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Soul Searching in Science

The history of empirical science versus the post-modern trend to abstraction and theory goes back to the Enlightenment. That philosophical movement had consequences for politics and religion, too, of course. Indeed, it touched everything, as inspection of any contemporary university English department would reveal.

A new book by Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty (Harper), describes the way the Enlightenment influenced America's founders to pursue experimental science as well as political art. Jefferson scholar Alan Pell Crawford (Twilight at Monticello) points out in his review Friday in the Wall Street Journal, that American science, like American politics, followed the model of the Scottish Enlightenment, rather than the French Enlightenment, and that made a huge difference to all our institutions.

The Scottish attitude led to belief in limited government, since it "was rooted in a sense of how little people know, not how much, and how difficult it is to know anything with certainty." In contrast, "The French Enlightenment, rationalist and truly revolutionary, came to regard an abstraction called Reason chiefly as a source of power over others, which soon enough soaked the Place de la Revolution in blood."

The French model, of course, inspired dictators and theoreticians, including Marx. Today it is found in science journals like Nature and The New Scientist that imagine "scientists" to control far more knowledge than they do. This is how we get a parade of scandals, such as the latest on the exaggerations of climate change. It is completely responsible for the ferocious defense of Darwinism.

Coming years will see these Enlightenment alternatives contend not only in our politics (where the present government thinks it really knows how to manage the economy), but also in our science. The French faction, as it were, runs the universities and academic professional associations, the media and the government. The common sense of the American founders and the Scottish Enlightenment resides elsewhere, in today's new academic/political counter-culture, and in the practical experience and deep memory of the people.

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

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