Scientific integrity matters to Gordon

Deborah Gordon

Deborah Gordon

"The most important thing we do as scientists is to participate in battling the forces of mysticism and obfuscation," biologist Deborah M. Gordon said during a talk last week.

A professor of biological sciences and an authority on the behavior of ants, Gordon spoke March 8 at "What Matters to Me and Why," a noontime discussion series sponsored by the Office for Religious Life.

She talked about the scientific community's responsibility for creating high standards of truth and publicly campaigning for those standards. She also criticized the current White House administration for manipulating scientific findings and interfering with the teaching of science in public schools.

Gordon, author of Ants at Work: How Insect Societies Are Organized (1999), began by characterizing her scientific career as a search for truth in nature and where humans fit in the larger world. "What first drew me into science was the joy of realizing that nature is a system that exists independently of me and that I have a way of discovering what's true about it," Gordon said.

She then segued into politics by describing the disappointment she felt when photos of abused Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison were published. "I asked myself how it was possible that we could look at the newspaper and see that this is happening, yet not all go out in the streets, just refusing to go on until this is stopped," she said.

Gordon also condemned ongoing efforts to teach creationism or Intelligent Design as alternatives to the scientific theory of evolution. "It is amazing that in the 21st century, we're passing laws prohibiting teaching children the facts," she said. "We're asking children to believe a lot of nonsense about the history of life on this planet as an alterative to things we actually know to be true."

Adopting a cynical attitude toward science leads to other policies that encourage misinformation, apathy and manipulation of the public, she argued.

"If people can believe that there's no data supporting evolution, then maybe they can believe that there's no data supporting global warming—and maybe we don't need to do anything about it," she said. "Maybe then they can also be persuaded that if our army invades another country, people will be dancing in the streets."

Once you start playing fast and loose with the truth, she said, "it opens the way for good people to do nothing in the face of evil."

Gordon blamed the Bush administration for turning the scientific principle of commitment to accuracy on its head by using small disagreements between experts to create the impression of substantial doubt about widely accepted phenomena, such as natural selection and global warming. She called this strategy "controversy labeling," where small differences are intentionally exaggerated for political gain.

"Calling a fact a 'controversy' in order to justify inaction is the scariest part," she said. "This method has been used very effectively by people who want to cast doubt on things that scientists know."

Gordon called on scientists to combat this strategy by emphasizing the standards of good research and the objective demands of the scientific method.

"The fact that we argue about particulars does not invalidate the fact that the truth is what we're after," she said. "That's different from deciding something is true because it's what we would prefer to believe. These people get the upper hand because scientists respond by taking the bait. We should be teaching and talking about the tactic instead of just trotting out our fossils."

Gordon ended her talk by expressing hope that a savvier scientific community and a more proactive public would help spur political reform. "Lawyer's truth is made by people, but nature isn't made by people," she concluded. "Every time a scientist publishes a good piece of work, she helps to maintain and raise the standards for what is true. We have to keep chipping away."

Melissa Fusco is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.