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A seriously bad idea

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Google is getting into the “truth” business.

A recent report in New Scientist indicates that Google is considering altering its page ranking algorithms from links-based to “fact-based.”  We can’t imagine a more frightening prospect.

At first glance, of course, it seems like a fairly non-controversial move.  After all, who could be against the idea of elevating “fact-based” content over more misleading, albeit more popular, sites?  From the article:

The internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free "news" stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

Google's search engine currently uses the number of incoming links to a web page as a proxy for quality, determining where it appears in search results. So pages that many other sites link to are ranked higher. This system has brought us the search engine as we know it today, but the downside is that websites full of misinformation can rise up the rankings, if enough people link to them.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page. "A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy," says the team.

"Sorting out truth from deception simply cannot be the business of a monolithic and powerful entity like Google."

Again, who could be against that?

Well, anyone who knows anything about the definition of “fact,” particularly with respect to controversial issues.

While facts can be, as John Adams once wrote, “stubborn things,” they are also frequently subject to interpretation and context.  Sorting out what’s “true” in any given situation can be very tricky indeed. That’s why argumentation and a variety of perspectives are typically needed to arrive at something approximating the truth.

A simple example:  A recent op-ed in a national publication arguing that Islamophobia is a serious problem cited the “fact” that anti-Muslim incidents in the US spiked 1700% after 9/11.  Well, in one sense it could be argued that this was indeed a “fact.”  Statistics show that such incidents did indeed spike after 9/11 – for about a year, after which they fell back to their (very low) historical norm and have remained pretty much the same since.  (What have grown rapidly during that time, by the way, are anti-Semitic incidents.  Just sayin’.)  So, was the author “truthful” or misleading?  And who determines this?  Apparently Google will, and will reward or punish sites accordingly.

That’s what’s so frightening.  Sorting out truth from deception simply cannot be the business of a monolithic and powerful entity like Google, particularly given its fairly transparent ideological leanings. If facts are indeed facts, they can be verified and promoted via honest inquiry and debate, not via algorithms written by heaven knows who.

Stick with the links, Google.  Leave the search for truth to others.

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