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Friday, April 08, 2005

 Child-oriented search engines exhibit anti-atheist bias

As a parent I try to strike a balance between exposing my kids to all the wonders that the Internet makes possible, and protecting them from all the crap that can be found there.

If you have ever wondered how difficult it is to strike such a balance, try doing a Google image search on any of the following innocuous terms: brown sugar, teen, asian [WARNING: Images may not be work-safe].

This week I came across a list of web-search sites for children, so I was naturally intrigued. For my youngest children, any time on the 'Net is 100 percent supervised; my oldest gets a lot more free time. Could these tools assist me in managing my children's time on the 'Net? I decided to investigate.

Upon closer inspection I discovered that many of these search sites are simply searches within directories. That is, the search is limited to an organized hierarchy of web sites that are manually classified and screened for content appropriate for children. This type of search stands in sharp contrast to most major search engines, like Google, Yahoo! and AltaVista, which get their listings by "spidering" a web site and indexing its content in a centrally searchable location.

I became curious how the sites dealt with atheism. After all, some definitions for atheism include wickedness and immorality. Would these sites protect young innocent minds from the dangers of godlessness? Or, as learning tools, would they make the topic available?

Results from major web search engines:

As I was embarking on somewhat of a scientific endeavor, I needed to establish a baseline. Examining the major search engines seemed like a logical place to start. As noted above, because the major search engines get their listings by "spidering" a web site it is easy for possibly objectionable material to appear in search results. As a solution, most major search engines offer some type of filtering ability.

I conducted queries on the term "atheism" with content filtering alterately turned on and off. What I found was relatively little difference in the number of web sites available. That is, atheism was largely not filtered as objectionable.

Here are the results of my searches for "atheism" with and without content filters:

Query: atheism
Offensive content filter off: 1,920,000 results
Offensive content filter on: 1,640,000 results
Query: god
Offensive content filter off: 215,000,000 results
Offensive content filter on: 195,000,000 results

Query: atheism
Family Filter preference set to "None": 1,970,000 results
Family Filter preference set to "All": 1,680,000 results
Query: god
Family Filter preference set to "None": 233,000,000 results
Family Filter preference set to "All": 210,000,000 results

Query: atheism
Content filtering = Display Adult content without a "warning page": 708,600 results
Content filtering = Limit my exposure to Adult content: 708,500 results
Query: god
Content filtering = Display Adult content without a "warning page": 67,340,000 results
Content filtering = Limit my exposure to Adult content: 67,340,000 results

Query: atheism
SafeSearch Filtering = Do not filter my search results: 2,170,000
SafeSearch Filtering = Use strict filtering: 1,510,000
Query: god
SafeSearch Filtering = Do not filter my search results: 158,000,000
SafeSearch Filtering = Use strict filtering: 59,900,000

MSN Search:
Query: atheism
SafeSearch = Do not filter search results: 1,123,890
SafeSearch = Strict: 1,178,531
Query: god
SafeSearch = Do not filter search results: 82,433,752
SafeSearch = Strict: 82,672,962
[Leave it to the brainiacs at Micro$oft to figure out a way to retrieve more results with a filter!]

Yahoo! Search:
Query: atheism
SafeSearch Filter = Do not filter results: 1,990,000 results
SafeSearch Filter = Filter out adult Web, video, and image search results: 1,800,000
Query: god
SafeSearch Filter = Do not filter results: 233,000,000 results
SafeSearch Filter = Filter out adult Web, video, and image search results: 215,000,000

Summary of the major search engines:
  1. There are between 75 times and 118 times more web sites returned for "god" than for "atheism".

  2. The major search engines provide filtered results for "atheism" that are between 70 and 100 percent of the unfiltered results for the same term.

  3. The major search engines provide filtered results for "god" that are between .38 and 100 percent of the unfiltered results for the same term.

  4. Google seems to be a statistical outlier in both cases, providing the strictest filtering for both terms (.70 and .38 respectively). By comparison, the second most-restrictive filtering was .85 and .90, respectively.

  5. A defensible argument can be made that with regard to the major search engines, "atheism" is not filtered any more than "god" is filtered.

These results lead me to propose the following hypothesis: If queries for "atheism" are filtered out significantly more than queries for "god" in child-centered search engines, then such sites can arguably be accused of anti-atheist bias.

Baseline established, I next turned to the child-centered sites. Here are the results of my searches for "atheism" and "god". Since these sites are manually categorized, no filtering is available.

Results from major child-oriented search sites:

AskJeeves for Kids:
Query:  What is atheism?
Result: "I'm Sorry, No Results Were Found."
Query: What is god?
Result: "Jeeves knows these answers: What is the religion" followed by a dropdown menu containing 26 religions.

Yahooligans! Web Guide for Kids:
Query:  atheism
Result: "Sorry no results were found matching: atheism."
Query: god
Result: 84 matches

KidsClick! Web Search:
Query:  atheism
Result: 1 match
Query: god
Result: 13 matches

Looksmart's Kids Directory by NetNanny:
Query:  atheism
Result: "Sorry, no results were found for 'atheism.'"
Query: god
Result: 108 matches

Results from specialized child-oriented web sites:

The American Librarian Association's Great Websites for Kids search:
Query:  atheism
Result: No results returned
Query: god
Result: Three results returned

Awesome Library K-12 Education Directory:
Query:  atheism
Result: 0 matches
Query: god
Result: 33 matches

Dibdabdoo Kid Safe Search:
Query:  atheism
Result: 17 results
Query: god
Result: 90 results

Education World:
Query:  atheism
Result: 0 results
Query: god
Result: 0 results
[Does this search engine do anything? :) ]

Fact Monster:
Query:  atheism
Result: 20 results
Query: god
Result: 100 results

Family Source Kid-Safe Search:
Query:  atheism
Result: 5279 matching documents
Query: god
Result: 36601 matching documents

Query:  atheism
Result: "Sorry no sites found"
Query: god
Result: 105 results
[Apparently anti-atheist discrimination is not solely an American phenomenon.]

Query:  atheism
Result: "Your search for atheism did not return any matches (5734 documents were searched)"
Query: god
Result: 21 matching documents

Oracle's ThinkQuest Library:
Query:  atheism
Result: 1 result
Query: god
Result: 103 results

Summary of the child-oriented search sites:
  1. 8 of 13 sites have no results returned from "atheism".

  2. An additional 2 sites produce a single result.


According to our baseline, we expected to find that queries for "atheism" and queries for "god" would return a similar number of results. We found no such outcome.

One site, Family Source Kid-Safe Search, is a statisical outlier for both queries. When discarded, a query of "atheism" returns merely 39 results across 12 children's sites. Across the 13 children's sites the mean of "atheism" results is 0.3 (with the outlier discarded) or 409 (with the outlier included); the median and mode are both zero in either case.

Based on these preliminary results, an argument can be made that child-oriented search sites exhibit a strong anti-atheist bias.

Further research might focus on whether additional biases exist, such as an anti-homosexual or anti-evolution bias. Additionally, research might be conducted to determine if this bias is greater or less than other biases that might be present.


Blogger SFG said...

Could it be that the freethought community has failed to develop kid-friendly pages describing their worldview? Based on my experience in Humanist and other organizations within the Community of Reason, we do a rather poor job of providing content that is not highly intellectual. Not only is it inaccessible to kids, but it is of limited appeal to many adults. Your data may, then, suggest the need to develop web resources explaining Humanism and atheism that are appropriate for various demographic groups.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Angie said...

Steven does bring up a valid point. Guess what needs to be found out if there is such stuff out there for children, and then we'll know that it's being kept from children.

Also, did you notice how few "god" received in results for children? I'm actually surprised it wasn't higher.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Electro said...

Maybe you should just spend time with your kids instead of worrying about how they might be trapped into learning of God's greatness and love. Maybe you could even be an example of that love even if you deny you received the power to love from Him. I hope you don't want to push off your little project as science, there is already enough bad science out there.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous MarkL said...

I don't know that it's an attitude bias as much as a language descriptor issue. 'god' is a very generic term, and can be used in non-religous contexts. 'atheist' has worse descriptor problems - it's a 'not this', and nots are always harder to describe. I often urge folks not to use that particular word, because it's the not-us descriptor used in the language of the other side, in the same fashion as a non-Jew describing him/herself as a 'goy'.

However, when you get into positive descriptors, then attitude problems come to bear. 'Materialist' makes one sound like a money-grubber, 'naturalist' makes one sound like a nudist, and 'humanist' is pretty darn vague. I think Steven is on the right track: more accessible (and more positively descriptive) language is called for.

12:18 PM  
Blogger lepton said...

Hmm.. I don't see how this proves anything. Atheist is a more complicated word so it would seem normal that it wouldn't show up in search engines for kids. Do the same survey with "evolutionism" and "creationism" and your results might be more meaningful.

There is a lot to be disgested about within religious circles, but many Christians aren't that bad. Just look at this
Christian Economic Development book for example.

7:21 PM  

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