Practical Notes: Using Google to find out what is really true?


googleToday I’ll try something slightly different and will instead offer a few notes on how to leverage Google to find stuff out. I should however start with one very important observation, Google search is just a tool, and like any other tool it is perhaps akin to a piece of rope that you can either climb with or hang yourself with, so that are two aspects to consider …

  1. Mechanics: Tips and tricks to help you use google
  2. Psychology: Understanding that our own human bias can skew how you use the results you get back

… so on with the show.

Google Tips and Tricks

The rather obvious is of course going to the google search and typing in the right question, but there are a few things that are worth understanding, and if you grasp and use these features, then you can rapidly refine your searching. So here are 5 quick google tips … oh wait, final note on this, what is below is not a definitive list, there are lots more and so the point here is to highlight that there are things that you can do if you know how.

Use Quotes

If you type in a phrase then you will get pages that contain those individual words you typed. However, enclosing what you are after within quotes will instead search for that precise phrase. For example, type the word green following by the word peas and you get 3.2 million hits, but type “green peas” (including the quotes) and you get a far more focused result because it is now searching for the precise combination of those words instead of all pages that contain both of those words.

You can also use wildcards

An Asterisk acts like a wildcard for anything. Suppose you are looking for a quote but can only remember a small part of it, well this is the answer. For example typing “Green Peas * ham” gives you a page about Green Peas and ham and also a page about green peas with ham.

Filter stuff using the minus sign

Suppose I want a book, not a recipe. OK, so eliminate things that contain a specific word by adding it to your search with a minus sign. For example along with “Green Pean * Ham” you can also (outside the quotes) type -soup

Searching images

Somebody posts a picture and claims it is of X, but you suspect it is not X at all and that they have simply grabbed a random picture to assert a daft claim. OK so grab a url (a web address) for the image, and then paste that into google image search and see if you can find where the image actually came from. As an example I used this strategy to debunk claims being asserted that thousands were being slaughtered by Buddhist monks in Burma. The pictures associated with the claims came from elsewhere and were from old news stories about something completely different.

Use Special words

Google understands specific words, for example if you use “vs” between things then it will trigger a comparison (Mac vs Windows), or if you are not sure what a specific word means, then type define before it (define grammar).

I’m skating over the surface here, there is lots more and so it is worth investing a bit of time in discovering what you can do because it would potentially save you a lot of time later. So how can you find out more google tips and tricks? If only we had some means for searching for stuff like that … oh wait.

Google & Human Psychology

OK, so as a skeptic this is the far more interesting bit. You can, and many do, start with a specific assumption and then proceed to google. Most will find something that they can then use to confirm whatever assumption they started with, so yes, pure results are not enough.

Suppose for example a flat-earth believer (they do exist), googled flat-earth evidence. They would indeed potentially find “proof” that the earth is flat. In other words, how can you work out the things that are actually true if all you are doing is cherry-picking stuff to confirm a pre-existing conclusion.

We should perhaps be aware of a few other things

SEO manipulation takes place

We are all being conditioned by google to accept that the top results are the most correct and reliable ones, and by doing so we fail to consider the there is a vast sea of SEO folks who make an entire profession out of manipulating Google results, usually for commercial reasons, but not always, sometimes different agendas are in play (politics and religion) … so be aware that this is a distinct possibility when you get a list of hits for your search.

Naturally Selected Communities

A couple of days ago some chap on Facebook posted some BS about ISIS being created and funded by a US/Israel conspiracy. Many clicked like and congratulated him for it. I pointed out that it was BS, and he took offence and unfriended me. So what is happening here is that he is naturally selecting those that agree with his conspiracy beliefs and silencing all voices that disagree. Over time that crafts a bubble that acts like an echo chamber and will create an illusion of consensus for what is basically fiction. This in turn leads to multiple likes and shares from supporters and that will artificially inflate search rankings

Inside our own heads

We ourselves carry within us many cognitive biases and that can greatly skew how we interpret a flow of information. Because we now have this greatly increased flow of information it acts as an amplifier for it.

So how can we work out the things that are really true?

You basically need to apply a methodology. One candidate that has been one of the most reliable is the scientific mythology, however I’m not suggesting that you need to be either highly educated or a professional, but instead build up over time a little toolbox of critical thinking skills that you can dip into as needed and enrich as you gain experience.

Perhaps the most beneficial thing you could ever learn is how too think critically about anything and everything and that includes all of your own assumptions.

In Summary

There are tips and tricks you can use to greatly enhance your ability to find stuff out via google.

That however is just a flow of information, and so perhaps the real secret sauce here is not learning how to make better use of google, but is instead learning how to think critically about the raw flow of information.

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