more on conspiracies and anti-vaccination

Now I’m beginning to grasp what it must be like to be Cass Sunstein (Sunstein, having proposed the idea of “cognitive infiltration” a few years back, got an entire book from conspiracy theorists in response).

I’m talking, of course, about my most recent column that proposed a solution that I thought was quite innocent: to have search engines add a line on top of some controversial search results to say that they are, well, controversial, and, perhaps, suggest resources that maybe more authoritative on the subject. To judge how well this idea was received by members of certain fringe groups just look at the comments to the piece that ran in Slate; there is hardly an epithet that I haven’t been called!

Some observations:

1. There seems to be a deeply-seated longing for a pro-censorship figure who could then be vehemently opposed by free speech advocates. Alas, I’m not that figure! Virtually half of all commenters on Slate assumed that what I’m advocating is tinkering with algorithms or, worse, hiding results that come from sites that I find cooky. Where in the text do I propose that? Right answer: nowhere. All I proposed was to generate a banner – of the “Be Careful! This subject is disputed!” variety – and place it somewhere next to (unaltered/unchanged!) search results, along with a list of sites that have the best current scientific consensus on an issue (say, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for climate change). I think I haven’t actually pushed this idea far enough in the column; it would be really great to see Google create customized search engines for all those sites and give people an option to search only that universe of sites if they want (much like one can search “one’s world” now with social search). This, of course, would be an optional feature – for people like me, who don’t have the time to sift through thousands of kooky sites.

2. Some people think it won’t stop conspiracy theories or pseudoscience. Well duh: that’s exactly what I wrote in the column! The point is not to eradicate them but to thwart them and to make sure that those who are searching for the most up-to-date information on climate change or vaccination are not recruited by the pseudoscience cabals. This is also, by the way, why I haven’t discussed the efforts of the skeptics (see here); under my scenario – where users are already presented with results from kooky sites on page 1 – those efforts of skeptics have already failed. It’s okay to question whether it’s a valid scenario – perhaps, one needs to go to page 100 of Google Search to see really silly views about vaccination (even though I doubt it) – but if that’s the case then my proposal would impact only a very small universe of queries.

3. Others say it won’t work – there are too many sites and that it’s impractical. Well, yes, I agree: it won’t work with all sites. But this is a case where the perfect is the enemy of the good. Start with just 10 most influential sits – and I’m sure it can make a difference. By the way, most commentators – at Slate and elsewhere – really don’t appreciate the elegance of the solution I proposed. Users actually won’t know which sites Google finds kooky or pseudoscientific or run by conspiracy theorists. The trick is that if one of those sites appears in the first page of top search results for “climate change” or “vaccination” users will see that cautionary banner, asking them to be careful and, perhaps, advising them to stick to a universe of pre-approved sites.

How would Google find kooky sites? How would it know which sites to approve? Well, that’s something to be debated; it can be done in consultation with eminent scientists or a consortium of universities or the Nobel committee. But I really find it hard to believe that a company that can build self-driving cars won’t be able to find 10 sites dedicated to nothing but pseudoscience and that it won’t be able to come up with a list of 10 sites that everyone can trust on a subject like vaccination. Will it have chilling effects on free speech? It might – but only if you really overtheorize it. No results will disappear, nothing will change in the ranking order. I believe that whatever tiny chilling effects such a scheme might have are worth the costs of saving lives that may be lost to silly believes about vaccination.   

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