The other night my son asked me how woolly mammoths became extinct. Since I didn’t know the answer, I did what any good computer scientist would do: a Google search on the phrase, how did woolly mammoths go extinct. The second link in the search results, innocuously titled, "Extinction of the woolly mammoth," seemed scientific at first glance. However, a closer look showed some questionable ideas, such as the claim that there was only one ice age in the history of the earth. It turns out this article is on the Answers in Genesis creationist web site (no, I’m not linking to the site, as their PageRank is obviously far too high already).
I’m not disturbed that there are folks who hold creationist views, or that this web site exists. But I do find it somewhat troubling that it came up as the second hit on a Google search. A child exploring this question on his own might not have been discerning enough to filter out this bogus result in favor of legitimate scientific theories.
Interestingly, the Answers in Genesis site turned up only on the second page of Yahoo search results, and not until the fourth page of Windows Live search results, for the same query. So why did it turn up so high in the Google results?
I think this experience demonstrates a couple interesting points about search engines:
- Search engines aren’t nearly perfect. Just because something shows up in the first few hits doesn’t mean it’s actually relevant or accurate.
- It’s worth trying search engines other than Google once in a while.
Finally, it’s worth reiterating that you can’t always trust what you read on the web. Just as when reading a book, watching television, reading a newspaper, or listening to talk radio, it’s a good idea to think about the biases of the source and take them into account in your assessment of the information’s accuracy.