Monday, October 01, 2007


Imagine if every article in "Science" or "Discover" had a blurb on it saying something like "Everything you're reading here is false. Go to this site to see how Scientologists have it right and we're all really alien slaves."

Actually I doubt you'd care because, let's face it, like most people you probably don't subscribe to either "Science" or "Discover". But I bet you do read or or, and that's basically what's happening on those sites, only with Biblical Creationism instead of Scientology.

Here's how it works.

A big, credible site like puts code on their web page articles to serve up ads brokered by Google. Google scans each article as it's delivered to your web browser, does some GoogleMagic, and figures out what the page is about. In this CNN science article about finding good DNA in mammoth hairs, for instance, it finds great words like DNA, scientists, and biochemistry. "Aha!" thinks Google, "this page is about science and evolution!"

Meanwhile, creationists sites out there are also using Google, only they want to buy ads. Their audience is the layperson somewhat interested in science, who they hope to sway to their way of thinking (e.g. the universe is only 6,000 years old, Noah's Flood happened just as described in Genesis, etc.), so they go out and tell Google, "put our ads on any page that has these words in it -- DNA, science, scientists, archaeology, and that sort of thing."

GoogleMagic isn't, of course, actually magic; it's just a computer program that tries to match up an article like the one on CNN with an advertiser. The beauty of GoogleAds is that you can be very targeted and only have your ad shown on a page that's probably going to be of interest to your likely customer. If you sell used drill bits, for instance, you probably don't want your ad shown on a page that is about baking cookies.

Thus Google sees a CNN article about DNA, and puts up the creationist ads on it. CNN is "The Most Trusted Name in News", so Joe or Jane Average gives credence to what they publish. They're reading an article written by the AP, another trusted source, which contains excellent, scientifically valid information. They get to the bottom of the page, and see ads for sites that seem to also be about evolution and science, and so they click on it:

And voila, the credibility and reliability of CNN and the Associated Press and all those scientists in the original story get carried through to the creationist site.

There's nothing immoral or illegal about what the creationists are doing here. They have every right to purchase ad words from Google and to try and reach their target audience.

The problem is that they're gaining legitimacy from sources that would otherwise completely undermine everything they say.

I'd love to see groups like the National Center for Science Education put a small part of their budget to countering this tactic. Bid up those same Google AdWords at a slightly higher price so the creationist ads don't get served. Be aggressive and target other words like "creationism", "bible science", "genesis facts", and more to try and get some well-intentioned but misinformed browsers good, accurate, reliable information about science and history.

This isn't about atheism or faith, it's about good science education. You can have a good understanding of real science and still be a Christian, as millions around the world show every day. Having a majority of people in America misunderstand basic scientific concepts is bad for a democratic nation. We can't make good policy or execute sound judgment when our knowledge is built on a foundation of lies.

1 comment:

Trey McDonald said...

Great post, Jeff.

My only quibble is that I'm not sure I'd label as a "credible" news site.

Hope you're feeling better - sorry I've been out of touch lately, but that's what writing a thesis does to one's social life.