21 July 2011

Skepticism, the internet, and Google filters

The Amazing Meeting – an annual conference for skeptics, mythbusters and truthseekers held in Las Vegas – had its ninth gathering last week. A lot of prominent skeptics attended the event, and came away feeling inspired and challenged by the topics discussed. PZ Myers and Daniel Loxton each had their own take on the topic of skeptic outreach: Myers mainly agreed with the gist of one discussion (that skeptics need to focus on the effective communication of their message), but had reservations as to whether the suggested ‘gentle approach’ is the best, or only, way to promote skepticism (I commented on this in a previous post). Loxton seemed more on side with the argument that successful communication requires sensitivity, compassion and respect towards the intended audience. And Steven Novella had some thoughts on the connection between the internet and the growth of the skeptic movement.

I’m going to focus on Novella’s post, because it raises an important, if tangential, point. Novella observes that since the internet allows people to access an unprecedentedly huge amount of information, skepticism gets a boost because people are able to look up the facts on any contentious issue. He’s right about that. To demonstrate his point, Novella ran a Google search on a few skeptic hot words like ‘homeopathy’, ‘intelligent design’ and ‘do vaccines cause autism’. Almost all had a skeptical link on the first results page.

Novella was understandably quite chuffed with the outcome of his little experiment. It appeared to confirm his belief that skepticism was gaining ground, at least on the internet. But one commenter responded to his post with the following:


I agree that the structure of the internet sides with the skeptical movement, but your quick Google experiment, innocent though it was, gives results so wrong that I thought it worth mentioning.

Google tailors its results to the search history of the computer, gmail account logged in, and region of the ip address. Given that you’re likely to spend lots of time on skeptical websites, and that you ran this experiment on your computer, your results will be skewed. Conversely, members of pseudoscientific communities are more likely to be insulated from skeptical results on their google queries. This effect would be compounded for those who live in regions where pseudoscience reigns supreme.

There is a Google “blank slate”, and your tailored results might not be too far from it, but the personalized results of Google are changing the way we should think about the flow of information on the web.

The commenter, rgower, supplied a link to a TED talk given by Eli Pariser, in which Pariser described how internet entities like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and others filter out content that their customisation programs think we’re not interested in, based on our personal online history and preferences. This creates a ‘bubble’ around each of us, where only the websites, videos, music and other content that we are biased towards are prioritised for our consumption. Pariser argues that this can then lead to a situation where instead of living up to its promise of connecting people to all the wealth of information it contains, the internet simply becomes a collection of narrow minded, prejudiced cliques that only read and absorb content they agree with.

Pariser believes (and I agree with him) that the internet shouldn’t just provide information that is relevant to our interests:

If algorithms are going to curate the world for us, if they’re going to decide what we get to see and what we don’t get to see, then we need to make sure that they’re not just keyed to ‘relevant’. We need to make sure that they also show us things that are uncomfortable, or challenging, or important... other points of view.

As I said earlier, this is all rather tangential to Steven Novella’s post, but it’s an important factor to consider because we now know that Novella’s Google search results are most likely a reflection of his skeptical interests, and not an objective view of the state of skepticism on the internet. An anti-vaxxer, or young earth creationist, or ‘alternative’ medicine advocate will get quite different search results, ones biased towards their misconceptions.

But Novella is right to think that in the free marketplace of ideas, “the skeptical world view has real value and even appeal” and that “sectarian views that rely upon intellectual isolation are likely to be threatened.” Even though algorithmic content filters compromise the search for knowledge on the internet, that information nonetheless exists. So long as it’s available to those who seek it out, such knowledge will demolish any nonsense and falsehood it is wielded against. Peddlers of the latter know this, and it scares them.

Novella puts it nicely:

If your belief system cannot survive close or open scrutiny, if it cannot compete in the rough and tumble world of free information, perhaps it is lacking in some fundamental way.


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