I watched in dismay as the young student slowly typed her query into the smartphone. This was not going to end well…
She was trying to find out which city was the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923. She very reasonably searched:
[capital Belgian Congo]
and in less than a second she discovered that the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo was Kinshasa, a port town on the Congo River. That was a great query, and she happily copied the answer into her worksheet. Done!
But you’re probably as surprised as I was while watching her.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a completely separate country from the Belgian Congo, and Boma WAS the capital city of the Congo Free State and Belgian Congo from 1886 to 1926. In that year, the capital was moved to Léopoldville (which was later renamed Kinshasa during the reign of Mobutu in 1966). Knowing which city was the capital during which time period is complicated in the Congo, so I’m not terribly surprised by the wrong result.
The deep problem here is that she blindly accepted the answer offered by the first result shown in the search engine as correct. She didn’t realize that there’s a deeper story here.
She didn't know that capitals can (and in central Africa, often DO) change frequently.
We know this is what many students do—they do the first query that pops into their heads and run with it. Double checking and going-deeper are skills that comes only with a great deal of practice… and perhaps only by having a bunch of answers marked as wrong on important exams.
Key point: Students often don’t have a great deal of background knowledge to flag a result as potentially incorrect, so they’re especially susceptible to misguided search results like this. She hadn't yet learned about the political turmoils of Africa, so she never thought to read more deeply.
If she had clicked through to the landing page, she probably would have started reading about the history of the Belgian Congo, and realized that it has a few hundred years of wars, corruption, changes in rulers, shifts in governance. The name of the country changed at least 6 times in a century, but she never realized that because she only read the answer as presented in the first search engine result.
Teachers see this kind of thing all the time—students will sometimes write learned essays that reflect holocaust-denial versions of the holocaust because the top three hits from their Google query happen to be all revisionist versions of World War II history… and they don’t know they should go a little farther in the results list.
You can try it: the query [crematorium holocaust review] gives revisionist results in the top 3 positions. If you’re a student, which results do you use? If you're just now learning about World War II, how do you know these are bogus results?
This is one of the reasons I teach people how to do research—there’s a lot of work to do here. And it’s more than just students in school who make basic mistakes. City councils have banned the use of water because they did poor basic research.
The bigger problem is that relatively few people go deep enough to check on their basic research, and so we get ridiculous Facebook posts that propagate stupidities of the past that a minute’s worth of checking would reveal as silly. (Just check Snopes.com for the latest depth of stupid for examples; they do excellent work in debunking the latest round of ridiculosity circulating on the net.)
Basically, when doing research, people keep making mistakes—and there’s no real place for them to learn how to do it correctly. Very few schools are doing this—there’s just little capacity for teaching these skills, even though they’re critical.
This is the reason I teach people how to do research—there’s a lot of work to do here.
It’s obvious that very few students (or adults!) ever get to have a class about how to do research. With search engines, we can make somewhat convincing research mistakes rapidly. Speed is important, but with rapidity also comes a kind of carelessness that people often don’t recognize. (Typical speed-induced errors: not double checking; looking for confirmation, not contradiction; not knowing what kind of resources are available; not understanding the scope and credibility of a resource.)
1. You have to keep your skills fresh as search changes. Search engines are constantly creating new capabilities such as Search-By-Image. Stay on top of these things!
2. Realize that the underlying content changes. What we believe to be true is constantly shifting (Example: How many planets are there? 8? 9?)
3. Collections constantly change. The resources available to you changes constantly as well. The number of books in full-view constantly changes, new image collections come online, new cultural resources spring into existence...
4. New KINDS of stuff is out there, pay attention. Now you can easily find data sets, satellite images, Vines, podcast series, etc. What's the next newest content type you can search for?
5. The dark side: new scams and bogus content are constantly arising as well. You need to learn how to recognize this. There seems to be a new conspiracy theory of the day, along with scam online pharmacies that can kill you with improperly made drugs, and disinformation sites.
As I said, this is really why I write the SearchResearch blog, why I teach classes, and why I try to demonstrate how good research really works. It's deeply non-obvious, and we all need to really understand how this stuff works.