Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Searching isn't as hard as Thinking.

Just google it. You're bound to find something you're looking for.

Finding is no longer the challenge it once was. Knowing what you are looking for remains no easy matter.

Asking the right question usually precedes touching a computer. What are the hours of the Louvre? Go to the computer. What is 4 degrees Celsius in degrees Fahrenheit? Go to the computer.

These are the average one-off questions an Internet search is really good--and fast--at answering.

But what about the occasional harder question? Harder questions include: a) those that lack precision in what is being asked, b) those with competing or rival answers and c) those with no known answers.  Googling the Internet is not particularly useful at answering this last type.

A and B type questions occur frequently and make easy searching harder. I've blogged before on the need to fact check B type questions to avoid trusting misleading and/or malicious information. Investigative searching is a remedy for establishing the credibility of answers.

Let's focus on A, ambiguous questions. These are questions that may be answered different ways (with different answers) and still be right. An example used on our web site is for the search challenge: What is the top speed of earth's fastest animal? Like most ambiguous questions, this question is unintentionally ambiguous. Only after searching and finding rival answers does its ambiguity become increasingly apparent. This requires real thinking.

Skimming the top ten Google results for the query speed fastest animal, possible answers include:
  • cheetah (3)
  • peregrine falcon (2)
  • sailfish (2)
  • pronghorn antelope
  • wildebeest
  • lion
  • thompson's gazelle
  • quarter horse
  • man
  • cow dropped from a helicopter
The student is confronted by a common problem: which one is right? The underlying problem is not that there are multiple answers (which one is right?) but that these are answers to different questions (which question am I supposed to answer?).

The problem could be simplified by rethinking the question: what animal travels the fastest? Now the differences between air, water and land don't factor in (cheetah is fastest on land, sailfish is fastest in water and peregrine falcon is fastest in air). The fastest speed belongs to the falcon.

But another search result--a cow dropped from a helicopter--reveals further ambiguity in the question. The originator of the question may have assumed the animal needs to travel under its own power. In that case, the falcon, which 'cheats' by virtue of gravity, could be bested by the cheetah. By the same token, what prevents an astronaut orbiting the earth from beating the falcon? It ultimately depends on the question.

The example is ridiculous but illustrates how 'right' answers may differ depending on how a question is interpreted and how thinking is aided by searching. Questions that leave room for interpretation make Internet searching more difficult (and may be more interesting). Teachers are advised to try the searches their students are likely to use in an attempt to avoid asking ambiguous questions and inviting 'smart' answers in return.

For the individual, questions may be improved the same way: try a search and see what happens. Don't expect the best answer the first time because the right question has not yet been asked. It's very hard to think of a question you haven't though of yet. Iterative queries are good at helping discover and refine questions.

So, how would you ask the fastest speed question? Go ahead and post your response.

Here are a couple more ambiguous questions that need refinement. See if you can figure out an unambiguous question without searching; then try a search.
  • How many buffalo are living in North America today? link
  • Between 1918 and 2012, in what year did Americans pay the most for a gallon of gas? link

No comments: