How much will Google influence the presidential election?

❝ Even if you don’t believe lizard people and the Illuminati secretly run our planet, the world really is filled with unseen influences. The languid music in the grocery store makes us walk slower and spend more money, and product placements in TV and movies leave us inexplicably craving things like Coca-Cola and Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos…

With the presidential election around the corner, Science asked experts in computer science, business, and law to weigh in on how companies like Google and Facebook, which function as the primary gateway to online information for millions of voters, could influence the outcome…

❝ Last summer, Science reported on something called the search engine manipulation effect. Because companies like Google have gotten so good at providing the best links first, the higher an item appears on a list of search results, the more users trust it. That’s OK if you’re looking for the best place to buy a set of kitchen utensils or back-to-school supplies, but the study’s lead author, Robert Epstein…showed that by simply putting links for one candidate above another in a rigged search, he and his co-author could influence how undecided voters choose a candidate…

The effect was largely invisible to the study participants; most had no idea they were seeing biased results. But even if they did, they thought the search engine was merely doing its job and ranking a better candidate higher than his or her opponent…

❝ By Epstein’s calculations, biased Google results could shift the vote in November by up to 2%, or about 2.6 million votes. This may not seem huge, but many presidential elections in the United States have been decided by margins narrower than that…

Is there any evidence to suggest that internet gatekeepers are taking advantage of this power?

No. But this question gets at the real crux of the problem because, for now anyway, there’s really no way to find out. Generally, regulators can’t audit Google or Facebook or any other tech giant to find out how their proprietary algorithms determine the content we see on a screen. Intellectual property laws allow these companies to keep private the specifics of search and newsfeed algorithms, making it extremely difficult to parse out any bias in content that users see.

RTFA if you want even more details to worry about. Inevitable questions about security vs privacy, federal government oversight vs individual freedom to act stupid arise. Think about it.

Grading the White House candidates on climate and science

In the “I’m shocked … shocked” category, a group of climate scientists graded the presidential candidates on their knowledge of accurate climate change science, and the Democrats came out on top, with the Republicans at best doing badly, and at worst humiliating themselves.

The study was done using anonymized statements made in tweets, interviews, and debates, which were shown to eight scientists. Hillary Clinton came out on top, followed by Bernie Sanders with quite high marks. None of the GOP hopefuls even got a passing grade…The highest being Jeb Bush with a meager 64/100.

The only surprise I got was that Donald Trump (15/100) did better than Ted Cruz (a spectacular fail of 6—yes, six—out of 100 points). About Cruz’s (still at the time anonymous) statements, climatologist Michael Mann wrote: “This individual understands less about science – and climate change – than the average kindergartner…”

Not to put any of the other Republicans at the front of the class. Bush’s tepid grade is hardly a ringing endorsement, and of course Trump’s bloviating borders on cartoon-level nonsense.

Incidentally, William Ruckelshaus — a Republican himself, as well as the first Environmental Protection Agency chief (appointed by Nixon and reappointed by Reagan!) — has in no uncertain terms condemned the GOP cohort for denying science for political gain. This much is obvious; it’s just gratifying to see another Republican say so.

Our courageous journalists and editors spend a great deal of time whining about whether or not they should confront Trump’s lies. Fact is – all the Republican candidates lie through their teeth about science in general, women’s health and climate in particular. In the latter case, we can stick with our suspicions about payoffs from scumbags like the Koch Bros. In the former, I’m not so certain. I think it’s just rank ignorance.

You have to wonder how some of today’s conservatives manage to father children they’re so out of touch with female biology.

Republicans compete to lead Christian political party


“I will rise into the air and you will see God embrace me…”

When Gov. Rick Perry of Texas called for a day of prayer and fasting in Houston, world-famous televangelist John Hagee answered enthusiastically…

When Perry officially launches his presidential campaign this weekend, he will not be the only Republican candidate to carry the banner of Christian piety…Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty discovered his inner Honest Abe at the Faith and Freedom Conference in June. Heedless of the risks to his campaign, Honest Tim read from the Bible and thundered to the mostly evangelical audience, “We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God!”

Another presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, refers to God so frequently in the context of her political ambitions that you would think He was her running mate. At the Faith and Freedom Conference, she treated the audience to a prayer of her own design: “Lord, we know there are things we have done in our nation that have not been pleasing in your sight,” she sorrowfully intoned, “Lord, we ask your forgiveness for that…”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may not be able to boast about Christian values in his personal life, but he has vowed to defend his grandchildren from the imminent threat of “a secular atheist country” or, somewhat inconsistently, political domination by radical Islamists. Gingrich has also promised to resist the fearsome “homosexual agenda” on the grounds that he supports “pro-classical Christianity,” a hitherto-undiscovered Christian sect that may be imaginary.

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GOP looking for more women candidates

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U.S. Republicans say they are trying to become a more hospitable party for women candidates even as their numbers continue to dwindle.

Even though the GOP had Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on its presidential ticket last year, there were still far more Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives at 96 than for the Republicans, who fielded only 37 such candidates in November, the Washington publication Politico reported…

“If we are going to expand the playing field we must expand the party,” said a spokesman for National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas. “On the candidate recruitment front, we continue to focus on finding highly qualified female candidates who can effectively convey the Republican message.”

Times change.

Over half of American voters used the Web to prep for 2008 election

More than half of U.S. adults used the Internet to participate in the 2008 election — the first time that threshold has been crossed. Some 55 percent searched for political news online, researched candidate positions, debated issues or otherwise participated in the election over the Internet, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found.

New forms of Internet communication such as blogs, social-networking sites like Facebook and video-sharing sites played a prominent role, the nonprofit group said. Among its findings:

* 45 percent of Internet users watched online videos related to politics or the election;

* 33 percent of Internet users shared political content with others;

* 52 percent of those on a social network used it for political purposes.

The Internet has grown steadily as a source of political news since 2000, when 11 percent of voters went online to keep up with political developments. That figure now stands at 26 percent. Among young voters and those with broadband connections the Internet has eclipsed traditional media like television, radio and newspapers, the survey found.

If you have any smarts at all, you can use the Web to fact-check some of the more or less political claims made, as well. True Believers are exempt from this procedure, of course.

Scientists urge US to fund climate research and forecasting


Photo from NOAA

Eight scientific organizations urged the next U.S. president to help protect the country from climate change by pushing for increased funding for research and forecasting, saying about $2 trillion of U.S. economic output could be hurt by storms, floods and droughts.

We don’t think we have the right kind of tools to help decision makers plan for the future,” Jack Fellows, the vice president for corporate affairs of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of 71 universities, told reporters in a teleconference on Wednesday.

The groups, including the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, urged Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain to support $9 billion in investments between 2010 and 2014 to help protect the country from extreme weather, which would nearly double the current U.S. budget for the area…
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