Saturday, August 20, 2011

Raising a Baby in the Age of Google

We were watching the Colbert Report the other day, and he did a story on how the internet was changing the way we remember things.  You see, there’s no point in remembering stuff that we know we can find again on the web.  Makes sense, our brains don’t need to be filled with all of that useless knowledge anymore and they can focus on more important things….like, well…you know, stuff.  Google is always there; even when on the road, as long as you can get 3G.

Before Google…heck even before the ancient outdated thing called Yahoo, there were these things called ‘books’ (kinda like e-books, but they’re printed on this weird tree-derived parchment).  I was 10 when my younger brother was born, and so I got to see a tiny bit of what it was like to raise a baby.  My mom swore by Dr. Spock’s ‘Baby and Child Care’.  It was a classic dog-eared copy that she had when she raised me.  In fact, Dr. Spock’s book was first published in 1946 and has eight editions, the last of which was published in 2004.  It was the ‘baby raising bible’ to generations of parents.  Has anyone under 35 even heard of Dr. Spock?  And, no, not that dude with the pointy ears on Star Trek, which is what I thought when I was 10.  How could a Vulcan know how to raise human babies, anyhow?  They have no emotions.

Nowadays, there are other books that seem to be quite popular amongst the parents.  Our favorites are the ‘What to Expect’ books (What to Expect When You’re Expecting; What to Expect the First Year; etc). They’re great for those of us from the MTV generation who need our information presented in quick and manageable nuggets.  But 9 times out of 10, whenever I have a question about the baby, I go first to the source of all knowledge.  The knower of all that is known.  The almighty Google!

Take this morning, for instance.  Jack is almost one year-old, and one happens to be the age that magical things instantaneously happen.  All of a sudden, they can drink cow’s milk.  Now their carseat can be turned to face forward.  They can eat eggs.  We got to thinking: "why couldn’t he have eggs before?"  We vaguely remember our pediatrician saying something about egg whites being the problem.  We were actually making egg whites for breakfast (it’s healthier for us), so could we make up the yolks for him? He’s supposed to be eating all of this good fat anyway for his brain and nerve development (at least that's what Google told me).  

So, I jump on Google, and in 0.9 seconds, I have 4,230,000 results at my figure tips.  Of course, only the first couple of pages of a Google search are ever read, and in this case, I had everything I needed in the first 5 entries.  Egg whites are one of the top food allergens, and so avoiding them avoids the possible risk of a young baby having an allergic reaction.  Egg yolks are fine.  So, there ya go....But wait!  Even among the first 5 sites that came up in this search, there was a discrepancy.  It seems sometime around 2008, a new study came out that discovered that the risks of allergic reactions to egg whites are really not that high, and it’s just fine to feed babies both egg whites and egg yolks after about 6 months of age (unless there’s a family history of egg allergies).  Some of the websites in my Google search were made before 2008, and they said avoid egg whites.  Others were more recent, and thus had more up-to-date information, but were actually lower in the search.  In fact, this is explicitly part of Google’s search algorithms.  Older articles have more links and back-links, and are thus more authoritative according to the Google-Gods.  To hell with recent research when there’s history on our side!  If procedures akin to Google’s search algorithms were used in medical science, we’d still be blood letting with leeches and performing lobotomies for mental issues.
This got me thinking.  As a scientist, I know some sources are more reputable than others.  In fact, my wife was just talking about how hard it is to get her students to realize that not all information in Google is equal, and in fact, some is much more reputable than others.  In science, studies are subject to peer review before being published, and public scrutiny once published.  The good stuff rises and the bad stuff falls.  But it’s not always clear in a Google search what gets you to the top of a list and how reputable the information is.  How do people learn how to sort it all out? 

Does placement in the search engine automatically mean a better source?  Sure, Google’s search engines are good, and are always trying for improvements to filter out the 'wheat from the chaff', so to speak.  But, Google’s search engines can’t really discern what is good information, and what is bad information that happens to be popular.  As I’ve tried to dive into this Blogging world, I’ve learned a ton about how people try to use the search engines to their advantage.  Before last week, I never even heard of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and back-linking, but now I know that understanding and using SEO to your advantage will win you fame and fortune.  At least, that’s what the 146,000,000 websites on a Google search about SEO try tell me (so long as I buy their e-book).  It really seems like keywords and placement are more important than information content to many internet writers trying to make a buck.  It’s all about getting top ranks in a Google search.  And, you can see this when you do any sort search.  Sure, when I do a Google search to figure out something about Jack (e.g., why does his pee smell so bad?), many top results come from reputable parenting and medical websites.  But, there’s always some other random stuff mixed in.  And, it’s never clear who’s really writing it, and where the information comes from. 

Don’t get me wrong, Google is still my knower all of things important.  The answer to every one of my questions. From now on, though, as I look to Google for parenting advice or any other research topic, I’m going to pay closer attention to the websites where the information comes from.  Just because a site shows up high on a Google search does not necessarily mean it's the best information available.  Google and the internet make life much easier in some ways, but perhaps parenting was a bit more straightforward when all you had to do was open up your trusted Dr. Spock’s ‘Baby and Child Care’ to solve any parenting question.

Live long and prosper.

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