Some time ago, the journal Pediatrics summarized a study where scientists used common online search engines to “research” the term “childhood diarrhea.” Nearly eighty percent of the websites were wrong! And some websites provided parents with recommendations that would have been fatal to their infant if followed. Researchers separated the websites into university “dot-edu” sites and other sites. The university sites were just as likely to be wrong!
My student teachers have typed in a search for the word “vaccine” and found the very first website (at a famous U.S. university) proclaiming that vaccines never saved anyone’s life and instead are responsible for Alzheimers, Parkinsons, and many other ailments.
Search engines rank websites by popularity, not accuracy. A student may have to dig hundreds of websites down the list to find genuine science. Librarians have no magic method for helping beginning students recognize accurate research from commercial promotions and outright pseudoscience. Indeed, it is the more commercial websites that attract the most users. And the most extreme fanatics persist in flooding the so-called “democracy of the internet” with their manifestos. Simply, any Joe-Six-Pack who can access a server is immediately equal to a peer-reviewed expert scientist.
And any hint at censoring the internet is considered downright un-American.
Yet that is exactly what a public or school library does, and it is a good thing too.
First, libraries classify materials: science goes in the 500s and 600s. The occult goes down in the 100s.
Second, libraries “censor” since they have limited resources. They only have money to buy a limited number of books and journals. So they select quality reviewed materials. You will not find the nonsense on vaccinations-being-ineffective in most libraries. If you do, it will not be classified as science.
But the internet neither classifies nor censors. American students are left looking for the valuable needle of knowledge in a haystack of trash, and they are often unable to tell the difference.
Internet enthusiasts proclaim that we can teach students to detect the differences between accurate sites and pseudoscience. However, the techniques librarians offer (such as checking who else uses the website or whether the website authors have doctorates) are not effective. You must already have a command of the subject to use these methods effectively, and K–12 students are novice learners. And some websites are so deceptive that they fool even experts in the field.
Bottomline? America is abandoning its students to a vast online wasteland. Instead of going to a quality library, our students are set adrift in a virtual world that mixes comic books and junk reading.
We do a half-hearted job of protecting our students from pornography but make absolutely no efforts to protect them from the overwhelming mass of pseudoscience and nonsense that in the end, poses a far greater threat to our science literacy. Parents and teachers would do well to direct their students to the few good websites, and back to the print libraries.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia, Kansas.