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That oft-quoted statement from Carl Sagan captures the essence of the scientific approach to knowledge. Before an idea can achieve the revered status of "theory," it must survive round after round of skeptical criticism.
Evolution, for example, has withstood nearly 150 years of challenges. With minor modifications to Darwin's seminal ideas, it has become perhaps the most robust theory in all of science.
Religious fundamentalists, who oppose that theory as well as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, are major combatants in what journalist Chris Mooney describes in his new book as The Republican War on Science. Allied with them is a force of neo-conservative soldiers who worship at the Church of Big Business and resist the conclusions of environmental research, especially about global climate change.
Yet neither religion nor business is fundamentally opposed to science. Probably a majority of American scientists guide their lives by faith in a Creator, but they do not consider their houses of worship as observatories or laboratories in which to test the existence of a deity. And most modern businesses rely on science and technology to make a profit.
Thus most readers of this book, including liberal Democrats, will consider Mr. Mooney's brash thesis extraordinary. Though they may view it an interesting model of what is happening in American politics today, they will demand extraordinary research before declaring it a viable theory.
Indeed, the evidence supporting the existence of a partisan War on Science will never measure up to the Sagan criterion. The most the author can hope for is that open-minded people will consider his ideas compelling. In that, he has succeeded admirably.
By the time readers finish this book they will understand who the opponents of science are and how they have taken control of the Republican Party. The Party's rightist base has adopted positions that are antithetical to science, not because they oppose science per se but because government policies suggested by the scientific consensus threaten their religious beliefs, their economic status, or their societal influence.
Readers will also see the very effective political strategy that this alliance has evolved: to redefine science, to undermine science, and to misconstrue science even to the point of dismissing scientific consensus in favor of increasingly discredited fringe ideas.
The United States may not be embroiled in a war on science, but that phrase describes a useful model for understanding the dangers of the current administration's antiscientific tactics to our nation's future and its character. For that Republicans and Democrats, scientists and people of faith should be grateful to Chris Mooney.