Friday, January 28, 2011

Creationism and Google Scholar - and why it matters

There's a petition currently going around the intertubes directed at Google which reads:
We, the undersigned, call for Google Scholar to remove the works of Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and the Institute for Creation Research from the Google Scholar search engine because they do not produce scholarly work.
Those three organizations are the leading groups who use the Internet to spread creationism around the world. Specifically, they spread an especially literal interpretation of the Bible and a particularly anti-scientific brand of creationism, Young Earth creationism, which goes beyond quibbling with Darwin and attacks everything we know about biology, geology, astronomy, history, archeology, and a dozen other disciplines by insisting the Earth is only a few thousand years old. In essence, they are using 21st technology to spread 16th century doctrines.

Answers in Genesis in particular you may have heard of, as they are responsible for the notorious atheism=murder billboard in Texas and the Ark Encounter boondoggle in Kentucky. The Institute for Creation research was the outfit whose plan to offer creationist-oriented master's degrees in science education was nixed by Texas.

So why are they showing up in Google Scholar? The unofficial word is that Google doesn't index scholarly sources, it just looks around the Internet for things that look scholarly. Creationists have decades of experience gussying up their doctrines in scientific trappings, so this kind of thing is old hat to them. So, given how Google Scholar works, this was inevitable.

But wouldn't removing these results from Google Scholar be censorship? No. No one is saying these materials should not be accessible at all. Removing them from Google proper or other search engines would be censorship. Removing them from a group of resources advertised as scholarly is truth in advertising.

But who gets to decide what is scholarly? Shouldn't people be allowed to decide for themselves? If this is true, what is the point of differentiating between Google and Google Scholar? What is the point of having a separate search engine dedicated solely to scholarly work if it's just going to give you all the same crap you find in a regular internet search?

Scholarly isn't just a positive adjective. It refers to a set of qualities expected from such work by students, teachers, researchers, and, well, scholars: adherence to the scientific method, respect for the standards of a field of inquiry, peer review, etc. But why does the scholarly community get to decide what is scholarly? Despite the myth (which occasionally turns out to be true, admittedly) of a bold loner who challenges consensus by building a perpetual motion machine or a car that runs on water in his garage, the fact is that this self-policing community insures that quality work adhering to a set of standards is produced, and is largely successful at this. Creationism's decades of attempts to simultaneous enter this community, defy and topple it, and mimic it with a shadow faux-scholarly apparatus show not that they are being unfairly barred from the party, but that they're the drunks who should be kept outside lest they pee on all the furniture and steal the silverware.

Shouldn't people learn to distinguish between genuine scholarly work and the fake stuff? If they do, then we can stuff whatever junk we want into Google Scholar and it won't matter. Ideally, yes, people should learn to do this, but the fact is that they don't. And is Google Scholar really the proper vehicle for people to learn how to do this? It's a resource that people go to expecting to find scholarly sources. The more non-scholarly stuff you add to it, the less useful it becomes in finding what it is advertised to find. Even worse, the danger is that students and others untutored in distinguishing the gold from the straw would be misled into thinking that these creationism resources are genuine - exactly the goal of creationists. You should be wary of what you find on the internet, but you shouldn't have to be a scientist to be able to find an actual scholarly paper in a resource designed to find scholarly materials. Isn't the whole point of Google Scholar to open up scholarly resources to non-experts who don't have access to expert databases and journals? So why should you have to become an expert just to use it competently?

Google Scholar is an amazing resource in a number of ways. In addition to opening up these resources to the world, it combines multiple types of materials into a single search: books, journal articles, web pages. This usefulness is hindered by the fact that it fails in many basic ways as a scholarly database. Unlike most scholarly databases, it doesn't provide a list of what sources it is indexing and it doesn't provide an option to limit your source to peer-reviewed works or any other way to separate the dubious from the reputable. Often when you do find a genuine peer reviewed article, it is a link to the Jstor database. Potentially useful, but you have to log into Jstor through a library or school, so you might as well have used one of their databases in the first place. If you searched a real scholarly database for, say, creationism, you might find articles by scholars debunking creationist pseudoscience or examining creationism as a sociological phenomenon. If you search Google Scholar for creationism, the first hit is the book Scientific Creationism by Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research. Google also provides its cover, which makes it look like one of those ancient astronaut books so popular in the 70s, and content-wise it isn't so far removed from them.

Why does any of this matter? Because science, education, and truth matter. Because if we allow creationist pseudoscience to include itself among actual scholarly works, then those things are eroded. We can't simply wave this issue away by saying that people will be able to tell the difference when they use Google Scholar. A recent report about evolution in science classrooms shows that 72% of students are not properly exposed to the workings of evolution in school. So how are these people going to be able to sort through scholarly works picking out the ones that represent science they were never taught? Creationists have yet to win a court victory allowing them to teach their doctrines as science, but 13% of teachers go ahead and do it anyway. About 60% of science teachers muddle their way through teaching a watered-down version to avoid "controversy". To be fair, if they wanted to wade into controversies and fight religious nuts, they'd become scrappy bloggers instead of science teachers. Their responsibility is to actually teach this science, of course, and they are letting their students down by not doing so. But Google legitimizing creationist pseudoscience on the Internet isn't exactly going to embolden these teachers and is another in an endless series of strikes against getting this material to students. As long as the culture in the US legitimizes creationism - the media presenting "both sides" and framing science and nonsense as two equal opposing sides of an issue, for example - then science teachers will never be emboldened to actually teach science.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Goodbye to another accidental hero

I heard the news today, oh boy.

I guess there isn't any point in writing about anything else tonight.

From the outside it looks like liberals deify media figures they admire. There may be some of that going on, but what I actually think is going on is that these figures become symbolic of all the aspirations and frustrations that liberals have.

If you are a conservative, you can flip the dial and there's something for everyone. Want a faux-blue collar "independent"? Bill O'Reilly! Want a tearful conspiracy theorist? Glenn Beck! Want a mouth-breathing lunatic? Michael Savage! Want a namecalling pseudo-intellectual? Mark Levin! I'm not sure what Sean Hannity is, but you've got him too. But liberals don't make it into the mainstream through the normal channels. They become milquetoast moderate centrists parroting Village cliches or they become strident, fire-breathing conservatives.

Liberals aren't invited to these parties, so they have to break into the mainstream in other ways. Al Franken was, of course, a comedian. Paul Krugman was hired by the New York Times to write about economic matters and never would have been hired if they'd known he'd be so "shrill". Rachel Maddow was an academic who stumbled into broadcasting by winning a local radio station contest. And Keith Olbermann was a sportscaster who was hired to do one of those lame snarky (and not particularly partisan or strident) pseudo-news shows that were so popular in the early 2000s. Since they don't come up through the normal channels and aren't bred by established interests, these accidental heroes recieve an outsized share of liberal attention and admiration. Even if you don't particularly like one of them (personally, I barely ever watched Olbermann), they were still important, if only because they were so few in number.

Lazy thinkers and partisans claim that MSNBC is the "liberal" alternative to Fox because some of these accidental heroes appear there, another example of the stupid false equivalencies that poison our political discourse. A few prominent media personalities does not make a channel liberal, especially one that promotes a three-hour daily morning show hosted by a former Republican Congressman. A few prominent media personalities are not the equivalent of an entire network of conservatives unified around an agenda issued via a daily memo to its employees by a corporation that donates millions to the GOP. A few prominent media personalities who criticize both left and right are not the equivalent of the coordinated attack on liberals by an entire network.

The evidence that MSNBC is far from liberal is abundant, starting with the firing of Phil Donahue in 2003. He hosted the channel's highest rated show, but he was a liberal and a critic of the war, so he had to go. This isn't a conspiracy theory, there's a memo that proves it, stating that they worried that Donahue would provide "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity".

Then there's Ashleigh Banfield, groomed by MSNBC as some kind of glasses-wearing Action Barbie and hurried into every picturesque sand dune in the war zone they could find. That is, until she made a speech criticizing Fox News and she was taken to the woodshed. She disappeared from the air and even took away her desk in the office.

And now Keith Olbermann, who suddenly disappears from MSNBC right after the FCC approves the NBC/Comcast merger.

I'm baffled by those people who assert, in the face of all evidence, that the media in general and MSNBC is liberal. It's a great talking point and will continue to be repeated by those who parrot talking points and believed by those who believe talking points. And if you aren't exposed to a wide range of media, perhaps you actually believe that Alan Colmes is truly representative of the far left. But if you are a progressive, then it's a sad day. Not because of Keith Olbermann in particular, but because there's one less strident voice in the mainstream media representing something left of Alan Colmes.

Things are getting better in some respects. There's the internet and the blogosphere, more access to information so we can more easily get the real facts and debunk right-wing lies. But in other respects it's just as hard as it's ever been. You have to seek out those sources, and if you are one of those people who don't or can't, you're left in the clutches of Fox News, under-informed and victim to the agenda of Fox and corporate America. The fewer accidental heroes like Keith Olbermanns we have in the media, the more likely this is to happen.

I don't really have any great conclusion I've reached here. As the Clash would say, it's just another story. The same old story it's always been.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Student trolls university, nobody cares

The New York Times reports that this Friday a student named Nic Ramos paid his tuition at the University of Colorado, Boulder in dollar bills: "all $14,309.51 of it — using dollar bills, a 50-cent piece and a penny."

Ramos did this, he said, because "I wanted to give the school a different way to look at tuition." But I doubt that anyone in the administration is going to give Ramos' stunt a second thought once the inconvenience and press attention have disappeared.

The Times rightfully made the comparison to last month's "violent protests" in the streets of the UK following tuition increases there. Here, they point out, such things are greeted with "shrugs". Is Ramos' protest going to make anyone look at the issue in "a different way"? How? Is Ramos voting for office holders who will support higher education and actively working to get others to do so? If he is, then he has my thanks, support, and apologies, but I doubt it. If not, then he's merely doing what so many apathetic people in the US do, lashing out at the nearest "authority figure" in an empty gesture that doesn't even merit the label "symbolic" given to it by the Times.

If Ramos had given this matter some thought, perhaps he would have realized that his protest wouldn't reach any actual authority figures. He has merely inconvenienced a group of public employees during their job's busiest and most difficult time. To be sure, having been a university and college employee in a number of different jobs, I encountered plenty of people who needed to be reminded that their purpose was to assist students, not themselves, but I also encountered many others who needed no such reminder because they were dedicated to that task. Ramos' immature protest makes no distinction between the two.

This sort of attitude has been successfully exploited by politicians and pundits who have actual power to influence decisions about higher education that directly affect Ramos' tuition rates. Lots of people have a bad experience, either from a genuinely bad employee or because they are just angry they didn't get their way, with a public employee, a teacher or somebody at the DMV or the IRS. Those politicians and pundits have successfully made those public employees the target of public anger, shifting the blame for all their budget cuts and bad decisions onto people who are just as much victims of those decisions as the general public. They're members of the general public too. Their children go to the same schools, they get their licenses at the same DMV. It's those politicians and pundits whose kids are in private school, who have aids to run their errands at the DMV for them, who drive away from the blame in their limos while the public lashes out at itself.