11.18.2011

how not to ask a question: how q&a websites contribute to denialism

A little slice of the internet that irks me are Q&A websites like Wiki Answers and Yahoo! Answers, where people ask questions and any registered user can post an answer. A list of such sites is here. (That list includes Ask MetaFilter, which seems different, in that it encourages lengthy answers and discussion.)

You know I love the spirit of information-sharing that the internet has fostered. "Love" doesn't really describe it. Since I was in my 30s when the internet became widely used, I am both fully internet fluent and fully amazed by it. I adore that you can learn how to create, repair, cook, build, play - and a million other verbs - almost anything online. And I look up facts and jog my shoddy memory with Google and Wikipedia several times a day.

But these Q&A websites strike me as some of the worst the internet has to offer. Not only are the answers found there ridiculously unreliable, but it appears that people follow the sites without understanding how dubious they are. The crazy thing, to me, is that people ask questions of fact, the answers to which they could readily look up themselves. Someone comes along and answers the question, and that answer - regardless of accuracy or source - becomes The Answer. At Wiki Answers, an answer can be commented on or discussed, but not changed, and there can only be one answer per question. Yahoo! Answers asks users to rate answers with thumbs-up and thumbs-down, adding another layer of worthless opinions.

I recently saw a Wiki Answer (it turned up in a Google search) asking how many World Series rings a certain former baseball player has - meaning, how many championship teams he has played on or worked for. There was an answer posted. And it was wrong.

Now, why would someone go to Wiki Answers with that question, rather than check any number of baseball sites, or even the player's Wikipedia page?

I think I know the answer to that one: because they don't know how to get reliable information on the internet, and they don't recognize the difference between those two forms of information-seeking. (A bit of iSchool-speak there.) To that person, asking a question at a Q&A website is looking it up. I'm guessing the asker doesn't realize that a Q&A site isn't even as reliable as Wikipedia. Indeed, the asker may not even understand the concept of reliable sources.

Most net-savvy, educated people - and by that I emphatically include self-educated people - know that Wikipedia is to be used with a cautious and skeptical eye. It's great for a quick check of basic facts, such as a person's birth or death date, or the capital of a country, or the director of a film. For anything more in-depth, Wikipedia should be regarded as a jumping-off point at best. I often find it useful for finding sources, through an entry's footnotes.

But at least Wikipedia entries are written by someone who cared about a topic enough to do some research, however perfunctory, and write an entry. Wiki Answers and Yahoo Questions don't even require that minimal level of engagement.

There's a saying going around, attributed to Neil Gaiman: "Google can bring you 10,000 answers, but a librarian can bring you the right answer." Well, fine. But you can bring yourself the right answer, too - and good librarians want to teach you how. A lot of people clearly don't know how to find the right answer, and don't even realize their methods are not producing good results.

If any question can be answered by any person, and any answer can become The Answer, what are the implications for building a society based on ethics, justice and rational thought?

It seems to me that Q&A sites like Yahoo! Answers and Wiki Answers foster the mistaken, dangerous worldview that all points of view are equally valid, that expertise is "elitism", and that everything is "a matter of opinion". Even how many World Series rings a baseball player owns, or if climate change is caused by humans, or if the Earth is 5,000 years old.

37 comments:

Amy said...

I have had the same experience with those pages. Lots of contradictory information, lots of answers with no attribution for any of the facts or opinions stated, and erroneous answers.

But it isn't just those type of pages. I often wonder how reliable lots of sources are on the web. Why should I trust WebMD or a website on particular products? How do I know what is reliable and what isn't?

I think that is one real challenge for researchers and those who support them (i.e., libraries)---to figure out a way to vet sources on the internet for their reliability and authenticity.

Amy said...

What is denialism?

James said...

Denialism generally means the rejection of historical or scientific knowledge for emotional or ideological reasons. The most famous form is probably Holocaust denialism, though evolution denialism is much more common (in the form of creationism). Also common (and harmful) these days are climate change denial and vaccination denial. On the fringes, there are less harmful sorts like Moon landing denialism and Shakespear denialism.

The efforts by tobacco companies to deny tobacco's carcinogenic nature were another form, now mostly gone -- but the same techniques developed by the tobacco companies then are still being used now against things like climate change science, in some cases by the very same people, now consulting for Exxon instead of Philip Morris.

Well, fine. But you can bring yourself the right answer, too - and good librarians want to teach you how

To be fair to Gaiman, I believe he said that as part of a "Save the Libraries" campaign. :)

Jere said...

To me, "How is Babby Formed?" tells you all you need to know about Q& A sites.

laura k said...

I was going to link to How Is Babby Formed, but as I thought I'd leave it for comments. :)

And absolutely no knock on Neil Gaiman! It's a great thought.

laura k said...

Amy, I do think there are degrees of reliability. Q&A sites would be on the bottom of the list - worthless. Many other sites could be deemed reliable taken in conjunction with each other - using more than one site for corroboration (with caveats when multiple sites seem to be copy/pastes of each other).

I also think we have to ask, what is the research for? For buying a product, reviews online are probably adequate. But for serious legal or medical advice, nope! I'm amazed at how many people I see asking serious advice online (like on Craigslist, eg) and apparently taking the word of total strangers about their animal's health or their own health!

James said...

Yesterday's XKCD does a great job of covering the Forum Question Problem constantly faced by software developers.

johngoldfine said...

I assign a research paper for my community college introductory composition course.

None of my students, not one, has what it takes to be a competent academic researcher: time and patience. When I talk to them about the need for skepticism, for refusing the first answer, for suspicion about some website that answers all their questions, for perspective, I am mostly shoveling sand against the tide.

I say all that stuff, show them the problems, but mostly I do it because professional ethics require it. The students have zoned out. They have questions, they find answers, what is my frippin problem! The don't want to hear about nuance, hierarchies of answers, or anything that would slow them down.

They've been taught, primarily, that research means they have to turn in a certain minimum amount of pages, which, in turn, means that their teachers only care about the heft of thing and its overall look, not about the content.

So, why bother!

The good news is that when they seriously want to find information on the internet, when they are freed from the school-forged shackles of self-doubt and stupidity--they are info-aces. They know how to proceed, where to go, what to ignore, what to grab on to.

Back in the early days of the web, I sent a class of extremely poor researchers to a website, let's call it janesmith.org, but instead of 'org,' in my own ignorance and naivete, I sent them to janesmith.com, which turned out to be a soft porn site.

The class, all male--not a rarity back in the day--hooted with glee and gave me a hard time, well-deserved, called me a dog, etc. One of the older students said, quite plaintively, "But how do you really find porn sites?"

He got an intense extempore five minute tutorial from the rest of the class in the art of scouting porn, which I didn't interrupt because I was so much enjoying watching my students display effortless expertise in an area (research, not porn) in which I had thought them dubs.

Amy said...

Of course, there are degrees of reliability. But for the typical internet user, there is no easy way to determine except perhaps by sufficient use what sites are more reliable than others. There should be some system of ranking reliability by an objective judge/librarian or something. (Obviously, a totally impractical ideam but a nice fantasy.)

Perhaps some would say the same is true of print sources as well, but generally someone fact-checks works that get published in books or journals or newspapers. Any fool with a computer and an internet connection can post anything they want on the internet.

I do cross-check and corroborate, but as you point out, sometimes people just cut and paste from one site to another.

And it's one thing to rely on sites for things like product reviews or movie reviews and a whole other thing to rely on sites for medical, scientific, political or historical matters. I can only imagine how high school and college students do "research" these days...

laura k said...

John, thanks for sharing that. It partially answers the question Amy asked before she asked it.

Amy, I hear you, and I don't mean to be nitpitcky, but I don't know if there is a typical internet user - I don't think print sources are necessarily more reliable than internet sources, merely more static - and I would not want a supposedly objective rating system of websites, even if such a thing were possible.

I do think one of the misconceptions of our current time is that print sources are inherently more trustworthy than internet sources. It's never been easier to publish on paper than it is now, anyone can do it. And reputable publishing houses will publish anything that will sell, no validity is needed. The history section of any large chain bookstore is stocked with books purporting to be factual, but which are unsupported lies and propaganda. Not to mention the psychology and self-help section!

On the other hand, there's tons of reputable and important work that is only published online.

Amy said...

Great, Laura, now I can't trust ANYTHING! :)

John, thanks for your answer. On an unrelated note, at a faculty meeting yesterday we were working on our sexual harassment policy, and someone posed the question of whether a professor could be disciplined for using pornographic material in class as a means of provoking discussion. Many of my colleagues worried that if the professor did not handle it well---for example, allowed students to make inappropriate remarks--that such conduct could create a hostile environment for other students. I wonder if that was an issue for you during your janesmith episode.

Sorry to go off-topic, Laura.

laura k said...

No need to apologize, no problem.

johngoldfine said...

Amy--this was a class of all guys and in the macho trades, so it was already a locker-room atmosphere, and I had no worries about hostile environment complaints. Maine, of course, did not enter the 20th Century until about 1955, the sixties until the early 70s, and sometimes still has trouble locating the new millennium. Another reason I wasn't concerned.

In the real world south of Kittery, I might have cut off the discussion, though it was a good intelligent discussion, even if on a 'risky' topic. Probably I would not have though because--

I understand that 'hostile environment' is a term of legal art and that schools are justifiably afraid of lawsuits, but I really have no patience at all with speech codes, academic freedom 'rules and responsiblities,' and general timidity or self-censorship in classrooms.

Amy, I grew discouraged about assuming librarian objectivity or expertise as a given when a librarian at school told my students that they could always trust official government websites like NIH, this at a time when NIH was embroiled in all sorts of scandals that affected its credibility. I don't like fomenting paranoia or taking cheap shots, but when I try to induce skepticism, I mention the NIH thing and ask my students, "Do you believe everything the goverment tells you--why would you be so quick to take the NIH as gospel?"

laura k said...

I'm a big fan of hostile environment workplace laws, but I also reject speech codes, especially in a classroom or library. Pornography in libraries is a huge issue - for patrons/users as well as librarians. A while back I posted my paper about that, written for a class on intellectual freedom in the library.

* * * *

No rating system can ever be objective. At the very least they will reinforce dominant norms and marginalize dissent. At worst... well, you know.

Amy said...

John, that was exactly the issue we were debating: how do we draw the line between academic freedom and sexual harassment? As you might imagine, a room of 30 law professors had a lot to say about that.

It is very difficult for me at times to avoid things that will make at least one student uncomfortable in some way. We were discussing a cohabitation case the other day, and I am sure there were students who were uncomfortable talking about some of the issues raised (like whether one person in a sexual relationship should expect compensation for his or her services in that relationship), but how can I be a good teacher without making students uncomfortable?

I cannot imagine doing what you did in your class, not because I think it was wrong, but because it would make me very uncomfortable. I am not sure that is a good guiding principle, but I assume that if something makes me uncomfortable enough that I am not able to speak about it, then the students will feel both my discomfort and likely have their own. And yet there are issues that we should or must discuss that make us uncomfortable, and as educators, we are obligated at times to raise those very issues.

allan said...

A teacher who goes out of her way to make sure none of her students are uncomfortable - and avoids any provocative subjects or opinions - is probably not a very good teacher.

Students need to be taken out of their comfort zone, beyond the boundaries of their thoughts, to consider other points of view, or to honestly confront the full measure of what they do believe. That would be true for the class instructor, as well.

Amy said...

Allan, I agree with you completely. I think, however, that there are some situations that may chill discussion and make students so uncomfortable that it becomes counterproductive and unfair. For example, what if a teacher encourages or even allows racist, sexist or homophobic comments to go unanswered in a class? I sometimes will play devil's advocate on a point of view with which I disagree---for example, arguing that it is acceptable for companies to charge outrageous fees or interest to "high risk" purchasers in order to insure against the likelihood of default by some of those purchasers. If no student responds, I try to push them to see how unfair and discriminatory such conduct can be. But what if my students all chimed in, making racist comments about poor people? Do I stop those statements, or do I see them as "teaching moments" and hope that some student who is offended will speak up in response?

johngoldfine said...

Amy, I never reveal to students what I think about controversial topics because it isn't relevant to teaching writing.

My only job is to make them better writers, which does often mean cleaning up their logic, hassling them about using easy stereotypes, forbidding them to regurgitate last Sunday's sermon, and so on. But if they want to write about how all poor people are lazy leeches sucking the blood out of the bodies of the saintly, long-suffering rich, fine...as long as they do it with style, originality, individuality, panache, eclat, elan, and all that other good stuff.

Allan, believe me, my insistence on writing that can't be done on automatic puts most of my students in a zone (of discomfort) whose existence they had never before even suspected.

laura k said...

That's the distinction between presenting challenging ideas that not everyone will feel comfortable with and providing a safe space where people can feel comfortable enough to learn. I think one is a precondition of the other.

James said...

I think this qualifies as hostile from a teacher.

Amy said...

That's the distinction between presenting challenging ideas that not everyone will feel comfortable with and providing a safe space where people can feel comfortable enough to learn. I think one is a precondition of the other.

That's what I aspire to do. Most of the time I believe that I succeed.

Amy said...

John, I think there is a difference between what students express in writing and what they express in class. Would you let a student say something racist in class without making sure that there was some appropriate response either from another student or from you? If not, aren't you condoning what the student has said or at least leaving that impression?

What is a safe space for one student may be a very dangerous space for another. Although I never stop a student from expressing his or her opinion, I do make sure to find some way to provoke an appropriate response or make one myself if all else fails.

(Fortunately, this rarely happens in the subjects I teach, but sexism does have a way of seeping into more things than you can imagine. I rarely, OTOH, hear anything racist or homophobic.)

impudent strumpet said...

I'm quite genuinely surprised that John's student had never found porn either on his own initiative or by accident. You'd think someone who is interested would have, at the very least, typed "sex" into a search engine to see what would happen even if they were a total n00b and weren't expecting porn.

On-topic, there was a brief period around 2003ish when a predecessor of Wiki Answers (whose name I now forget) was actually useful. Not all questions got answered, but those that did got decent answers. Then they instituted the one answer per question rule and went through a series of name changes, and it turned stupid.

The other problem on these sites, apart from people relying on them, is people answering questions when they don't know the answer. I've actually seen on Yahoo Answers someone post "I dunno LOL." Why would you do that?? And then there's people who answer outside the scope of the question. The question is "How do I get my hair to hold a curl for longer?" and they answer "You should wear it straight, that's the style."

laura k said...

"I dunno LOL." Why would you do that??

It's amazing. Whenever I read a news story online and make the mistake of looking at comments, there are people posting "Who cares?" Why would anyone bother to type that??

The question is "How do I get my hair to hold a curl for longer?" and they answer "You should wear it straight, that's the style."

I friggin hate this. I used to get those kinds of answers on this blog all the time. It got to the point where I would always include something in my post to try to stop those stupid answers in advance. I still fight the urge to do that!

johngoldfine said...

Hi Imp Strump--this incident probably happened 10 years or so ago, a different era, and the student was someone who had spent 30 years in a paper mill before its closing. He was computer clueless and genuinely, not disingenuously, needing help finding online porn.

Amy, I've heard some vile things in class. I always say, 'Not here, don't want to hear it.' Not exactly a proud teaching moment, but the best I can do with my anger, disgust, shock, dismay.

In conversations several times over the years students have explained to me that something is bad because 'jewy' or that they 'made out like a jew in a junkshop' or that Jews like money and run everything. They are not sophisticated big-city types who are aware that a name like mine is unmistakeably Jewish....

I suppose I should rise in my wrath and expound on prejudice, anti-Semitism, and mindless bigotry. We all know the word 'speechless' and use it in all sorts of metaphorical ways. But such remarks always leave me literally speechless. I wish it were otherwise, but it does not seem to be so, though I'm usually quick enough to tell people to FO and STFU while doing it.

laura k said...

At the youth centre where I tutored and taught in the 90s, I had two students, brothers, from Sengal, Muslims, lived in Brooklyn. Very studious boys, very sweet and gentle, trying hard to find their place in the rough world of their hood.

One day one of them made a very anti-Semitic comment while we were working on something. Because I had such a good relationship with them, it was (for once in my life) easy to stay calm. I said, "I'm Jewish, and I'm not like that."

They were floored. Another teacher who all the students loved, a man, was also Jewish, and I pointed that out.

Months later there was some kind of tribute going on, I can't remember the occasion, but one of the brothers said a "thank-you to Miss Laura" for showing him that not all people who look a certain way or come from a certain background are the same, and you can't judge anyone until you know them.

It was a real lesson to me in what could happen if I didn't lose my temper and tried to teach by example. Not my strength! But those boys taught me a big lesson.

Amy said...

John, I know what you mean by being speechless. It's exactly that feeling that I don't want anyone in my class to experience. Fortunately, I have never heard that kind of comment in my classes.

Laura, what a great story---not only that you were able to respond in a calm and helpful way, but that it actually had such an impact on your students.

James said...

Just came across this example of being left speechless. :P

laura k said...

Not for nothing I remember it all these years later.

I sometimes think of those young people and wonder... how many are still alive, are in prison, are on the streets, did any "get out". They were teenagers and had seen more tragedy and sorrow and injustice than many of us will personally experience in our lifetimes.

Plus they were so cool and I loved being around them.

*Senegal, not Sengal

laura k said...

Just came across this example of being left speechless. :P

Oh good lord, someone actually said that? To a person's face??

Can this be???

("Oh it be...")

Amy said...

How awful, how sad that we still have people walking around who not only think this way, but see nothing wrong with thinking it and saying it.

impudent strumpet said...

It never would have occurred to me that that could work! I always figured that if people are dissing X and I tell them I'm X, they'll start dissing me. I never imagined that could actually change minds!

laura k said...

Imp Strump, to be fair, I was older than him and in a position of relative power, and I knew he liked me very much. So I was in a very safe place.

But yes, it was a revelation!

johngoldfine said...

Thinking this over, I remember that when I worked at Job Corps, I was not speechless at vileness, and that's because I had an institutional tool to use that insulated me from my own emotion and adrenaline, the stuff that renders one speechless.

At Job Corps we were supposed to see all problems as aspects of corpsmembers' eventual employability. So, some random "Fucking spic/nigger/gook" got a practical, not a moral, response: "If you talk like that in the workplace, you're going to lose the job."

johngoldfine said...

Talk about denialism!

I saw 'Moneyball' last night. That great scene where all the scouts were sitting around going over prospects: classic swing, goodlooking young player, has all the tools, etc.--anything rather than examine the numbers, facts, and their own premises and prejudices.

James said...

I always figured that if people are dissing X and I tell them I'm X, they'll start dissing me.

It depends on the person, of course, but a lot of people who bad-mouth Xes are just repeating what they've heard, and have never knowingly met an X. So if they get to know and like an X without realizing it, the revelation forces them to choose between what they've heard about Xes, and what they know, first hand, about the X they know. For some, the prejudice is too keep, and they will turn on you; for others, they'll start to realize that what they've been told isn't necessarily true.

laura k said...

James, good analysis.

John, how true! I never saw the debate in that context. I wish Moneyball would come out on DVD already.