December 17, 2013

Scientists are…

Posted by Dr. Laura Guertin

On December 4, Phil Plait, the author of Slate Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog, published a post that really sent some seismic waves through the science world.  Someone alerted him that if you type “scientists are” in a Google search box, Google with automatically suggest the following words to complete the phrase: liars, liberals, stupid.  I was (am still) shocked by this, so of course, I had to try it out for myself.  Here it is, 13 days after the original Bad Astronomy post, and we’re not looking any better:

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 11.36.17 AMWhy is this happening?  It comes from a Google feature called autocomplete.  Based on the search activity of Google search engine users and the content of web pages indexed by Google, the user is provided “helpful” suggestions for making searching faster and easier.  Google also says this feature can “rest your fingers” by requiring less typing and may catch spelling mistakes in the search box.

What does this mean?  It certainly doesn’t shine a positive light on what people are searching for online relating to scientists, and it certainly seems to indicate that there are several webpages that have negative content towards people that do science.  Scientists are well aware of the websites that use words to attack science and scientists – but is it really that many that these terms rise to the top of the list?

What impacts might this have on students, K-12 and university-level, that are researching possible career fields and/or writing papers on scientists?  Will these autocomplete suggestions have students second-guessing a career in STEM?  We can only hope not.  Phil Plait has some great suggestions at the end of his post as to what we can do to create better search results, and a stronger/more positive identity for scientists.  I agree with all of his suggestions, and feel that even non-scientists that have a passion and appreciation for science can help the cause!

And, while you are at it, can you all help get better search results for “geologists are…”?  Much appreciated!

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