What Does Google Autocomplete Think Scientists Are?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 4 2013 8:00 AM

"Scientists are…"

A lot of tech is so ubiquitous you don’t even notice it anymore; it would be like a fish noticing the water in which it swims.

Google certainly fits that category; it’s not very often a company name becomes a verb. It’s second nature now to fire up a browser and type in a few words when I need some help pinning down a word or phrase, or to just get more info on a topic.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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A while back, Google introduced autocomplete; if you start typing words into the search engine text field, it’ll make suggestions for words even before you’re done typing. I don’t find this feature particularly useful since I generally have a pretty good idea what I’m looking for when I’m searching. But I can certainly see its utility.

The suggestions are based on previous searches by users as well as page content, so the most common things people type in (weighted with with highly-ranked sites) are what Google offers up as helpful phrases. That makes sense; using the most common searches is statistically likely to match what you might need.

It’s not hard to imagine a downside to this, though. It can focus searching to a few popular sites, and can reinforce false information, since those pages may not be vetted for accuracy.

I was alerted to this when Lindacska126 on Twitter sent me the following tweet:

@BadAstronomer Have you seen what happens when you Google "Scientists are"? pic.twitter.com/xWf7hoKd4W

The link goes to a screengrab showing Google’s suggestions to her. I typed “Scientists are” into Google and got essentially the same results:

Scientists are...
Scientists are what now?

Ouch. That doesn’t seem to fare well for what people think of scientists.

I’ll admit, most scientists are liberal, or perhaps better described as progressive. In general that’s to be expected of someone who has an open mind, is ready for open inquiry, and willing to change their views based on evidence. But only in general; I know many conservative scientists who are quite brilliant. I’ve been labeled as liberal myself many times, which makes me chuckle; my views on most topics are a bit more subtle than can be assumed from such a blanket label.

But the “scientists are stupid” and “scientists are liars” suggestions are troubling. Can it be that most people really think this?

I decided to follow through, and see what pages are actually recommended by Google if you use these suggestions. What I found is that yes, many of the pages linked do make these accusations — and they come from the usual suspects, such as fundamentalist religion sites, or climate change deniers. No surprise there. And some are satirical pages, clearly meant as parody. But it’s not hard to find page after page, site after site, sincerely making these claims about scientists.

What do we make of this? Is all hope lost?

This is troubling, to be sure, but I don’t know just how bad it is. After all, we don’t know why people are using these terms. I search for things I know are wrong all the time, for instance, so I type weird things into Google every day. Of course, I tend to be looking for people making claims that are, um, not as reality-based as they could be, so maybe I’m not the best example.

I can think of a few other ways this may not be so bad, but I keep coming back to the fact that in the United States, roughly 45% of people outright deny evolution. Climate change denial is on the wane, but still, something like a third of people in the US deny that humans have played a role in it. And it’s not hard at all to find media pundits who froth and rail against science, as long as it doesn’t have the ideological stance they cleave unto.

Scientists need a better rep. Science is everywhere, all around you, all the time. You’re soaking in it. I can make all manners of arguments of why it’s important philosophically — and I have — but it’s also absolutely critical economically; our way of life in the United States, and the world, depends absolutely on scientific achievements. From better agriculture to medicine to communication to mitigating global disasters, science plays a fundamental role in each.

So what to do? In my opinion, there are two things that will help. One is to not let broad and ridiculous accusations about science and scientists go unchecked. I do that here quite often, of course.

The other, though, is if you love science, tell people. Write about it, talk about it, sing about it if you can (and Gawker? You're not helping; we should be encouraging people to look up the definition of "science", not making fun of them).

And if I may, let me suggest simply being a better person. I get this idea from my friend George Hrab, who has a segment on his podcast where he answers questions from listeners. Many times, he is asked by someone who is nonreligious how their reputation can be improved. George tells them to lead by example: be friendly, help out, do charity work. Then, later, if someone finds out you’re not a believer, it won’t color their opinion as much. In fact, it may change their mind about an entire group of people they otherwise would have written off.

I suspect the same can be done for science. If so many people truly think scientists are liars, scientists are stupid, then we need to show them otherwise. Don’t lecture; teach (or better yet, converse). Don’t insult or belittle; enlighten. Admit your mistakes, show where you learn from them. Talk about the joy and wonder and awe of truly understanding the Universe as it actually is!

Isn’t that why we love science in the first place?

My hope is that we can change Google’s algorithm, so that one day it will produce this:

scientists-are-good
Ah. That's better.

Tip o' the beaker to Zach Kopplin for the Gawker link.

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