Saturday, 11 April 2015

The dangers of Google University - yet another reason why YEC claims on evolution cannot be trusted

The term 'Google University' or 'Google PhD' is frequently used by scholars to refer to a layperson who has confused the information accumulated from an uncritical online search with genuine expertise in that area. Usually, such laypeople do so in order to justify a fiercely-held opinion in which they have s significant emotional stake, such as climate change denialism, young earth creationism, or vaccine denialism. The sheer volume of information they have gathered often grants them the status of an 'expert' to other lay members of the community in which they belong, but what they and the community (which invariably is closed, allows no dissenting views and is self-reinforcing) forget is that mere accumulation of information is not the same thing as genuine scholarly expertise.

Behind this phenomena is the internet, which not only has ensured that the means of information dissemination is no long restricted to a select few with printing presses or television stations but to everyone with a website, but allowed people access to an incredible volume of information which previously would have been inaccessible to those not able to access university libraries. However, the need to critically appraise such information, and have the necessary intellectual background to properly understand technical information still remains, irrespective of whether information is gleaned over a pile of yellowing books in a library, or via an online search. This is where the graduate of Google University fails, by failing to have the technical background required to understand the nuances of some highly technical university, and uncritically accepting information from dubious sources if it confirms their prejudices.

On the impact of the internet on the ability of the layperson to access information, neurologist Steven Novella wisely notes:
I think we’re still figuring out all the consequences of these changes, both intended and unintended. One effect that has been casually observed is that many people believe they have expertise they do not have because they have been able to do “research” online. The democratization of information has led to a false sense of democratization of expertise. 
While free access to information is great, there is no systematic way in which the public is taught how to use this information to maximal benefit, and avoid the most common pitfalls. Schools are generally behind the curve in terms of teaching students how to manage their online information access. Most adults were done with their formal education before the wave of social media. 
The result is the “Jenny McCarthy Effect.” She is a celebrity who feels that she can substitute her own non-expert opinion for the strong consensus of expert opinion on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines because she “did her own research.” She is an obvious example of how searching for information online can give someone a false confidence in an unscientific opinion, illustrating the fact that relying on “Google University” can be extremely misleading. There are some specific pitfalls at work here. (Emphasis mine)
Expertise cannot be democratised. It requires considerable study to master the fundamentals, and years of research which does not exclusively mean poring over old tomes collecting information, but interacting with other experts, in order to refine, challenge, and - if necessary - abandon false ideas. The Google PhD who merely regurgitates his information in an echo chamber of equally unqualified laypeople not only has not done any meaningful research, but is merely engaging in a mutual reinforcement of ignorance.

An excellent example of why the Google PhD does not have expertise can be found when contemplating the literature review, which is the usual starting point for any program of study. Dena Taylor from the University of Toronto notes:
A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment (sometimes in the form of an annotated bibliography—see the bottom of the next page), but more often it is part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries 
Besides enlarging your knowledge about the topic, writing a literature review lets you gain and demonstrate skills in two areas 
  1. information seeking: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
  2. critical appraisal: the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.
Taylor's second skill - critical appraisal - is one that is painfully lacking in many Google PhDs which can be seen in two main areas. The first is the heavy reliance on information sources of dubious reliability. The evolution denialist who appeals to pseudosceintific sources such as ICR, CMI, AiG, or  crackpot websites such as Science versus Evolution which quote mines philosopher Karl Popper on its front page is demonstrating a complete failure to critically appraise sources for reliability and credibility. 

The second is a misrepresentation of credible sources driven by a profound ignorance of the details of the technical subject, such as can be seen when papers on genetic bottlenecks are cited as evidence for monogenism when the papers clearly say otherwise. When critically appraising the literature, one needs to sort the wheat from the chaff, and in order to recognise the intrinsic worth of an article, you need to understand the subject in order to appreciate whether it has merit or not, and that generally requires the structured discipline of formal study from a reputable institution in that subject. The layperson without formal expertise in a technical area who obsessively combs the internet for material that either supports his prejudices, or can be twisted to serve his agenda is the complete opposite of the diligent scholar. As Novella points out:
Studying a subject alone by searching online can be a crank factory – giving factual knowledge without really engaging with the ideas. Then the echochamber effect can give the illusion of engaging, but only with a biased community rather than the broader community. The result are people who falsely believe they have sufficient knowledge in areas they do not truly understand. The Dunning Kruger effect kicks in as well, and they likely do not appreciate the gulf between their Google University understanding of a topic and the depth of understanding of true experts.
This is why the Google PhD cannot be trusted.