We’ve written extensively about how Google’s practice of highlighting one answer to a search query has led the tech giant to inadvertently endorse the idea that the Earth is flat and that Barack Obama is planning a coup, as well as give credit to the wrong person for inventing email.
The issue persists and, in some cases, snippets reveal that even so-called “legitimate” sources can perpetuate wrongheaded notions to the Google masses. To wit: a reader sent in another example of an odd Google snippet for the definition of the word “eugenics.” Google’s definition, which is pulled from Oxford Dictionaries, a website produced by The Oxford University Press, says this (emphasis ours):
The science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.
This definition is not only strangely sympathetic to the father of eugenics, who once wrote a novel about a utopian society in which people who fail a test are sent to a labor colony and not allowed to reproduce, it is historically inaccurate. The doctrine of eugenics was not perverted by the Nazis, who performed horrific experiments on human subjects in concentration camps, it was sustained.
In the U.K. and the U.S. decades before World War II, Galton’s ideas, developed in the late 1800s, inspired forced sterilization and discriminatory laws. Here’s an example of his mindset, from a paper written by Nicholas W. Gillham, a professor at Duke University and author of A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics:
[Galton] developed a “beauty-map” of the British Isles based on how many pretty women he encountered (London had the highest score, Aberdeen the lowest). He wished to record (for science) the steatopygia, or large buttocks, of women of tribes he encountered in southern Africa. A particularly pronounced example was displayed by the wife of a mission worker. Delicacy forbade that he should measure her directly but he did have his surveying instruments with him. He therefore stood at a distance and used his sextant. He mapped the dimensions of interest using trigonometry and logs.
Other dictionaries present more nuanced definitions of the term. Merriam-Webster defines eugenics as “a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.” Dictionary.com says it is “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”
We talked about this story on our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch.
In comparison to those definitions, Oxford’s does indeed seem odd. Google does not vet individual definitions, but it prominently displays and endorses them — and the definitions do not include the source, giving the impression that they come straight from the Mountain View oracle itself.
Oxford Dictionaries and Google did not immediately respond to emails.