The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Democracy’s Laboratory

published September 2010
Mixing science and politics is tricky but necessary for a functioning polity
magazine cover

DO YOU BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION? I do. But when I say “I believe in evolution,” I mean something rather different than when I say “I believe in liberal democracy.” Evolutionary theory is a science. Liberal democracy is a political philosophy that most of us think has little to do with science.

That science and politics are nonoverlapping magisteria (vide Stephen Jay Gould’s model separating science and religion) was long my position until I read Timothy Ferris’s new book The Science of Liberty (HarperCollins, 2010). Ferris, the best-selling author of such science classics as Coming of Age in the Milky Way and The Whole Shebang, has bravely ventured across the magisterial divide to argue that the scienti!c values of reason, empiricism and antiauthoritarianism are not the product of liberal democracy but the producers of it.

Democratic elections are scienti!c experiments: every couple of years you carefully alter the variables with an election and observe the results. If you want different results, change the variables. “The founders often spoke of the new nation as an ‘experiment,’” Ferris writes. “Procedurally, it involved deliberations about how to facilitate both liberty and order, matters about which the individual states experimented considerably during the eleven years between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.”

Many of the founding fathers were scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing and theory formation to their nation building. Their understanding of the provisional nature of experimental !ndings led them naturally to form a social system wherein doubt and disputation were the centerpieces of a functional polity. “The new government, like a scienti!c laboratory, was designed to accommodate an ongoing series of experiments, extending inde!nitely into the future,” Ferris explains. “Nobody could anticipate what the results might be, so the government was structured, not to guide society toward a speci!ed goal, but to sustain the experimental process itself.”

For example, the political belief of John Locke that people should be treated equally under the law — which factored heavily in the construction of the U.S. Constitution — was an untested theory in the 17th century. In fact, Ferris told me in an interview, “few thinkers prior to the advent of the American liberal-democratic experiment thought democracy could work in any but the most limited forms” and that most political theorists believed that “the common people are too stupid and ignorant to be trusted electing their leaders.” And yet, Ferris continued, “liberal democracy did succeed and is today the stated preference of the majority of the world’s peoples, including both those who live in democratic nations and those who don’t.” What would constitute a failed experiment in the political laboratory? “If it ceased to exist in the nation under examination and was replaced by something else. Such was widely predicted to be the fate of the liberal democracies, but the verdict of experiment was otherwise: liberal democracy turned out to be the most stable and long-lasting form of government ever instituted.”

But, I protest, aren’t all political claims types of beliefs? No, Ferris responded: “Liberalism and science are methods, not ideologies. Both incorporate feedback loops through which actions (e.g., laws) can be evaluated to see whether they continue to meet with general approval. Neither science nor liberalism makes any doctrinaire claims beyond the ef!cacy of its respective methods — that is, that science obtains knowledge and that liberalism produces social orders generally acceptable to free peoples.”

The myth of the scienti!c method as a series of neat and tidy steps from hypothesis and prediction to experiment and conclusion is busted once you go into a lab and observe the more haphazard and messy realities of how researchers feel their way toward discovery. So it is with liberal democracies, which almost never work out as planned but somehow progress ever closer to !nding the right balance between individual liberty and social order. The constitutions of nations are grounded in the constitution of humanity, which science is best equipped to understand.

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12 Comments to “Democracy’s Laboratory”

  1. Jaderson Lima Says:

    Nice article, nice view!
    However, I am wondering if one can randomize this kind of experiment and how one could deal with flaws in precision and accuracy of any kind of measurement we migh do with it? For sure, with scientific methods, including logic knowledge, and less religion, we could “produce” a world with less injustice and prejudice, one following the other. By coping with the main bolds of science, i.e., rationality, objectivety, truth and realism, we might get better as a society. Guess one could not read this as another utopy, say, doing science with politics. Moreover, I expect this not turning out to be another myth, say, a rational world.

  2. Rhinanthus Says:

    This was an interesting article but requires some precision. “Liberal democracy” is not a method based on the logic of science. Parlimentary democracy (UK, Canada, Australia etc) evolved – they were not systematically designed. The US example is closer to a method since its design was explicitly meant to do as the author states. That the two have mostly converged is a fact that requires explanation.

  3. Gaston Gravel Says:

    The results are the key to experiments
    What is more rewarding?
    Is it the best “economy” $$$
    or the best “Happiness

  4. Gaston Gravel Says:

    What is the best results are we looking for

    The most $$$ or the most Happiness

  5. Leilani Allen Says:

    Ferris’ thesis appears to be quite solid.
    The differences between the US and, for instance GB and Australia, is that they could not fully implement the democratic experiment until the monarch became merely a figurehead.
    Most 20th century democracies explicitly used the US Constitution as a guide, which is why you see such similarity in formal institutions worldwide. However, their mixed record of success is due to cultural (usually tribal) norms that did not accept the concept of individual power and responsibility.

  6. Steve Engard Says:

    I found this article very interesting. I have only one complaint, and that is regard to the number of typos that were allowed to be published.

  7. Steve Engard Says:

    My error: “and that is in regard”

  8. George Parry Says:

    The system of laws and government were taken from the British system. American law is based almost entirely from the British.
    You are always trying to say you invented everything. Get over it. No wonder the world thinks of USA People as braggards etc

  9. Dr.Kishaloy Sur Says:

    Basic misconception!Science & Politics can’t be mixed.Feedback loop in it-self can’t be science even-though there are some apparent similarity. Science is based on evidence & this is generated by properly design methodology. Slight distortion of methodology or design can produce completely different outcome.Rush of contradictory result in clinical trails can be good example.Reproducibility,peer-review & inter-subjectivity produces so-called scientific objectivity!Falsifiability is another good example.Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-shift is another twist!One must have some elementary knowledge about scope,reach,validity & limit of truth revealed by scientific experimentation. In the ‘Critique of Dialectical Reason’ Jean-Paul Sartre devoted a large section,why one should not mix dialectic way of thinking with scientific way of thinking. After-all Science is not transcendental & possibly where it completely different from Political & Theological standpoints.

  10. Psikick Says:

    I discern a pattern in the “typos”.

  11. Loughlin Says:

    “Few thinkers prior to the advent of American liberal democratic experiments thought that democracy could work in any but the most limited forms”.No wonder they invented god.

  12. Tim Says:

    I must agree with the posts that reveal the bias in an otherwise well thought out article. America and her founding fathers did not invent a poitical system that has matured into what the founding fathers ambitions may have been. I very cynically argue that American politics is infested with self-interest and cronyism, corruption, and superstition. The list could go on. Yes, there were good intentions, but your version of freedom and democracy is spreading like cancer. ‘Mission Accomplished’ and all that jazz.

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