Adrianne Jeffries, reporting for The Outline: Peter Shulman, an associate history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, was lecturing on the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when a student asked an odd question: Was President Warren Harding a member of the KKK? Shulman was taken aback. He confessed that he was not aware of that allegation, but that Harding had been in favor of anti-lynching legislation, so it seemed unlikely. But then a second student pulled out his phone and announced that yes, Harding had been a Klan member, and so had four other presidents. It was right there on Google, clearly emphasized inside a box at the top of the page. “I understand what Google is trying to do, and it’s work that perhaps requires algorithmic aid,” Shulman said in an email. “But in this instance, the question its algorithm scoured the internet to answer is simply a poorly conceived one. There have been no presidents in the Klan.” Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. “Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn’t simply ‘There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.’ It’d be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship.”
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