Could Google’s favoring of merchants threaten future scholars?

by Mr. Sheehy

It takes me forever to teach students to write a research paper. It’s all my fault for making myself so tortured, but I just want them to know so much more than the basics of how to do it. I have set as my goal that students will learn “to find and share trustworthy information.” The key additive for me that isn’t in a lot of my colleague’s lessons is the trustworthy information part. While I’m not really worried that my students will believe there is such a thing as a tree octopus, I want them to be able to find something better than JFK Murder Solved when researching Kennedy’s assassination. Thus I teach them some characteristics of trustworthy information (current, reliable, accurate, complete, and reasonable) and try, somehow, to pass along the idea that there are better ways to use Google than simply to click on the top Wikipedia link.

Yet it is not that easy to conduct good research through Google. When I was in grad school I did all my research through the university library, and now that I’m not an enrolled student, I have no access to the library’s databases. That seems rather silly to me, as it means I grew the appetite for academic, peer-reviewed research and now have no access to it. Alas.

Yet the question reaches farther than my need as a professional to access research-based publications. It reaches right to where lay people and high school students live and research. A couple weeks ago I was trying to find some information for my children about chimney sweeps in Britain in ages past. I remembered reading about it and actually found an historical footnote in an anthology containing William Blake’s two poems about chimney sweeps, but I was not able to find through my own research any other trustworthy source discussing the topic. I found a few sketchy websites and then used Infotrac through our public library, but to no avail. My question was not that difficult a question, yet with all these search engines and data available to me, I could not find an answer to an answerable question. (Ed.’s note: see the comments for further pursuit of this example.)

This comes to mind today while reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s comments for an interview at Inside Higher Ed (found through Alan Jacobs):

I don’t subscribe to the “Google is making us dumber” position. I think Google is allowing us to be differently smart. I also refuse to bracket off my students as some exotic tribe that behaves and reacts differently than I do or my mother does. We are all in this crazy environment together. The challenges we share are much more important and interesting than the differences we might demonstrate across age groups. So yeah, Google is my primary research tool. It’s also my mother’s. Collectively, our dependence on Google is not a problem because it allegedly weakens our faculties. It’s a problem because Google bakes biases into its algorithms. And we fail to recognize that fact. Most of the time, we can’t even discern what they are. Most of the recent changes in Google’s search algorithms make Google much better for shopping and much worse for learning. That could make us collectively dumber, but not individually. That’s why we need a fresh approach to how we manage our information ecosystem. The same service cannot serve wisdom and wealth equally well.

Vaidhyanathan’s comments strike me as wonderfully wise, and my hope is that wisdom like his can drive our push for a better optimized search engine, one that can provide trustworthy results to questions that do not involve sales pitches and marketers. Perhaps schools, as consumers, can begin to create the demand for such a service. It seems to me that it would be worth it.

Thanks for reading.