bioephemera

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?)

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 LadyShea
    March 18, 2010

    As one who is interested in how and when scientists communicate (or in many cases DON’T communicate) with the general public, this article was quite timely.

    There seems to be a disconnect between us (scientists and interested laypeople). For example I am surprised at your surprise about the 2012 phenomena, as it’s been a hot topic for years. There are countless websites and books, even a big budget action flick!

    Hopefully more scientists will use information like this to help them frame their blogs, essays, etc. for public consumption. There is a lot of misinformation, pseudoscience, and anti-science out there, and significantly less accurate, thoughtful, put-in-laymen’s -terms to be accessible real science to counter it.

    Some of us really are interested, but seem to have few places to turn to get accurate information and answers to our questions.

  2. #2 rfguy
    March 18, 2010

    I heard about the 2012 wackiness on Bad Astronomy (Phil Plait’s blog). On one of the bike paths here, there’s some graffiti saying “2012 is coming!!”; I’m always tempted to add “So is 2013, 2014, 2015…” when I ride past it.

    As for the Google queries, at least some people seem to care about scientists and their beliefs. I know Google doesn’t always point to good sources of information (there’s a lot of crap on the internet), which is why critical thinking skills are so important.
    -mark.

  3. #3 Jessica Palmer
    March 18, 2010

    Yeah – I should clarify: I was aware that some people claimed the world would end in 2012, just as they did in 2000, 2001, etc. And I’ve heard of the movie, and I’m actually rather fond of the Maya. I just wasn’t aware so many people are taking such baloney SERIOUSLY. WTF?!?

  4. #4 Mike Olson
    March 18, 2010

    Several years ago, due entirely to a number of personal issues, I started posting on blogs to the local paper. This can, if you are not careful, give you a really skewed view of the general population. I always kept in mind when I would do this that generally there is a large percentage of folks who post who are, shall we say, a little out of touch with reality and frequently angry. Off line, I encounter folks with a variety of opinions who aren’t so vocal or concerned. They just live their lives. My point is this: On those threads you’ll find folks who claim many scientists don’t believe in evolution, or deny global warming, you’ll find a great number of Biblical literalists. As to the whole 2012 thing, I didn’t think that was a big deal, the Mayan calendar ends probably because the Mayans either hadn’t figured out how to calculate further at the time, or weren’t interested…it was a great number of generations in the future. In my life I’ve listened to folks claim the world was going to end in 1974, 1980, 2000. All due to various prophecies. Of course anymore many evangelicals don’t claim the rapture is near but it was a great rallying cry as we approached the millennum. I read an article that claimed that doomsday scenarios tend to abound near the end of centuries and have occurred with greater support at the approach of the millennium both recently and a thousand years ago.

  5. #5 ABradford
    March 18, 2010

    You could try some others, “can scientists”, “will scientists”, “should scientists”

  6. #6 OmegaMom
    March 18, 2010

    Sigh. ABradford–I just ran those queries using “can Obama”, “will Obama” and “should Obama”. The number of times “be impeached” or “be killed” showed up is…sad.

  7. #7 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 19, 2010

    Sadly for the future of humanity, if you type “is ” into Google, the top two suggested searches are “is lady gaga a man” and “is lady gaga a hermaphrodite”.

  8. #8 lylebot
    March 20, 2010

    While this is hardly a methodologically rigorous analysis

    Yes. While this is interesting, it’s dangerous to try to generalize from it to anything about Google users. There isn’t any real reason to believe those suggestions are the most popular searches starting with your words/phrases, and some very good reasons to believe they’re not: Google is not interested in letting people see what its overall query stream looks like, because that would give advertisers and spammers a lot of power to game the results. It’s better to think of them as a subset of popular and moderately-popular queries after some unknown selection has been applied, and not necessarily ranked by popularity. This tool is better used to compare a sort of “cloud” of results overlapped by two similar queries. In this case the fact that there’s no overlap between “do scientists” and “are scientists” isn’t too surprising just because of the way English works.

    Also, that sliver of an arrow to “working on a cure for herpes” represents 184,000 search results for that query.

    Your overall point about Google as a learning tool is well-taken. As someone on the “inside” (not in Google, but in that field), I happen to believe it’s even worse than you make it out to be.

  9. #9 Jessica Palmer
    March 20, 2010

    Excellent points, lylebot! While overall popularity is a factor in the Google suggestion algorithm, it’s not the only factor.

    The makers at HINT.fm have said something along the lines that the size of the arrows reflect the most popular search results, but of course the pool of queries is pre-selected by Google. In another place, they seemed to say the arrows represent the number of web pages for each result, which would be different. Basically, your guess is as good as mine how it works. :)