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April 21, 2010

Is the pope a catholic? Aardvark returns immediate answers to life’s esoteric questions

There seems to be a proliferation of Q&A sites, which assume to offer “answers” to anyone who poses a question. Aardvark, WikiAnswers and Mahalo are three new services that purport to deliver education on demand. But it’s not quite feasible, is it?

If you are of a mind to ask randomly trivial questions, you may be surprised that Aardvark, WikiAnswers and Mahalo have all arrived to assist you in your quest for knowledge. But ask something “esoteric” and these systems fall flat on their faces.

For example, should one be tempted to ask: “How many bones are there in the human body”, within minutes you would be emailed with the answer: 206. But ask whether or not it is right for the pope to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity and subjectivity calls.

Aardvark has recently been bought by Google and is said that if you “ask questions” you get immediate “live” answers from your network, as Aardvark “finds the perfect person to answer any question in real-time”.

At the weekend, I decided to test the Aardvark service as I was idly browsing through online tech news and noticed a headline on the TechCrunch website pointing to it. I had earlier in the day been sent a link to a Guardian newspaper article, “Richard Dawkins calls for Pope to be put on trial”.

TechCrunch observed that Google has acquired a “promising social search startup Aardvark for around $50 million” and the short description of this story read that this new service “allows users to ask questions and get responses almost immediately from other users who are knowledgeable about the subject in question”.

On a whim I signed up, as I was intrigued to find out why Google had bought such a resource. It puzzled me how I could receive an “immediate response” to, for instance, the probe Prof. Dawkins was instigating. So, I asked an emotive first question: “Should the pope be prosecuted for crimes against humanity?”

But before we descend into the answers the company responded with, the article in question, published on the Guardian newspaper’s website, stated that Prof. Richard Dawkins, along with Christopher Hitchens, are paying lawyers to investigate the possibility of prosecuting the pope for crimes against humanity after a letter emerged from 1985 in which the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger urged that a paedophilic priest in America not be defrocked for the “good of the universal church”.

In the spirit of coincidental enquiry, I looked much further into the catholic church story and found a BBC World News debate, called Intelligence Squared, aired last year and available on YouTube, that centred on the question, “Is the catholic church a force for good in the world”.

Excuse me while I indulge you for a short while more. Arguing for this statement was the Archbishop of Abuja and Ann Widdecombe, a British MP; arguing against the statement was Christopher Hitchens, an English-American author and journalist, and Stephen Fry, British actor, writer, comedian, author, television presenter and film director. The result: 268 for; 1,876 against the motion.

The problem seems to be that these services pick up on a keyword, in this case “catholicism”, and then passes it down the line to the “experts” on the subject. The first responses were decidedly defensive and weren’t too far away from a recent BBC headline from an Iranian cleric that read: “Women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes”.

Mary, of Cincinnati, responded to the question thus: “Should the people of Thailand all be punished for the few who abuse children, women and men?  I think the answer to both questions is no. Retribution is never as effective as forgiveness.”

My initial assumption, and forgive me here if I am wrong, was how dare someone living in a country such as Thailand have the gall to pose such a question? Maybe I was wrong to think that, but if so what led her to respond to this question with reference to Thailand, a country in which almost everyone is buddhist?

Okay, forgiveness is one measured approach, but it hardly convenes an educated answer to the question of whether or not the pope should be prosecuted for deliberately appointing a known paedophile to the conclave.

The website commented that Dawkins’ point of view has recently been dealing with certain discomfiting suggestions about relations between religion and the brain. And on absorbing that research, “he must live in dread that one day he will read scientific evidence that religious belief is essential to survival and therefore to, uh, evolution”.

From my point of view, as neutral as I started out, I also received the following from Aardvark. A man in Paris said: “No, it’s not his fault that priests don’t take their mission and vows seriously. He should however, take all the dispositions to prevent these abuses from happening ever again.”

Reasonable enough response, I thought. From Vienna: “I’m not sure if thos [sic] is technically possible for him – chruch [sic] law is quite complex!”. And from Barcelona: “Of course but he won’t do. Lot of money and power and he’ll not lose,” which was annoying, given such a weighty topic should be summarily dismissed on the grounds of winning and losing.

By using Google’s core engine as a reference, it allowed me access to hours of research into pro- and counter-arguments on the subject, but instead I received immediate bias from the human reference library Google thought fit to buy just two months ago.

Following Mary’s many platitudes of love and forgiveness in the vein of: “Buddhism is centered on the love that connects us all.  Jesus has the same message,” just didn’t wash. It was not the question I posed and of all the responses I received, not one was neutral; all of the “experts” fell back on entrenched personal truths. Mary, in particular, was the most unhelpful about the question, stating, “Glad I could provide an outlet for your hatred of catholicism”.

Although religious homilies may often excoriate what is considered the main ills of modern society, primarily it’s hedonist post-modernism, it is not really the point of my question. And maybe Aardvark’s responses says much about the Vatican that in the age of wireless communication and the internet it still uses smoke signals to announce the election of its pope.

But all this doesn’t adequately explain what Google and co are doing buying up these Q&A sites: they should at best answer simple enquiries and leave the eternal where it belongs, as the answer can be called 42 by anyone who wishes it to be so.