Review of “The Science of Liberty” by Timothy Ferris

The topic of Timothy Ferris’ (2010) “The Science of Liberty” is fascinating; the author recounts many entertaining and illuminating historical episodes in science, with their often profound implications for political and economic experimentation. But as Gary Rosen says in his New York Times review, Ferris ultimately gives up “on any real effort to argue for the decisive influence of science as such. He is content to speak of science metaphorically, as the model for openness and experimentalism in all the major realms of liberal-democratic endeavor.” This is unfortunate, as there is much to say and more to be done in documenting and extending the material practices of science into political and economic applications (Ashworth, 2004; Jasanoff, 2004, 2005).

And more than that, Ferris misses two important opportunities that could have made this book into something more compelling. First, the voluminous literature on the co-production of social orders across political, economic, and scientific contexts is almost completely ignored. Worse, when Ferris does touch on it, as he does in the work of Bruno Latour, he turns it into an example of an antiscientific attitude that he is content to “jeer and dismiss,” as Rosen puts it in the Times.

Latour’s work, however, is part of an area of academic research that has emerged in the last 30 years with a focus on the way scientific values embody, insinuate, and disseminate implicit moral, political, and economic values, values that are ineluctably spread and adopted along with the technologies that carry them. The basic idea is expressed in Alder’s (2002) history of the meter:

“Just as the French Revolution had proclaimed universal rights for all people, the savants argued, so too should it proclaim universal measures. And to ensure that their creation would not be seen as the handiwork of any single group or nation, they decided to derive its fundamental unit from the measure of the world itself.” (p. 3)

“Ought not a single nation have a uniform set of measures, just as a soldier fought for a single patrie? Had not the Revolution promised equality and fraternity, not just for France, but for all the people of the world? By the same token, should not all of the world’s people use a single set of weights and measures to encourage peaceable commerce, mutual understanding, and the exchange of knowledge? That was the purpose of measuring the world.” (p. 32)

But instead of capitalizing on this primary theme in Alder’s book, the only mention of it by Ferris (p. 124) is as a source for a contemporary’s comment on the execution of Lavoisier by the Revolutionaries. Hunt (1994), however, points out that this focus on standardization provides the medium through which the material practices and implicit values of science are exported from the laboratory into the broader social world, where they have unintended political and economic effects. Recounting the development of electrical standards, Hunt observes that

“Such standardization—first of resistance coils, then of production materials—is a good example of the process Bruno Latour discusses in the section ‘Metrologies’ in Science in Action. Standardization of instruments and materials enables scientists and engineers to extend their networks of calculation and control by simply making and sending out what are, in effect, little pieces of their laboratories and testing rooms. They can then travel around the world without, in a sense, ever having to leave their laboratories—as long as they are able to put certified copies or extensions of their instruments wherever they have to go.” (p. 56)

Hunt continues, providing more detail on how the social order implied by standard values comes to be constructed:

“As useful as the precision and control afforded by standardization was within a single company’s system, it became even more important when an exchange of materials was involved—when standardization became part of contract specifications. By providing fixed and agreed reference points in which both parties could have confidence, standard resistances were crucial in settling or heading off possible disputes. By enabling engineers to secure the comparability and even uniformity of their copper and gutta-percha, to identify and police deviations, and to reproduce the properties of successful cables in a predictable way, reliable standards were crucial to the growth of the cable manufacturing industry and to the efficient operation and extension of the world cable system.” (p. 57)

Electrical engineers, then, rigorously established the natural properties of resistance as it shows itself in repeated experiments, designed their systems to conform with those properties, earned economic and legal successes by efficiently deploying standard resistances, and worked together to create a global system. In other words, as Ferris himself emphasizes, scientific practices imply and lead toward democratic practices by being antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative. And every year on World Metrology Day (May 20), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) repeats the same mantra emphasizing the vital importance of technical standards and common product definitions for free trade and liberal democracy.

The same basic point made by Latour is also made by Schaffer (1992; also see Wise, 1995 and many others), working in the same area of the history of electrical standards as Hunt:

“The physical values which the laboratory fixes are sustained by the social values which the laboratory inculcates. Metrology has not often been granted much historical significance. But in milieux such as those of Victorian Britain the propagation of standards and values was the means through which physicists reckoned they could link their work with technical and economic projects elsewhere in their society. Instrumental ensembles let these workers embody the values which mattered to their culture in their laboratory routines. Intellectualist condescension distracts our attention from these everyday practices, from their technical staff, and from the work which makes results count outside laboratory walls.” (pp. 22-23)

Had Ferris taken the trouble to look at Latour’s 1999 book, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, or Latour’s 1990 and 1993 contrasts of the postmodern and amodern, he would have found lengthy replies to exactly those disputes he unknowingly re-provokes. Far from denying that anything exists objectively in nature, as Ferris implies, Latour and the field of science studies examines how we enter into dialogue with nature, and how things come into words as objects of discourse by asserting their independent real existence in very specific and reproducible ways. Ferris commits a gross reductionism in casting as postmodern nonsense this field’s efforts in tracing out the microscopic details of what is said and done, how instruments are read and the readings recorded, and how the recorded values take their places in forms, memos, bills, invoices, laws, accounting spreadsheets, manufacturing specifications, operating instructions, etc. Ferris would have had quite a different book to write if he had followed the implications of networked thinking coordinated via standards and brought them to bear on recent developments in the social sciences and economics (Fisher, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010a).

Ferris does his “jeer and dismiss” thing again in a second way, instead of engaging substantively with the likes of Heidegger or Derrida. In joining with Gross and Levitt (1994), and Alan Bloom (1987), in their dismissals of Derrida and deconstruction, for instance, Ferris (pp. 258-259) has simply found it easier to project irrational conclusions on writers whose work he cannot be troubled to read carefully enough to understand (as on page 238, where “logocentric” is said to be “a fascist epithet aimed at those who employ logic”). Derrida’s comment that “a critique of what I do is indeed impossible” (quoted on page 242) hardly renders his work “immune to criticism,” as Ferris says. The point is that it is impossible to critique effectively what Derrida does without doing it yourself, which puts you in the unresolvable situation of having to employ the same assumptions as the ones you’re criticizing.

Closer attention to Derrida’s extensive considerations of this issue would show the sensitivity and care that are required in trying, for instance, to be as faithful as Levi-Strauss was to the double intention of being able “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he [Levi-Strauss] criticizes” (Derrida, 1978, p. 284). Postmodernism is essentially this kind of a twist on the old maxim about being able to continue thinking critically while holding two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. This double intention permeates Derrida’s writings from the beginning of his career. In a 1968 discussion of his work, for instance, he said, “I try to place myself at a certain point at which—and this would be the very ‘content’ of what I would like to ‘signify’—the thing signified is no longer easily separable from the signifier” (Wahl, et al., 1988, pp. 88-89). In saying this, the speaker is obviously making an effort at a clear separation of what is signified from the signifiers representing it.

What complicates things is that what are signified in that sentence are precisely the difficulties entailed in effecting the separation referred to. Though this point is lost on those unable or unwilling to do the work of thinking these self-referential recursive patterns through, the discourses of deconstruction often show awareness of the need to assume the convergence and separation of signifier and signified even while specific instances of their inseparability are analyzed (Gasché, 1987; Spivak, 1990, 1993). This follows from the fact that deconstruction is but the third of three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330), where the prior two moments are reduction and application (Fisher, 2010b).

Any time things are put into words in spoken or written expressions of limited lengths, reduction takes place. Reductionism occurs when things are misrepresented, when the utility or fairness of the way something is conceptualized is biased, prejudiced, or ineffective. Of course, language is historical and cultural, human attention is inevitably selective, and so words and concepts are always colored by the interests and prejudices of their times. These places in which the meaning of things remains stuck on and inseparable from local particularities may become increasingly apparent over time, as words are applied constructively in creating meaning, socially. Eventually, new distinctions and new aggregations of previously lumped or segregated classifications will be demanded just to be able to continue meaningful communication. And so the cycle progresses through applications to a period of critical evaluation and on to new reductions with new applications.

But this process need not be construed only negatively, since it also stands for nothing more than the fact that there is always room for improvement. Industrial quality improvement methods adopted over the last 60+ years are well-known, for instance, for asserting that there is no best way of doing something, that the standard way of doing something is always flawed in some way. The ontological method comprehensively outlines the life cycle of concepts (Fisher, 2010b), and so offers positive potentials for informing experimental evaluations of new possibilities in science, capitalism, and democracy.

And so, though one could never gather this from reading Ferris, late in his life Derrida diligently urged his critics to read him as closely as he was reading them, saying in one interview (Derrida, 2003) that:

“…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.” (pp. 62-63)

This is from someone who holds “truly meaningful utterance is impossible” (Gross & Levitt, 1994, p. 76), and who stands as the representative of a movement (deconstruction) that “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy” (Bloom, 1987, p. 387)? Far from defeating or debunking “lackluster scholars,” which is how Ferris (pp. 257-258) credits Gross and Levitt, and Bloom, they actually do nothing but demonstrate their failure to grasp the issues. The situation is again similar to one brought up by Thomas Kuhn regarding the nature of interpretation.

As I’ve noted previously in this blog, Kuhn (1977) recounts an experience from the summer of 1947 that led to his appreciation for an explicit theory of interpretation. He had been completely perplexed by Aristotle’s account of motion, in which Aristotle writes a great many things that appear blatantly absurd. Kuhn was very puzzled and disturbed by this, as Aristotle made many astute observations in other areas, such as biology and political behavior. He eventually came to see what Aristotle was in fact talking about, and he then came to routinely offer the following maxim to his students:

“When reading the works of an important thinker [or anyone else who is held by some to have a modicum of coherence], look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.” (p. xii)

As Kuhn goes on to say, if his book was addressed primarily to historians, this point wouldn’t be worth making, as historians are in the business of precisely this kind of interpretive back-and-forth, as are many philosophers, literary critics, writers, social scientists, educators, and artists. But as a physicist, Kuhn says that the discovery of hermeneutics not only made history seem consequential, it changed his view of science. As is well known, his skill in practicing hermeneutics changed a great many people’s views of science.

Derrida’s efforts to explain the meaning of his difficult language and prose are not, then, late after-thoughts presented only in response to critics—and to followers who often seem to misunderstand deconstruction as much as those presenting themselves as defenders of truth and reason. His purpose is akin to Kuhn’s in that he is urging people who find absurdities in his writing to reconsider and ask themselves how a sensible person could have written them.

Derrida’s reference to measuring the distance from standards clearly intersects with Latour’s interests in metrology. Standards in rhetoric, grammar, orthography, etc. in fact form an implicit model for metrological standards and their coordinations of thoughts and behaviors on mass scales. This sense of measuring is no empty metaphor, as is plain in Derrida’s (1989) book-length study of Edmund Husserl’s (1970) Origins of Geometry, one of the founding documents of Continental philosophy and postmodernism.

“The mathematical object seems to be the privileged example and most permanent thread guiding Husserl’s reflection… [on phenomenology] because the mathematical object is ideal. Its being is thoroughly transparent and exhausted by its phenomenality” (Derrida, 1989, p. 27).

Accordingly, its “universality and objectivity make the ideal object into the ‘absolute model for any object whatsoever'” (Bernet, 1989, p. 141, quoting Derrida, 1989, p. 66). Heidegger (1967) similarly reflected at length on the mathematical object. He was, after all, Husserl’s student, dealt extensively with mathematical thinking (Heidegger, 1967; Kisiel, 1973), took more courses in mathematics and physics at one point in his studies than he did in philosophy (Kisiel, 2002, p. x), and remained well enough versed in mathematics to serve on dissertation committees for his university (Krell, 1977, p. 12).

Far from being the antiscientific nonsense portrayed by Ferris, there are strong parallels between mathematical logic and the themes being played out in postmodern studies (Tasic, 2001; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b). In direct opposition to Ferris’ characterization of logocentricism as a charge levied against those who use logic, Derrida (1981) wrote that those most guilty of logocentrism are those who resist logic, saying that

“…resistance to logical-mathematical notation has always been the signature of logocentricism and phonologism in the event to which they have dominated metaphysics and the classical semiological and linguistic projects.” (p. 34)

“A grammatology that would break with this system of presuppositions, then, must in effect liberate the mathematization of language, and must also declare that ‘the practice of science in fact has never ceased to protest the imperialism of the Logos, for example by calling upon, from all time, and more and more, nonphonetic writing.’ [see Of Grammatology, pp. 12, 10, 3, 284-6] Everything that has always linked logos to phone’ has been limited by mathematics, whose progress is in absolute solidarity with the practice of nonphonetic inscription. About these ‘grammatological’ principles and tasks there is no possible doubt, I believe. But the extension of mathematical notation, and in general the formalization of writing, must be very slow and very prudent, at least if one wishes it to take over effectively the domains from which it has been excluded so far.” (p. 34)

“The effective progress of mathematical notation goes along with the deconstruction of metaphysics, with the profound renewal of mathematics itself, and the concept of science for which mathematics has always been the model.” (p. 35)

Derrida is here speaking to a form of nonphonetic writing, a kind of mathematical symbolization that effects a transparency inaccessible to forms of notation that stand for words representing some kind of particular thing. Though the problems are complex, the project Derrida describes follows in specific ways from Heidegger (1967; Kisiel, 1973, 2002; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004) and from other influences on him.

So, contrary to Ferris’ claims (p. 259), Latour, Heidegger, and Derrida have not ignored science as a source of knowledge, reduced it to arbitrary social constructs, or turned their back on learning. In fact, Heidegger (1967) traces the roots of mathematical thinking to learning, to how we learn through what we already know, and to how things that can be taught and learned were the original mathematical objects. There are indeed great potentials for further advancing the impact of science on democracy, but we are needlessly blinded to real possibilities when our ideas are driven more by unexamined prejudices than by the critical application of clear thinking. In this review, I’ve hardly been able to crack open the door to the issues in need of careful study, but I offer it in the hope that others will take the time to stop, study, and think in future work in this area.


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2 Responses to “Review of “The Science of Liberty” by Timothy Ferris”

  1. 2010 in review « Livingcapitalmetrics’s Blog Says:

    […] Review of “The Science of Liberty” by Timothy Ferris February 2010 […]

  2. Timothy Ferris Says:

    I’d like to compliment you on the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of your review, and just make three small comments. First, it is a mistake to assume that I or any other author has neglected to read a particular work simply because it is not referenced in the book being reviewed. Regarding, for instance, Alder’s “Measure,” I’m not only familiar with it (and liked it) but I reviewed it, for The New York Times. Second, any book can be critiqued by expressing the wish that it were a different book. Finally, Mr. Rosen notwithstanding, at no point in “The Science of Liberty” do I make science into a metaphor. When I say science I mean science, as defined early in the book. These quibbles aside, I enjoyed reading your review.

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