUESTION: Does religion still inhibit scientific development?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: That's an excellent question. I wish I knew the answer. We have these school-board battles in the United States about evolution. I don't know to what degree they inhibit education or to what degree they just create headlines that make kids more interested. In a way, if you just outlawed the teaching of evolution, you would produce a generation that knew more about it than they would be teaching it. If they had to go in the back of the store behind a curtain and glance at Darwin, it would probably be better.
I just don't know. At one point I went to some rural public schools in Florida. Some of them were good and some of them were really bad. One of the really bad ones was run by religious fundamentalists. They would teach us religious dogma, which was illegal under the state law. They did it anyway. I guess it didn't suppress my interest in the science. It just made me feel as if the whole world was crazy.
So I don't know the answer. The United States is an unusually religious country. It's also a world leader in science. I don't have an answer.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier that the world has never been better fed. That being the case, since more people are leaving the farms, how do we get better fed? What is causing this?
TIMOTHY FERRIS: How come we are all better fed, with fewer and fewer people on the farms? Because of the much greater productivity of farms. There are some concerns about that—the shrinking of the genetic base. You mentioned corn. Corn is an artificial drop from the get-go. Corn was not originally an edible crop. But it has gotten to be rather narrow on a genetic basis.
This all started with experimental farming, when the idea of experiment came into farming, the notion that you could try some different methods. To this day, out in California we still have a lot of granges, and I know they have in upstate New York. If you go to the grange, that's a real piece of history. That's where the knowledge was shared and the successful experiments could be propagated and people could do better.
A lot of things have contributed to it. I don't mean to imply that there is any guarantee in this, where everything is going to be hunky-dory for all the future. I know there are concerns about it. But it is a fact that we can feed everybody in the world today. The fact that people go hungry is a result of bad government, famine, bad roads, some other things. It's not at all inherent in the system. We can feed everybody in the world today, and we can feed everybody in the world that is ever going to be, as long as we don't screw this up.
Thanks so much.