Why all of us need to be "search literate"

Even the next president should know how to get beyond Google to evaluate information.

By Cyrus Farivar
Published October 23, 2008 1:50PM (EDT)

Over at John Battelle's SearchBlog (for the uninitiated, Battelle is a long-standing authority on Google and search technology, and is the author of "The Search"), he has a post calling (again) for what he calls "search literacy."

Battelle relates the story of helping his fifth-grade-age daughter the other night with her homework, whose assignment was to look up various election-related words like "incumbent," "poll" and "democracy." The teacher had said that she could either a) use a dictionary, or b) talk to her parents, but using Google wasn't allowed for the reason that "it doesn't work very well."

True enough: If you search for "what is the meaning of polls," only two out of the top five search results are relevant. It gets worse if you type in "what do polls mean," where nothing on the first page of search results provides an actual definition.

So Battelle instantly went for the "define:" function on Google, as in "define:polls," "define:incumbent" or "define:democracy." A lot of people don't know about the various operators that Google has to alter a search query. (Further, Google can do all kinds of conversions, including metric to imperialeuros to dollars and so forth.) Using this function, he showed his daughter, works much better when you want to know the definition of a word.

He then goes on to call for what he calls "search literacy," (and by extension, critical thinking) the idea of being able to form a proper question in a search engine (and by extension to one's peers in real life), and then have the mental capacity to think, analyze, criticize and evaluate that information to come up with the best solution or course of action.

As he wrote in November 2005:

Our schools are instead focused on a testing regime which requires that students focus not on solving problems or determining best courses of action, but rather regurgitating answers. But as many wiser than I have noted through the course of history, the most creative act a human can engage in is not repeating an answer, it is forming a good question.

In an age where the knowledge of mankind is increasingly at our fingertips through the services of Internet search, we must teach our children critical thinking. One can never have all the answers, but if prepared, one can always ask the right question, and from that creative act, learn to find his or her own answer.

Instead, we have leaders that believe that questions have one answer, and they already know what it is. Their mission, then, is to evangelize that answer. That, to me, is a dangerous course. Reversing it by teaching our children to learn, rather than to answer, seems to me to be a noble cause.

What is lacking is precisely this understanding of what the search engines of today can and cannot do. They're great, as Battelle proves, for defining words and spitting back short bursts of information.

However, as James Fallows lamented in June 2005 in a column in the New York Times, for anything more complex, search engines are "surprisingly ineffective."

Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in California's spending on its schools. In the 1960's, when I was in public school there, the legend was that only Connecticut spent more per student than California did. Now, the legend is that only the likes of Louisiana and Mississippi spend less. Was either belief true? When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she gave me the answer off the top of her head. (Answer: right in spirit, exaggerated in detail.) But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools. If it sounds easy, try using keyword searches to find consistent state-by-state data covering the last 40 years.

We live with these imperfections by trying to outguess the engines -- what if I put "per capita spending by states" in quotation marks? -- and by realizing that they're right for some jobs and wrong for others.

Fallows is adept enough with technology to know that sometimes the machine can't possibly know what you mean, whereas a human can. Battelle certainly is too. But how many of our future leaders will be?

I'm not just talking about the ability to actually use the technology -- we all know who wins that contest, at least in this presidential race -- rather, I'm talking about the ability to evaluate information obtained from all possible sources, from advisers big (say, a general in the field or members of one's Cabinet) and small (Google).

As Sarah Vowell wrote in February 2005:

What we should be doing is electing a president with the nitpicky paranoia you'd use to choose a cardiologist -- a stunted conversationalist with dark-circled eyes and paper-cut fingertips who will stay up until 3 tearing into medical journals in five languages trying to figure out how to save your life.

That's the kind of search literacy that I'd want in a president.

Cyrus Farivar

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