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Monday, 18 February 2013

Google and Truth

A lesson about Google learnt from misfuelling...

For the first (and last, I hope) time in my life, I put the wrong fuel in my car. Fortunately it was diesel in a petrol car, not petrol in a diesel car (which is double bad news, here's why for the mechanically minded: (i) petrol is a poor lubricant, but diesel engines use the fuel to lubricate parts; and (ii) petrol is a good solvent - therefore it dissolves the diesel which prevents it from lubricating the engine. Ouch!, or should that be crunch?).

By the time I realised the error my tank was filled with about 70% petrol and 30% diesel.

From this simple mistake I have learnt a lesson or two about where to find truth.....

Put in the same predicament, what would you do? Many if not most of us today, all too instinctively, reach for Google......

Google into the search bar went a variety of word strings, "Put diesel in petrol car", "70% petrol, 30% diesel", "Effect of diesel in petrol car" and so on. I wanted to know whether the car was drivable, what the effects of the diesel would be and so on.

All the websites on page one were companies wanting you to part with around £200, whether "Fuel-fix", "Wrong-fuel" or "Fuel-doctor". No answers here. Well of course Google is powered by money, not truth, so I should have expected this.

Next on the list were a series of public forums where Joe Blogs can give his two-penny worth of advice. Not very good advice, I am afraid, conflicting, confusing and misleading. No answers here. I guess Google is next powered by public consensus.

What I was looking for - an expert opinion on the effects of diesel in a petrol car at varying ratios was nowhere to be found - at least not on the first few pages. The best I got was an AA comment that if it was 10% or less diesel you could get away with it. But did this mean 20% since everyone covers themselves, did it mean 40% in older cars which are less sensitive, and so on. None of this was available on Google. Why not?

Google is powered by sophisticated mathematical algorithim (equation) which works out, not truth, but relevancy. Anyone who has done maths will know that all sorts of coefficients and terms can be included and adjusted, each one of them will give a different weighting to the final results. Google works out which websites are likely to give you the 'best answer' according to its criteria.....

...there's the rub.

Since Google needs to make money, companies that want your money come top of the list; though to be fair, most people having made this mistake, will want to know who can fix it for them. But the second raft of answers, the public forums are driven by the contemporary democratization of truth. Truth is not to be found with the experts, but with Joe Public.

This is how Wikipedia works, contra Encyclopedia Britannica. The latter asks 60,000 experts to write expert researched articles. Wikipedia, asks any of the world's 7 billion ordinary people to write their articles. According to them, "the Wikipedia model allows anyone to edit." In fact you can do so completely anonymously, if you wish: an unknown shepherd in outer Mongolia can write an article on the Higgs Boson.

I don't perosnally think the battle lines here are as simple as some make out: I don't believe shepherds are stupid. There is a real danger of entrusting truth to an elite group of people, just as there is in trusting truth to everyone. The "experts" may be filled with all the bias's of their age which may be great hindrances to truth. A shepherd might point out an obvious error a scientist is making (which he cannot see, having grown up immersed in a sea of prejudices and paradigms). The public on the other hand may too easily be swayed by the latest viral epinion. I think I prefer Encyclopedia Britannica, but I don't despise Joe Public.

What I never got to (at least on the pages I viewed) was an article written by someone who really knew what they were on about, telling me the facts and the pros and cons and allowing me to make an informed decision as to what to do next.

A more careful approach to truth
In the day of Google and Wikipedia, we need to sound a cautionary note on sources of truth. We cannot rely on either of these sources, which are driven by money (in the case of Google) and consensus (in the case of Wikipedia). Neither money nor popularity are adequate foundations for truth.

We need a healthy skepticism towards everything we read on the web and we need to stop being quite so  lazy in our search for truth. A visit to the library is still a better route towards truth.

Ultimate Truth
When it is spiritual truth we are searching for, ultimate answers about life death, God and meaning,  Google and Wikipedia are of very little help. Instead we must find our way to the one who called himself  "The Way, the Truth and the Life" and whose disciple Peter said "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)

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