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‘We Must Go Deeper … ’
By
Volume 41, Number 5 - September/October 2017

In the movie Inception, the main character keeps goading his team further into the subconscious mind, saying “We must go deeper.” Their goal is to get to the bottom of the many layers of experience that make up the human mind in order to plant a single idea. Each layer depends on the ones below it; they pile up to make an image of perceived reality. And that’s kind of what I’m thinking here …

I often have this feeling of “We must go deeper” when I’m doing a simple online search for information—and yet I’m surprised when I see that other people don’t seem to have that same urge to understand what’s really going on, but are satisfied with the first answer that pops to the top.

Somewhere along the way, I must have developed a fact-checker’s outlook: Don’t just look up the original publication of a fact, but also follow up with the next few issues to locate any retractions or corrections. That’s what a real fact-checker does: running down truth, even if it takes several extra steps.

The simple reality is that looking stuff up has always been difficult. Now, with so much content available through online search, there are many things that are easy to search for, but there are also a lot of things that are still difficult in a different way. When reading an article, the fact-checker looks at this kind of sentence, “There were 31 bars in Elko, Nevada, in 1965,” and immediately asks, “How would I figure this out? Would I count liquor licenses issued in the city of Elko during all of 1965, or just active licenses on 12/31/65?”

When I talk to students as they search for simple facts, I find that they just want to get an answer that’s plausibly correct. The actual truth of a fact doesn’t seem to matter as much as it confirms something previously known or is merely close to something plausible. It’s as though they live in an ongoing game of horseshoes, where getting your token close to the post is often good enough to win.

Here is the thing that worries me these days: Not only do students not want to second source a reference (let alone look for retractions or corrections), they often don’t want to understand the topic in enough detail to know how—and why—their fact might be incorrect.

Except … we must go deeper …

The real question is probably this: “Why should a searcher care about going deeper?”

The short answer is that paying attention to the backstory often reveals much. (And personally, I find the backstory is often more interesting than the final number, but I digress.)

Checking the backstory to the research question quickly leads to clarifying questions: “What do you mean by biggest?” “Are you measuring population or area?” “Do you mean city boundary as determined by the city council or by measuring the urban core and excluding suburban regions?”

This is, of course, what reference librarians do—they conduct a reference interview in part to try and pin down the variable parts of someone’s question—that is, to understand their interests: What do they care about? And why do they care?

When I was doing a field study at the University of Alaska (Anchorage), I played the part of reference librarian for a few hours while the snow fell and it grew dark at 3 p.m. Mostly the questions were, “Where’s the bathroom?” (no backstory needed for that!) and “How do I get my printer to work?”

But then a student would ask a real reference question. One graduate student asked for a “list of the top 10 journals in sociology.” He wanted to get a general awareness of what the field was about and what reasonable topics of current interest would be.

Getting a list of sociology journals isn’t hard. Rank-ordering them according to some reasonable function is tough. “What would you like?” I asked. “Readership size? Citation rates? Agreed-upon influence? Most-often-checked-out?” Those all produce somewhat different sort orders.

The thing was, he didn’t really care. He didn’t need an ordered list—just any list of 10 good journals would be fine, thanks very much.

I’d just assumed that he wanted an ordered list based on some objective criterion. That’s what working at Google does to you; I see the world as a ranking problem and naturally thought he wanted a list with an evaluation. But since he was going to spend as much time with journal No.1 as with journal No. 10, it really didn’t matter.

Any good psychologist will tell you, “The presenting problem is often not the root problem.” Likewise, the first question is often not the real question. Good searchers take a problem and worry on it a little. Good searchers look behind the “answer” to understand how that answer came to be. In the circumference case, it was the measurement method. In the population problem, it was how “largest” was defined and then how that property was measured as well.

If I could somehow give everyone a piece of search advice, I’d say, “Think like a fact-checker and get one or two steps deeper into your topic matter.” You must go deeper in order to understand what it is you think you’ve found. The fact you seek isn’t just a fact, but something based on a set of choices about how to measure and what to report.

Of course, I can say this all I want. But just saying so hasn’t worked to get people to change their behavior in the past. (People have been saying this for a long, long time.) How can we help people see that going deeper—and thinking carefully about the question they’re asking—is what they really need to do when they really want to understand a topic?

In the movie Inception, the main character keeps goading his team further into the subconscious mind, saying “We must go deeper.” Their goal is to get to the bottom of the many layers of experience that make up the human mind in order to plant a single idea. Each layer depends on the ones below it; they pile up to make an image of perceived reality. And that’s kind of what I’m thinking here …

I often have this feeling of “We must go deeper” when I’m doing a simple online search for information—and yet I’m surprised when I see that other people don’t seem to have that same urge to understand what’s really going on, but are satisfied with the first answer that pops to the top.

Somewhere along the way, I must have developed a fact-checker’s outlook: Don’t just look up the original publication of a fact, but also follow up with the next few issues to locate any retractions or corrections. That’s what a real fact-checker does: running down truth, even if it takes several extra steps.

The simple reality is that looking stuff up has always been difficult. Now, with so much content available through online search, there are many things that are easy to search for, but there are also a lot of things that are still difficult in a different way. When reading an article, the fact-checker looks at this kind of sentence, “There were 31 bars in Elko, Nevada, in 1965,” and immediately asks, “How would I figure this out? Would I count liquor licenses issued in the city of Elko during all of 1965, or just active licenses on 12/31/65?”

When I talk to students as they search for simple facts, I find that they just want to get an answer that’s plausibly correct. The actual truth of a fact doesn’t seem to matter as much as it confirms something previously known or is merely close to something plausible. It’s as though they live in an ongoing game of horseshoes, where getting your token close to the post is often good enough to win.

Here is the thing that worries me these days: Not only do students not want to second source a reference (let alone look for retractions or corrections), they often don’t want to understand the topic in enough detail to know how—and why—their fact might be incorrect.

Except … we must go deeper …

The real question is probably this: “Why should a searcher care about going deeper?”

The short answer is that paying attention to the backstory often reveals much. (And personally, I find the backstory is often more interesting than the final number, but I digress.)

Checking the backstory to the research question quickly leads to clarifying questions: “What do you mean by biggest?” “Are you measuring population or area?” “Do you mean city boundary as determined by the city council or by measuring the urban core and excluding suburban regions?”

This is, of course, what reference librarians do—they conduct a reference interview in part to try and pin down the variable parts of someone’s question—that is, to understand their interests: What do they care about? And why do they care?

When I was doing a field study at the University of Alaska (Anchorage), I played the part of reference librarian for a few hours while the snow fell and it grew dark at 3 p.m. Mostly the questions were, “Where’s the bathroom?” (no backstory needed for that!) and “How do I get my printer to work?”

But then a student would ask a real reference question. One graduate student asked for a “list of the top 10 journals in sociology.” He wanted to get a general awareness of what the field was about and what reasonable topics of current interest would be.

Getting a list of sociology journals isn’t hard. Rank-ordering them according to some reasonable function is tough. “What would you like?” I asked. “Readership size? Citation rates? Agreed-upon influence? Most-often-checked-out?” Those all produce somewhat different sort orders.

The thing was, he didn’t really care. He didn’t need an ordered list—just any list of 10 good journals would be fine, thanks very much.

I’d just assumed that he wanted an ordered list based on some objective criterion. That’s what working at Google does to you; I see the world as a ranking problem and naturally thought he wanted a list with an evaluation. But since he was going to spend as much time with journal No.1 as with journal No. 10, it really didn’t matter.

Any good psychologist will tell you, “The presenting problem is often not the root problem.” Likewise, the first question is often not the real question. Good searchers take a problem and worry on it a little. Good searchers look behind the “answer” to understand how that answer came to be. In the circumference case, it was the measurement method. In the population problem, it was how “largest” was defined and then how that property was measured as well.

If I could somehow give everyone a piece of search advice, I’d say, “Think like a fact-checker and get one or two steps deeper into your topic matter.” You must go deeper in order to understand what it is you think you’ve found. The fact you seek isn’t just a fact, but something based on a set of choices about how to measure and what to report.

Of course, I can say this all I want. But just saying so hasn’t worked to get people to change their behavior in the past. (People have been saying this for a long, long time.) How can we help people see that going deeper—and thinking carefully about the question they’re asking—is what they really need to do when they really want to understand a topic?


Dan Russell is Google’s uber tech lead, search quality and user happiness.

 

Comments? Contact the editors at editors@onlinesearcher.net

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