When Google started “suggesting” the most popular search phrases below its query box, I was creeped out. Especially when I saw what it suggests for “is Obama”. Yes, I was happier when I didn’t know what other people were typing into Google.
However, the folks at HINT.fm took the opposite approach: they created an interface that invites you to explore the most popular search phrases for any given starting words. I took it for a spin to see what the American public is asking about you-know-who: scientists. (You totally thought I was going to say Palin, didn’t you?)
click image for a larger and more readable pop-up.
While this is hardly a methodologically rigorous analysis (and we don’t get hard numbers), the results are interesting. First, it appears an ever-optimistic sliver of our population hopes that we are, in fact, in search of a cure for herpes. Talk about eternal questions! Second, among the queries starting “do scientists,” the questions about scientific consensus on global warming far outnumber the one question about evolution. This surprised me a little – as a biologist who has dealt with anti-evolution sentiment in my lectures, evolution will always be the “big” anti-science issue. But most people already know where scientists come down on evolution, so why ask? Global warming, on the other hand, is perceived by the public to be in a state of more active and urgent debate.
Another notable thing is that most of the “do scientist” queries continue “do scientists believe in. . . ” when that faith-centric wording would probably not be used by a scientist to refer to global warming, evolution, aliens or ghosts (although “believe in God” or “believe in life after death” are probably okay). And what’s with the “2012″ question? It turns out a bunch of people are predicting the world will end in 2012. I had absolutely no idea until I did this little exercise – it really has put me in touch with the zeitgeist!
On the “are scientists creative” issue, this blog is testimony that yes we are. But “are scientists objective” is the leading query, and that’s so interesting to me. Apparently people trust Google/websites to tell them if science is objective. (!!!) What websites do they get to help them answer that question? Here’s what comes up for me (although given Google’s Big Brothery behavior lately, they may be personalizing my searches despite my requests not to): This page (hardly accessible to the general public), a Wikipedia page, and “Are scientists’ objective?” from Yahoo Answers. Yes, [sic]. Ugh! None of those pages is a place I’d send a student to research objectivity in science.
It’s actually difficult to say where I would send a student to research objectivity in science. Science is not completely objective, because the people doing it are only human. But science is structured to enforce as much objectivity as possible. So while I don’t object to social constructivist critiques (incidentally, this video is the fourth Google result I get), I also doubt most of the people querying “are scientists objective” are doing so to elicit social constructivist critiques. They more likely want to know if there is any reason they should trust a scientific consensus over Fox News or their angry Uncle Bob or their local politician. I do think the answer to that question is yes: science is the best process we have for getting to objective truths, and it is probably as “objective” as any human endeavor can be. The STS-ers I know, while insisting that science is value-laden, wouldn’t go so far as to say “yeah, science is value-laden and objectivity is impossible, so you may as well go with whatever Uncle Bob says about global warming.” Yet the average member of the public isn’t going to know that; as far as they know, they’ve found a website that says science isn’t objective, and they interpret that statement in light of their personal experience of what “objectivity” means, not with respect to some academic discourse.
Any teacher worth his or her salt knows that the proper answers to the exact same question from a kindergartner, a middle schooler, a high school student and a college student vary greatly, just as a question from a science major and a question from a non-scientist should be handled differently. The audience matters. The problem with Google as a learning tool is that it has no way of knowing who is asking the question, nor what background they have, nor how extensive an explanation they need – what it does know is what sorts of results you have clicked through before, and what sorts of searches you have made before, which aren’t the same thing at all. So keep in mind that when you type a question into Google, you’re seeing the suggested questions a 14-year-old would see. I continue to be creeped out.