The Waters of the Sahara, and How Google Handles the Truth

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[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

Google is considering ways to rank websites by “trustworthiness” rather than by (relatively) objective standards such as frequency of keywords, upload speed, the average length of visits to a site, and the number of other sites linking to that site (along with the number of sites that link to those sites, and so on).

It’s important. Highly ranked sites appear first in Google results and, obviously, get a lot more visitors. Getting downlisted by Google could kill a website. At the very least it would cripple a site’s ability to distribute information.

In March, Fox News noted (http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2015/03/05/google-works-to-rank-sites-based-on-truthfulness/):

[A] Google research team released a report this month on ranking search results based on how factual websites are. They propose eventually using that to change Google rankings, which are currently based on website popularity. The Google researchers give, as an example, websites that say President Obama was born in Kenya; such sites would be penalized in Google rankings, whereas sites that correctly say he was born in the U.S. would get a boost in rankings. That fact is not controversial, but critics worry that this is a first step towards Google playing God and effectively censoring content it does not like. They fear that skeptics of things like climate change or more immigration (both subjects that Google founders have expressed strong feelings about) might find their websites buried if this ranking system were adopted.

“I worry about this issue greatly… My site gets a significant portion of its daily traffic from Google,” Anthony Watts, who runs Watts Up With That, a popular blog that is skeptical of global warming claims, told FoxNews.com.

New Scientist reported (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530102.600-google-wants-to-rank-websites-based-on-facts-not-links):

The internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

Google’s search engine currently uses the number of incoming links to a web page as a proxy for quality, determining where it appears in search results. So pages that many other sites link to are ranked higher. This system has brought us the search engine as we know it today, but the downside is that websites full of misinformation can rise up the rankings, if enough people link to them.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page. “A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy,” says the team (arxiv.org/abs/1502.03519v1). The score they compute for each page is its Knowledge-Based Trust score.

The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet.

And here’s what the Washington Post said at (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/02/google-has-developed-a-technology-to-tell-whether-facts-on-the-internet-are-true/):

To be really clear, this is 100 percent theoretical: It’s a research paper, not a product announcement or anything equally exciting. (Google publishes hundreds of research papers a year.) Still, the fact that a search engine could effectively evaluate truth, and that Google is actively contemplating that technology, should boggle the brain. After all, truth is a slippery, malleable thing — and grappling with it has traditionally been an exclusively human domain.

Per this recent paper, however, it’s not too difficult for computers to determine whether a given statement is true or false. Basically, to evaluate a stated fact, you only need two things: the fact and a reference work to compare it to. Google already has the beginnings of that reference work, in the form of its Knowledge Graph — the thing that displays “August 15, 1990” when you search “Jennifer Lawrence birthday,” or “American” when you search “Obama nationality.” . . .

The distant suggestion, these researchers write, is that Google’s version of the truth would iterate over time. At some point, perhaps even Google’s hotly debated and much-studied ranking algorithm — the creator and destroyer of a million Web sites! — could begin including accuracy among the factors it uses to choose the search results you see. . . .

That could be huge, frankly: In one trial with a random sampling of pages, researchers found that only 20 of 85 factually correct sites were ranked highly under Google’s current scheme. A switch could, theoretically, put better and more reliable information in the path of the millions of people who use Google every day. And in that regard, it could have implications not only for SEO [search engine optimization] — but for civil society and media literacy. It’s worth noting, in fact, that the Barack-Obama-nationality example comes straight from the Google report*, which would seem to imply that the technology’s creators envision it as a tool against stubborn misconceptions and conspiracy theories.

If you’re not scared, you should be. We’re talking about censorship on a world scale.

Given the company’s huge role in the flow of information—and its close ties to the Obama administration—it’s reasonable to assume that the “trustworthiness” factor will be used to promote left-wing views on issues like Global Warming.

Google, if it chose to do evil, could give higher rankings to sites of left-wing organizations that have “science” or “scientist” in their names (the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Science in the Public Interest) or higher rankings to government propaganda sites or to the sites of corporations seeking to profit from Global Warming fears. Google could deep-six sites that, like this one, focus on the scientific evidence on the issue.

It is telling that the Google report on ranking-by-truth cited, as an example of a trustworthy website, Wikipedia—an online encyclopedia that, on political topics, is systematically censored by the Left.

For years, the Left has whined about how the Internet makes it possible for information to get to the public without the approval of “gate-keepers.” They have longed for a way to get their critics to shut up, just shut the hell up.  (New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in 2009 about the superiority of China’s Communist government: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”) Google could take us a long way toward Friedman’s dream and most other people’s nightmare.

 

Google “facts”

Would you like to see an example of what Google considers fact?

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Google the term “average earth temperature.”  Assuming that they haven’t changed it by the time you read this, you will get a so-called answer box with the statement (in the second sentence) that “Since the dawn of agriculture 11,000 years ago, civilization has enjoyed a relatively stable climate.”  Really??

Tell that to the ancient Africans who used to pull 300-pound fish from the waters of the Sahara and the 19th Century Londoners who held “frost fairs” on the frozen surface of the Thames!

The Sahara dried out and became a desert, apparently over a 5,000-year period that ended around the 10th Century. Gobero in Niger was a lakeside hunting and fishing settlement beginning around 8000 B.C.; it was occupied by two distinct peoples, chronologically on either side of a 1,000-year drought.  By 3900 B.C., drought ended the Ubaid Empire and forced people to move to the Nile Valley—thus leading to the first great Western civilization in Egypt.

Lake Mega-Chad, the largest freshwater lake in the world, disappeared from the Sahara, and dust from the dried-out Sahara fertilized South America, creating the great rainforest there.

The Saqqaq people came to Greenland around 2500 B.C., then disappeared due to cooling around 850 B.C. The Dorset people (Inuits from the Canadian Arctic) came to Greenland around A.D. 1, and apparently left when the climate warmed. The Vikings arrived in Greenland in A.D. 980.

Between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., cooling caused a drop in sea level and created the Bahamas.

Between A.D. 760 and the early years of the 11th Century, a series of multi-year droughts collapsed the Mayan civilization in Mexico.

Around the 10th Century, northern sea ice melted, allowing the Vikings to create an empire that included a colony in North America.  Vikings conquered most of England, then lost the country to Normans (i.e., Norsemen, Vikings who had settled in France centuries earlier). Russia was named after the Vikings (“Rus”). Then the climate changed, and Greenland was cut off, and by the 15th Century the Greenland colony had vanished. As sea ice returned, forests retreated, creating a shortage of the wood that was needed to build ships. So much for the Viking empire.

There were vineyards in northern England, and cereal grains were harvested on European farms more than 1,000 feet above sea level. Then, by the 1300s, English vineyard disappeared, while fish replaced cereal grains as the major food source in Iceland.

Rat populations soared in central Asia when it got warm. When it got cold, rat populations plummeted and fleas hitched a ride on camels and humans to Europe, where at least a third of the population died from flea-borne plague (the Black Death).

By the 17th Century, advancing glaciers were causing floods and crushing villages in the Alps and famine was forcing some 100,000 Scots to flee to Ireland. Witches were being blamed for crop failures across most of Europe, in a manner analogous to blaming the Koch Brother for Global Warming.

In 1775, drifting sand dunes destroyed villages in Denmark. In 1780, for the first time in recorded history, New York Harbor froze over.

When the Little Ice Age ended in the early-to-mid-19th Century, things got warmer in fits and starts, until the mid-1940s, when temperatures leveled off for a while, then fell, then rose, then stabilized. For roughly 18 years, there’s been no measurable change in earth’s average temperature. (Even the government bureaucrats who recently claimed that 2014 was “the warmest year on record” were obliged to retract that claim, admitting that it probably wasn’t true even based on their own figures; that 1998 or 2005 might have been warmer; and that the “warmest year” claim was based on a supposed increase of zero-point-zero-two degrees, which is too small for science to measure.)

 

Again, quoting Google: “Since the dawn of agriculture 11,000 years ago, civilization has enjoyed a relatively stable climate.”  Which is true, I guess, if you ignore entire civilizations that rose and fell as the climate changed.

I guess it depends on the meaning of “relatively,” or the meaning of “stable,” or, perhaps, the meaning of “is.”

The claim of a “relatively stable” climate is a critical point in the climate controversy. For more than a quarter century, since the beginning of the major public debate over Global Warming, the Left has tried to create the impression that the climate was stable for thousands of years until mankind screwed it all up. See, for example, the infamous Hockey Stick graph.

Today,  Leftists who accuse “deniers” of refusing to accept the fact of climate change—even as they deny the most important fact about climate change, which is that “climate change” is just another term for ”climate.”

Climate change, as history shows, is very real, and was occurring long before SUVs or coal-fired power plants or factories or cities or agriculture. Indeed, it was occurring before there were human beings or mammals or dinosaurs. It is a necessary component of climate. That’s why the Left changed the term “global warming” to “climate change.” That way, they would seem to be correct whether it got warmer or colder—or warmer in some places and colder in others, or warmer in winter and colder in summer, or warmer at night and colder in the daytime—and whether hurricanes or tornados or droughts got more frequent or less frequent or more severe or less severe. Heads we win, tails you lose.

 

Last September, Google stopped providing support to the American Legislative Exchange Council—the national organization of mainstream/conservative state legislators—because of its pro-science position on Warming. As USA Today noted:

Google chairman Eric Schmidt announced this week that his company would leave the American Legislative Exchange Council, saying the company’s support was a “mistake” and it would not align with groups that deny climate change. Virginia-based ALEC has opposed state efforts that require a percentage of electricity come from renewable [sic] energy.

“We funded (ALEC) as part of a political campaign for something unrelated (to climate change),” Schmidt said Monday on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.” He said Google believes political decisions should be based on facts, adding “the facts of climate change are not in question anymore.”

“Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” he said. “And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”

Lying, you see, is a privilege that the Google folks reserve for themselves and their friends.

 

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* The “birther” issue is often cited by Chris Matthews-type kooks on the Left because it makes critics of Obama policies look bad. It was never a significant issue, of course; I was editor of the Tea Party’s magazine, Tea Party Review, and I have never had a conversation with a Tea Partier or conservative or anyone else who believed that President Obama was anything other than an American citizen by birth. In fact, Tea Partiers and conservatives had nothing to do with the issue; the birth-citizenship issue was first raised in the 2008 campaign by the New York Times (suggesting that John McCain might be ineligible for the Presidency because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone); it was the Hillary Clinton campaign that, in 2008, spread non-citizenship rumors about Barack Obama; and it was a conservative journalist, and apparently no other reporter, who actually bothered to check out the born-in-Kenya story (he determined that that it was false.

It is true, by the way, that many people initially misunderstood the President’s biography (“son of a Kenyan goat-herd”) and assumed that he was born in Kenya—apparently a common belief at Harvard when he was a student there—and it is true that, once Obama denied it publicly, those who disliked him were less likely to believe his denial than those who liked him. (As the scientists say: Duh.)

In any event, only a small percentage of Americans even knows about the Constitutional requirement that a president be a natural born citizen, so, for all but a tiny number, it has always been irrelevant whether Mr. Obama was born in the U.S. and whether his mother was an American citizen.

The fact that, among all possible examples of fake “facts” that people believe, the Google team cited a leftwing meta-myth (the myth that birtherism is or was a significant factor in creating opposition to the President’s policies or significant in any other way)—well, that tells you all you need to know about the ability of the Google folks to fairly judge the trustworthiness of websites.

 

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