Google is apparently a creationist organization, and thinks dinosaurs are used to indoctrinate children into believing that earth is millions of years old.
No, they didn’t put out a statement saying so. But if you Googled the term “What happened to the dinosaurs?” earlier today, you’d have seen some “information” from Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis that contradicts the overwhelming scientific consensus.
The Quick Answers Box is one of the core parts of Google and a tool you can’t live without. So it’s important for this information to not only be accurate, but scientifically accurate. And yet…
It Started With a Tweet
Twitter user Sharon Hill was the first to notice this and immediately called Google out:
— Sharon Hill (@IDoubtIt) May 26, 2015
The search result is taking its data from Ham, who calls himself a creationist. In his arguments, he uses the Bible as context to claim that God created the dinosaurs and they lived at the same time as man. In fact, he doesn’t even cede that dinosaurs are extinct, as he says, “One cannot prove an organism is extinct without having knowledge of every part of the earth’s surface simultaneously. It certainly would be no embarrassment to a creationist if someone discovered a dinosaur living in a jungle. However, this should embarrass evolutionists.”
We’ll let that quote speak for itself. Google, though, has some explaining to do. By backing Ham’s claim in its Quick Answers box, Google is propagating creationism to millions of users. The Internet has already done its part in spreading common myths that are actually false. There’s only one problem here. Ask Google what it thinks of creationism…
And then ask Google what it thinks about evolution.
Even though the first link in the results is a debate about evolution’s scientific veracity, the Answers Box clearly calls it a scientific theory. In both cases, and algorithm – not a human working for Google – posted the excerpt.
So What Happened, Google?
Google has not released finer details of how it gathers data about its Answers Box, but enough details are available for a fair idea of how it works. In fact, we have taken an in-depth look at Google’s Knowledge Graph, and found that while it isn’t always accurate, it usually gets the job.
The Answers Box isn’t a manually curated selection of the best response for any query. Google is still using algorithms to figure out the best possible answer, and with the dinosaur query, that’s probably what happened. In fact, a few people responded to Sharon Hill saying just that:
— The Noun Verber (@amuchmoreexotic) May 26, 2015
The Answers Box is supposed to be an exercise in semantic search. By that, Google means it tries to understand what you are saying, as a human, and deliver the right information. However, in this instance, Google is failing at its semantic understanding. This becomes even more clear when the same question, when framed in a different way, draws a different answer:
The use of the word “killed” instead of “happened to” makes Google give you a scientific answer, although both questions are essentially asking the same thing. Not that Ham would agree, since he thinks dinosaurs aren’t definitively dead.
Trust and Google
There is no Answer Box when you ask Google, “Should I trust Google?” However, Google search results do influence how adults perceive information, according to a recent study by the University of Washington. While the study specifically looked at adults, it does seems to indicate that children would be just as easily, if not more, influenced.
“I’m not sure what impact this would have on kids who grow up using Google,” study co-author Sean Munson told Deseret News. “But people should question how much they want to rely on these tools for knowledge.”
The accuracy of Google’s Answers Box becomes more important when taking into account the findings of The Google Generation, one of the most-cited studies on the effect of the Internet in the younger generation. Information Week summarizes a key point of the report:
Young people also have difficulty in developing an effective search strategy. As a result, they have a strong preference for using natural language in searching, rather than analyzing which keywords might be more effective.
As we have noted above, the use of the word “killed” drew a different answer from the phrase “happened to”. “Happened to” is just as strong an example of natural language, if not stronger than “killed”.
This isn’t the first time that the Answers Box has come under fire. Search Engine Land has chronicled some weird issues with the Answers Box, such as the query “What is a virtual office” giving the answer to a private firm which provides virtual office solutions. And Small Business Trends recently alleged that the Google Answer Box can seemingly be bought by companies, who want to advertise their products, but it doesn’t come with a “Sponsored” tag or any other indication that it’s a commercially sold link or space.
How You Can Help Change Google’s Mind
Dr. Peter J. Meyers, cognitive psychologist and marketing analyst at Moz, has written extensively on the subject of Google’s Answers Box and the Knowledge Graph. He found that Google does update its Answers Box from time to time, either scraping updated data from the same link or using a new link altogether.
While we were writing this story Google took down the dinosaur box mentioned, but if you see a similar problem you can give Google feedback. Here’s how:
- Go to Google.com
- Search for whatever brings up the incorrect Knowledge Box (eg., “what happened to the dinosaurs”, without the quotation marks)
- Under the Answers box, click the “Feedback” button
- Tell Google whether its answer is Incorrect or Not Useful, and state your reason.
If enough people write in to Google and ask it to change its mind, it should hopefully pressure the company into taking action. After all:
Do You Trust Google Search?
This entire episode raises an important question. How much do you trust Google’s search results? How accurate do you usually find them? Let’s talk this all through in the comments below.