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.

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