The New York Times has an op-ed piece by Edward Tenner that propsoses this paradox: Google has made it possible to find good information easily, so students have become less skilled at research. Nothing new in that argument, really, and it’s nice to see the words “information literacy” on the Sunday op ed pages, but he gives Google more credit that in deserves when he says old-style search engines had to be coaxed to cough up the German composer “Engelbert Humperdinck” through clever uses of the not operator whereas Google’s improved search immediately put the composer on the same page as the singer. I doubt that’s due to Google’s methods. And that’s not the only non-sequiter in the article.
What’s more interesting is the coincidental position of this essay on the same page as Byron Calame’s Public Editor column, the weekly review of what’s wrong (and sometimes what’s right) at the Times. The embarrassment of the week? A front page report that gullibly profiled a man who said he was the man under the hood in the photo that became an icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal. The reporters looked for previous stories about the hooded man, but missed the one that named the correct victim. The story, an 1100-word feature following up on Abu Ghraib detainees, was obviously of interest, but the word “hood” wasn’t used to describe the man in the photo, so they missed it, searching only for stories that mentioned “Abu Ghraib,” “box,” and “hood.”
Obviously, there were other fact-check failures in this story, but this happens to provide a much better example of what Tenner is trying to say than any that he used. When you rely entirely on the granularity of search engines (whether Google or the archive of your own paper) and a few choice words, you’re bound to run into a 101: Human Error message: language is flexible and concepts can be expressed and categorized in many different yet meaningful ways. It isn’t – and never should be – the only way to search.
As students will tell you, you can always find something that way. You just may miss the thing you need most.