There are many times I have joked that pseudoscience pushers got their education from the University of Google–that is, these individuals think that they are PhDs or MDs based on an hour of googling a question about science or medicine, then reading some of the results from the search. Most people keep the default 10 hits per page, so frequently only those first 10 hits are read.
Too many people use Google as their definitive scholarly source of information on controversial and scientific topics. Sometimes these researchers only read the 156 character meta-description, the short blurb of an article that you see in Google search results, before deciding to read it or not.
This is not the way to critically analyze information.
Research with Google
There are two problems with using Google as your research tool. First, Google has some magical methodology to rank websites, and if you think it’s based on the number of hits to that websites, you’d be wrong. There’s a whole “science” in website rankings, called search engine optimization (SEO), which many people try to manipulate. And usually they fail as Google catches up to them, changing the secret Google SEO formula.
My point is that Google’s SEO formula probably never included the veracity of what’s being written on that website. So if you googled the terms “MMR vaccine autism,” you might see more antivaccine websites than you would evidence-based discussions of the same information. People who invent information about vaccines may, because Google’s SEO magic, be the number 1 hit on the Google search results list.
The second problem is not with Google itself, but with the amateur researchers. If I were to write an article for publication in a top journal, I would read all of the articles, published in the last decade or so, that were related to my research. I would sort them into various piles according to a variety of factors including quality of the science, reputation of authors, statistical methodology, everything.
Scientific research requires a critical thinking skill–one doesn’t have to be brilliant or have an advanced degree–but must include the ability to weigh the quality of research. A good skeptic will accept or reject a scientific idea based on both the quality and quantity of evidence.
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Google search results give the impression of quantity from one “side” of a scientific question versus the other “side”. For example, the antivaccine websites tend to parrot the same information from each other, so they aren’t really different. But it would appear from the Google results that one “side” has more volume than the other “side”, which from a cursory examination could convince a casual researcher of one point of view.
But again, real research is much more in depth. It values the quality and quantity of evidence, rather than quantity of poor quality evidence. Blogs aren’t generally good evidence, though myself and many others support the scientific consensus, and provide citations that are the foundation of that consensus.
If a blog pushes a belief that the scientific consensus is wrong, then it must present that contrarian viewpoint with objective evidence and no logical fallacies. And that’s why Google search results aren’t very useful for any discussion about any of the so-called controversial scientific issues. Of course, the only controversy with ideas, like vaccines, evolution, climate change, GMOs, and so many others, is in public discussion, not amongst scientists.
Google may fix their search results
Google wants to rank websites by the veracity (or truthiness) of the information provided, rather than popularity (which includes links). And this would be a huge upgrade to the quality of its information.
Of course, the anti-science world is freaking out. Well, if they’re freaking out, then I’m celebrating. Because whatever makes them sad, makes me happy.
A climate denier whined to Fox News that “I worry about this issue greatly… My site gets a significant portion of its daily traffic from Google.” Fox News, not exactly the bastion of scientific accuracy, opined:
That fact is not controversial, but critics worry that this is a first step towards Google playing God and effectively censoring content it does not like. They fear that skeptics of things like climate change or more immigration (both subjects that Google founders have expressed strongfeelings about) might find their websites buried if this ranking system were adopted.
Well, haters will hate. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Back to Google. Recently, Google has implemented what it’s calling “Knowledge Based Trust Score” for medical searches. According to Google,
…starting in the next few days, when you ask Google about common health conditions, you’ll start getting relevant medical facts right up front from the Knowledge Graph. We’ll show you typical symptoms and treatments, as well as details on how common the condition is—whether it’s critical, if it’s contagious, what ages it affects, and more. For some conditions you’ll also see high-quality illustrations from licensed medical illustrators. Once you get this basic info from Google, you should find it easier to do more research on other sites around the web, or know what questions to ask your doctor.
We worked with a team of medical doctors (led by our own Dr. Kapil Parakh, M.D., MPH, Ph.D.) to carefully compile, curate, and review this information. All of the gathered facts represent real-life clinical knowledge from these doctors and high-quality medical sources across the web, and the information has been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.
Now, I’m sure it’s not perfect. But this is a huge, paradigm-shifting step for getting accurate and evidence-based facts from Google searches.
And it effectively tosses the antivaccination websites way down the search search results, where they belong. And the real information, the information based on real science published in real journals, gets to the top of the search results.
Let’s return to the search “MMR vaccine autism”. A few months ago, I believe well over half of the top 100 hits were from antivaccination websites that basically repeated the same lies, but it looked like half of the world thought that MMR vaccines cause autism (they do not).
Of the 100 Google hits (I long ago changed my search results to list 100, rather than the default 10), around 20-25 appeared to be antivaccine. Even that’s too high, but it’s better than the 50-75% before implementing the Trust parameter to rankings. Maybe once this system is full fleshed out, there will be 0 antivaccine websites included, because, let’s remember, they have NO published evidence that could contradict the consensus that vaccines are safe and effective.
I am standing and applauding the fact that Google includes trust as a parameter for its medical website ranking. We all should be happy.