What is Truth?

In the New Testament Bible, John 18:38, Pilate responds to Jesus’s statement that he should bear witness to the truth with this question, “What is truth?”  Two thousand years later, we seem to still be grappling with this question.

TruthThis past year, 2016, was a year in which “truth” became very nuanced.  Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the 2016 international word of the year.  It defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  We saw this play out in the United States presidential election.  Fact-checkers described numerous times when candidate Trump stretched the truth, and yet this seemed to not matter to his followers.  According to a Washington Post-ABC News post last November, Trump was seen as more honest than Clinton by an eight-point margin.

This is the backdrop to next week’s EDU 6323 lesson on web-based search.  Google Search is the most used search engine on the web, handling more than 3 billion searches every day.  Last year’s statistics ranked it with nearly two-third’s market share globally.  The main purpose of Google Search is to hunt for text in publicly accessible documents offered by web servers. It was originally developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1997. I remember using Alta Vista before that…but Google rapidly became the search leader. Google Search provides several features beyond searching for words. These include synonyms, weather forecasts, time zones, stock quotes, maps, earthquake data, movie showtimes, airports, home listings, and sports scores. There are special features for numbers, dates, and some specific forms, including ranges, prices, temperatures, money and measurement unit conversions, calculations, package tracking, patents, area codes, and language translation. In June 2011 Google introduced “Google Voice Search” to search for spoken, rather than typed, words – an alternate to Apple’s Siri.

Search EnginesMy lesson includes an exploration of advanced search on Google, as well as an exploration of web site ownership through WhoIs and the Wayback Machine. I am asking my students to pick a 2016 political action committee from this website … and then first search for this PAC using Google to provide the baseline information for analysis. They will then compare their Google returns to those generated by Bing, DuckDuckGo and the Chinese search engine Baidu, Do they get the same results?  What is different? Which do they prefer?  Then I will have them analyze the website for their SuperPac to see if they can find who registered and authored that website. Using the Wayback Machine, they will see if they can determine how long the has website been around.

My hope is that this exploration will generate some discussion around “truth”.  Dan Rockwell noted this past week that when he asked CEO’s at a dinner what kept them up at night, several shared ideas around truth (among others):

  • Biased media creating mis-perceptions.
  • Seeking input from others.
  • Being viewed as trustworthy.
  • Navigating transparency.
  • Getting it right when people ask for advice.

The Chronicle of Higher Education this past week published a special report called “The Post-Truth Issue.”  Two articles stood out to me. Safiya Noble, in “Google and the Misinformed Public,” noted that “…Google and Facebook have no transparent curation process by which the public can judge the credibility or legitimacy of the information they propagate.”  She goes on to say:

“Online search can oversimplify complex phenomena. The results, ranked by algorithms treated as trade secrets by Google, are divorced from context and lack guidance on their veracity or reliability. Search results feign impartiality and objectivity, even as they fail to provide essential information and knowledge we need: knowledge traditionally acquired through teachers, professors, books, history, and experience.”

Lucy Ferriss, in “Post-Truth and Chaos,” had an interesting closing:

“Truth, in other words, is a thing — a goal, a bedrock, a provable hypothesis, a conclusion from evidence, an insight to which, per Keats, the perception of beauty can bring us. Post-truth is a strategy. Its relationship to truth is strategic. Its goal is the exploitation of emotion. And while it cannot kill truth, it does in a way look past it, as a hubristic traveler might try to look past that North Star, and find beyond it utter darkness, nothingness, chaos.”

Determining validity on the web should be a part of digital literacy.  At lunch this past month with Enoch Hale, Director of VCU’s new Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, he made an interesting comment that his job really was more about “thinking” – thinking critically – than teaching or learning.  As we approach this next week, I want my EDU6323 students to think critically about what they find on the web, and about truth.

Truth?

{Graphics: Edgar, EvidenceUnseen}

Deeper Searches

google-search-resultsIn the third week of EDU 6323, my students explored web searches.  I had them read the second chapter of Michelle Miller’s Minds Online, Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid, Eszter Hargittai and colleagues’ Trust Online, and Clive Thompson’s Why Kids Can’t Search.  I also covered advanced search techniques on Google as well as the use of WhoIs and the Wayback Machine.

As an exercise for the week, my students were tasked with picking a 2016 Presidential candidate … and then first searching using Google to determine the “Super Pac” that is backing that candidate … and then trying the same search using Bing and DuckDuckGo to see if they got the same results.  One of my Asian-American students added Baidu, which was rather interesting!  They then were to explore more deeply the website for the SuperPac they had chosen to see if they could find who registered and authored that website. Using the Wayback Machine, they explored how long has the website had been around.

This was the first time I have tried this particular activity in one of my online classes, and I was impressed with the analysis of my students.  First, they learned a lot about SuperPacs, One of the go to websites was OpenSecrets.Org – which they in turn analyzed for validity.  Several were surprised to find SuperPacs supporting Bernie Sanders (though this apparently was not reciprocated).  Several not only found the founder of certain SuperPacs, but then dug deeper into data about this person and how that might influence how the SuperPac was being used.

I found the reflections around personal searches most interesting.  As one student noted, “…everyday web searching is superficial compared to the possibilities.”

An interesting quote from one student:

“At this point I took a pause to think about the article “Is Google making us Stupid?”  because in just under half an hour I had learned something very significant about political campaigns in this country, I had read (not skimmed)  several articles, and I certainly felt wiser and more informed.  When I first read the article, before doing this search exercise, I was in agreement with the author– afraid of my thought processes becoming like an algorithm. But last night, when I went to go read a new book that I have,  I noticed something interesting. In order to read a book, I need to take my body off of high alert. It may seem like we are passively searching the Internet, sitting on our butts on the sofa,  but I noticed that my breathing was different,  my calmness level was different, and even the way I felt about reading was different when I was holding a physical book in my hand versus being online.”

Most noted they had used Google without much thought, and appreciated the new awareness of both alternatives as well as search shortcuts within Google.  Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo tended to return similar sites, but the look and feel was different.  All seemed to return news stories ahead of the SuperPacs themselves, which helped reinforce the concept of PageRank.  Interestingly, Baidu returned similar sites, but the taglines in some cases were several years older. Most of my students had not heard of the Wayback Machine or WhoIs before and liked the ability to better understand the history of a website.  Several noted that they could now as parents help their children more critically search!  They seemed to agree that teaching search skills is a digital literacy that needs to start in K-12 and be reinforced in higher education.

searchengines3

Most disagreed with Carr’s viewpoint on Google making us stupid, though his point about skimming over deep reading seemed to resonate.  Most noted that Google is a tool that can make us more efficient…or lead to superficial search.  As one student noted, a hammer can build or tear down.  It is not the tool but the use that counts.  One student suggested that mainstream media and its soundbite mentality had more to do with skimming than any website.

Miller brought up the use of technology to mitigate against cheating in online classes in her second chapter, and that led several of my students to discuss cheating in a digital age.  Most seemed to think that focusing on cheating only in online courses missed the broader point.  Several also suggested that deeper engagement by students could lead to less problems with academic integrity.

So, I was very pleased with how this week’s thought exercise worked.  Next week, my students will begin using Diigo and explore the concept of tagging.

{Graphic: Geomarketing}