Science to Fit Your Preferences?

Search histories can guide what people see about scientific issues online.

Posted Feb 02, 2018

The ease and speed with which search engines enable us to survey the staggeringly vast amount of information available on the web is nothing short of breathtaking. All around the world people with connections to the internet have become thoroughly dependent upon search engines for everything from finding out when and where Beringia existed to buying new shoes. As a result, Alphabet, the parent company of Google—the most successful of all search engines, has become the second largest company in the world.   

Although generally the results of any search are listed in the order of their comparative popularity, that is not always true. Many, perhaps most, users are aware that the top billing in many searches goes to the websites of enterprises that have paid for that position. Often the only thing that sets these entries apart visually from any of the others is a small icon, usually at the end of the entry, indicating that it holds the place it does as a result of a financial transaction with the search engine company. Various groups pay Google to be listed among the top search results for particular search terms. 

Top-Ranked by Purchase

It is not shocking that some search terms would attract buyers, including, for example, companies that are interested in getting the business of those people looking to acquire some new shoes. The marketability of other search terms, however, may be more of a surprise. Hiroko Tabuchi recently discovered that “climate change” is one of those terms. What Tabuchi found even more unexpected was that the top-ranked sites by purchase (if I may so describe them) were for organizations that denied one or both of the following: (1) that climate change is occurring and (2) that humans’ actions have had a role in climate change, even if it is occurring. In short, organizations dedicated to denying climate change have procured these top slots.

Although Tabuchi, who is a business reporter at the New York Times, goes on to note that “the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions linked to human activity ... have been acknowledged by every major scientific organization in the world,” that is not the point here. Instead, it concerns one of Tabuchi’s additional discoveries.

wikicommons
Source: wikicommons

Science to Fit Your Preferences?

When subsequently searching “climate change” on some other people’s computers or when using private browsing mode Tabuchi made another startling discovery. Different websites for various environmental groups now held the top slots, and the climate change denial websites that she had encountered in her earlier search were nowhere to be seen. It appears that Google provides different top ranked sites by purchase, presumably, based on individuals’ search histories. The guiding principle would appear to be:  show them what their search histories suggest that they would most likely want to see. On the face of it, that operating principle makes perfect sense for a search engine.

In the case of scientific matters, though, it is seriously unsatisfactory. The results of such practices simply feed the human penchant for confirmation bias and are inimical to doing, understanding, or learning about science. The problem is that it does not square with the norms of scientific inquiry, which insist on the careful generation, collection, scrutiny, consideration, analysis, and assessment of inter-subjectively available evidence and on the ability of others to replicate experimental findings, in particular. These are norms that the international scientific community sustains, and they are why science stands apart.

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