Narrowing the search for the narrow minded

Narrowing the search for the narrow minded

Google logo consisting of religious symbolsThe internet has often been described as a tool for freedom by making information and knowledge available to all, unhampered by borders – unless you live in China of course. And search engines are at the heart of that quest for knowledge – providing the answers to our enquiries with as broad a cross-section of knowledge as possible.

But, certain governments aside, there are a few groups out there that have historically always felt intimidated by unfettered information and continually seek to control the spread and use of knowledge. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to read in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald of the rise of ‘moral’ search engines – programmed to only provide the results that support a particular world view.

Filtering out pornography, gambling or other similar results is one thing that a parent may value, but filtering knowledge is another entirely. So I decided to perform some experimental searches to see how ‘relevant’ the results actually were.

SeekFind – the Christian search engine

SeekFind has a prominent mission statement on their home page.

The mission of SeekFind.org is to provide God-honoring, biblically based, and theologically sound Christian search engine results in a highly accurate and well-organized format.

Here I performed two searches.The first was for ‘Islam’. Looking at only the first page of results (and therefore the only page most people will use), I discovered the following.

  • The search brings in 9591 results compared with Google’s approximate 113,000,000!
  • All ten first page results are to Christian articles about Islam in Christian journals.
  • Only TWO websites provide all the results – probe.org supplied eight articles and equip.org the other two.
  • Two of the articles were strongly focussed on debating whether Islam is a violent religion – A post 9/11 look at Islam is the second result, followed in fifth position by Islam and the Sword.
  • NONE of these results appear on the first page of results in Google, Yahoo! or Bing.

Understandably, I was rather alarmed to see such a biased and restricted view. With only two websites contributing all of these results – one of them 80% – it’s easy to see that the search engine isn’t providing the breadth of opinion, evidence and experience we should expect from the internet.

The second search I performed was for – you guessed it – ‘evolution’.

  • The search brings in 8699 results, compared with Google’s approximate 116,000,000!
  • All ten first page results are articles that seek to deconstruct the evidence for evolution in favour of intelligent design / creationism.
  • Seven results are from icr.org – the Institute for Creation Research
  • Many of the articles trot out the same arguments debunked many times by science – such as the irreducible complexity of the human eye.
  • Again, NONE of these results appear on the first page of results in Google, Yahoo! or Bing,
    although Google does include a link to one Creationism website on its first page.

I’mHalal – the Islamic search engine

I’mHalal has a detailed About section that contains the following passage.

Because there is no search engine out there that is truly build on top of social-cultural and ethical values, we have entered the search market to offer Muslim internet users a tailor made search experience. The I’mHalal™ search engine is the starting point of any exploration on the World Wide Web for more and more Muslim internet users. Alternative search engines are built for the great mass, which makes them extremely mainstream oriented while search is mostly cultural biased. This means that search algorithms should calculate the culture, mindset and lifestyle of the user in the determination process of relevancy. That’s why I’mHalal™ is pioneering the integration of self-learning search algorithms that mimic human emotions and the way we think to power its search algorithm.

I’mHalal only displays eight results per page and as before I focussed on the first page of results. So let’s see how they interpret their cultural mindset when determining relevance. Similar to the above, I started by searching for ‘Christianity’.

  • The search brings in 10,581,985 results, compared with Google’s approximate 28,100,000 – certainly a better result than SeekFind.
  • The first eight results come from seven different sources, including two links to Christianity.com, Wikipedia and other primarily Christian or independent websites – none were Islamic writers or viewpoints.
  • Google shared two of the same results on page one, Yahoo! shared three and Bing also shared three.

Now it was the turn of ‘evolution’. Islam and evolution have the same issues of a creation myth being challenged by science, with UK schools finding greater difficulty in teaching evolution – because of a rise in Muslim, not Christian, pupils – as the BBC reported in 2007. So I was interested to see how their search engine presented both sides of the debate.

  • The search brings in 44,701,605 results, compared with Google’s approximate 116,000,000 – again, a much stronger effort.
  • The first eight results come from eight different sources, including one US Christian Creationist site – Conservapedia – the Trustworthy Encycopledia
  • Google shared two of the same results on page one, Yahoo! shared three and Bing shared two.

It seems very clear to me that I’mHalal has achieved it’s mission statement extremely well. All information and knowledge is still accessible – allowing users all the facts, opinions, information and evidence from which to form a rounded world view.

Jewogle – the Jewish search engine

Now let’s turn to Jewogle. Seriously, they could have come up with a better name for their search engine than merely hacking their agenda into a Google rip-off. At least SeekFind is a clever use of Matthew 7:7; “seek and you will find”.

However, the Jewogle search engine is merely a Google custom search engine with filters and a new website built around it. So even from the beginning we know we’re only getting a highly filtered selection of what Google would otherwise have returned.

So lets start with ‘Christianity’.

  • The search bring in only 34 results! Compare this with Google’s approximate 113,000,000!
  • All ten first page links are to Jewish articles about Christianity.
  • Only six websites provide all the results – simpletoremember.com (Judaism
    Online) supplied three articles, followed by Beingjewish.com, Aish.com and a few other Jewish websites.
  • Most are concerned with the differences between Judaism and Christianity, with one discussing how to counsel a daughter wanting to convert to Christianity.
  • NONE of these results appear on the first page of results in Google, Yahoo! or Bing.

On to ‘evolution’ then.

  • Again, the search brings in a terrifyingly low 37 results, compared with Google’s approximate 116,000,000!
  • Apart from one article which actually concerns the ‘Evolution of Evil’ rather than the biological sense of the term, all other first page results are articles that seek to reject the evidence for evolution in favour of the Genesis creation myth.
  • Only three websites provide all the results here; five from Simpletoremember.com, four from Chabad.org and one from daat.ac.il, a Hebrew website.
  • As with SeekFind, many of the old and oft disproven arguments are recycled. However, some avoid scientific discussion altogether, merely pointing to ‘moral teachings’ and Genesis as adequate proof.
  • And predictably, NONE of these results appear on the first page of results in Google, Yahoo! or Bing.

Understanding each other

I searched for an alternative religion in each search engine first to see how it dealt with alternative points of view. Understanding only comes of listening to each other and gaining insight to different world views. But two of the search engines clearly feel that voices within their own communities are a better source of understanding alternative cultures. It is like one elephant asking another elephant what it’s like to be a mouse.

Even today, where religious and racial bigotry is still as common as always, such echo chambers can only maintain current misunderstandings and an us-or-them mentality.

Galileo and the control of knowledge

When Galileo first discovered that the Earth revolved around the Su and proved it with masses of scientific observation, the church charged him as a heretic. His work spearheaded the scientific revolution, but for a period, the wider world was shielded from this knowledge by the church. His writings were considered dangerous. Galileo’s findings contradicted clear passages in the Bible and therefore the man who is today often called the father of modern science saw his work banned.

Imagine a medieval search engine, filtering out any mention of the truth that the Earth revolves round the Sun; a fact that no one – Christian, Muslim and Jewish included – would dispute today. Imagine a world where Christians could never discover the truth about our world because it contradicted a religious text? Of course, good ideas do eventually get out and we all know about the movements of the planets and the stars. But the way two of the above search engines deal with evolution threatens to keep their communities ignorant in the face of true scientific evidence. In fact, those who use these search engines are not exposed to the genuine unbiased facts from which they can form a truly informed understanding.

Anyone who feels that, to win a debate, one has to prevent the other side from presenting its evidence on an equal footing is on shaky ground indeed. That isn’t protecting the values of a religious community – it is fostering ignorance in the face of knowledge so as to maintain control. “You will think what we tell you to think – do not question.” If a community truly does believe it has the evidence to back up a view on evolution – or anything – why fear the debate? Don’t they trust their own people to make the same judgement when presented with the ‘facts’?

Preventing sin or fighting knowledge?

Out of these three search engines, it is clear that I’mHalal has it right. Impressively so. They know how to do a cultural search engine, by presenting all opinions and knowledge and allowing the reader to decide their own mind based on the evidence provided. Playing with that search engine, I never felt that viewpoints were being imposed upon me. The user is trusted to interpret the world from within their cultural framework. Links are often tagged with the phrase “This result might contain Haram content”. Haram means ‘forbidden’ and warns the user that content on the page may discuss topics outside of Islamic tradition – such as gambling. Crucially, the search engine doesn’t filter out all those links but merely gives them an Islamic context by pointing out which may contain Haram material. Interestingly, whereas all links on a search for ‘gambling’ contained the Haram warning, ‘evolution’ did not. Knowledge isn’t compromised or forbidden.

Sadly, the other two are only too eager to censor and forbid knowledge.These so-called moral search engines – SeekFind and Jewogle – are not about squeezing out sin on the internet as the Sydney Morning Herald article puts it. It’s one thing to uphold religious values by, for example, filtering pornography out of the results. It’s another thing
entirely to take control of knowledge and independent thought by refusing to offer any alternative viewpoints for anyone researching the topic with your search engine.

The idea of building a search engine to help people in the pursuit of knowledge, only to severely limit, restrict and interfere with that process, goes against the very nature of the internet. It is abhorent, abusive and designed to deceive the very people they are supposed to cater for – their own religious communities.

(Thanks to @graywave for the title)

Comments

  1. Great post and comparison. As a muslim it feels good to learn about this project to inform muslims searchers about sensitive content within search results. However, it seems the imhalal.com website is down or the project ended badly because the link is no longer working.