Does Google know everything?
The trouble with running your life using Google is that you’re never really sure you’re doing the right thing.
Strange pain in lower right leg? Google “strange pain lower right leg”. How to stop a juvenile basenji dog from biting? Google “basenji puppy biting how to stop”. Want to get an iodine stain out of a pristine white bath mat? Google “iodine stain arrrrgh new bath mat”. Not sure what to say when your other half breaks down in a crying fit about your general pigheadedness and lack of understanding? Google “men all bastards…”
And yes, sadly, they are all real examples.
Some GPs have reported on their own ‘Google effect’ — patients coming in sounding like they’ve swallowed the Harvard Medical Journal after they used the search engine to research their symptoms and self-diagnose before heading to the expert.
It’s not a bad thing. People doing their own reading and research, forming their own opinions and not relying on received wisdom or claimed authority is a positive step.
The problem is a Google search will throw up anywhere between 05 and 0.5 million (or more) different pieces of information on any given subject, and deciding between what is useful, valid and authentic, and what is just scurrilous, vexatious and… crap, can be a mission.
Usually it’s easy enough to recognise the authoritative sources of information, particularly when it comes to health. Government health departments almost universally maintain information-rich sites these days, on which you can read a reasonably neutral account of symptoms, causes and treatments. In fact, you should be able to depend on any URL ending in .gov or .edu for peer-reviewed, fact-checked, objectively assessed information. Should be able to.
But once you find yourself reading through the sites of non-profit organisations, of ‘help’ groups, of well-meaning individuals and numerous other types who not only feel expert enough to broadcast their views to the world but have the time to construct a site for the purpose, you’re in factually murky territory.
Comments to online forums usually pop up within the first or second page of Google results on any particular topic, and they are the most disorientating places in which to work out reliable fact from vested interest fiction. A friend researching facial moisturisers Googled, reading all the reputable information she could find… but once she found herself reading forums about women’s experiences with various types of product, her rational decision-making process was thrown into disarray.
Jean W from Portland thought this one would be perfect “for other women, but not for me”. Katie L from Auckland broke out in cystic acne when she used one and damns it to hell. Leanne R from Perth uses eight of them in combination but recently found her skin “burning”… and on and on. We’re in a bind. Access via a few keystrokes to more information on more topics than we could have dreamed 20 years ago, yet trapdoors everywhere when it comes to that info’s credibility.
Wikipedia is the ultimate example. An ‘open’ encyclopaedia is an oxymoron, presenting as fact but composed from so much random data that to not cross-check anything you read there is inviting ridicule. And yet its ‘height’ on a Google search return and habit of making you feel an instant expert once you read an entry is dangerously irresistible.
There’s only one solution. Typing into Google now, “over reliance on Google searches…”