Research: A Slippery Path to Wisdom Now

January 19, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

When deciding whether to believe something on the Internet all one must do is google it, right? Not so fast. Citing five studies performed between 2019 and 2022, Scientific American describes “How Search Engines Boost Misinformation.” Writer Lauren Leffer tells us:

“Encouraging Internet users to rely on search engines to verify questionable online articles can make them more prone to believing false or misleading information, according to a study published today in Nature. The new research quantitatively demonstrates how search results, especially those prompted by queries that contain keywords from misleading articles, can easily lead people down digital rabbit holes and backfire. Guidance to Google a topic is insufficient if people aren’t considering what they search for and the factors that determine the results, the study suggests.”

Those of us with critical thinking skills may believe that caveat goes without saying but, alas, it does not. Apparently evaluating the reliability of sources through lateral reading must be taught to most searchers. Another important but underutilized practice is to rephrase a query before hitting enter. Certain terms are predominantly used by purveyors of misinformation, so copy-and-pasting a dubious headline will turn up dubious sources to support it. We learn:

“For example, one of the misleading articles used in the study was entitled ‘U.S. faces engineered famine as COVID lockdowns and vax mandates could lead to widespread hunger, unrest this winter.’ When participants included ‘engineered famine’—a unique term specifically used by low-quality news sources—in their fact-check searches, 63 percent of these queries prompted unreliable results. In comparison, none of the search queries that excluded the word ‘engineered’ returned misinformation. ‘I was surprised by how many people were using this kind of naive search strategy,’ says the study’s lead author Kevin Aslett, an assistant professor of computational social science at the University of Central Florida. ‘It’s really concerning to me.’”

That is putting it mildly. These studies offer evidence to support suspicions that thoughtless searching is getting us into trouble. See the article for more information on the subject. Maybe a smart LLM will spit it out for you, and let you use it as your own?

Cynthia Murrell, January 19, 2024


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