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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

Google, it goes without saying, is the Web's most-used and -cited search engine. But when I watch over people's shoulders as they enter search terms, I'm surprised by how few really use Google to its fullest. At the most basic level, almost no one even uses quotation marks to denote exact phrases. (Maybe I'm just looking over the wrong shoulders.)

The difference between using quotation marks and not using them can be astounding. In the absence of an exact-phrase search term, Google returns "hits" on every page which contains all (or nearly all) of the words in any order at all, often with other words or phrases scattered among the ones you really care about. Not surprisingly, this results in a lot of useless stuff to wade through. Enclosing a phrase in quotation marks shrinks the universe of hits to a much more manageable size.

Take, for example, the phrase "when does human life begin." At the moment of this post:
It's true that the two approaches return many of the same sites/pages, especially early in their result sets. But which would you rather wade through? For instance, using the exact phrase, when you go all the way to the end of the list -- currently 800 pages -- every single hit still includes the phrase "when does life begin." By contrast, the 800th page of Google results with no quotation marks includes all kinds of junk. Among these are, for example, page 5 of a review at the "Television Without Pity" site of an episode of the old "My So-Called Life" series -- an episode with nothing at all to say about when life begins.

(The word "begins" doesn't even appear in that form, although "begin" -- no "s" -- is part of the episode's title, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." "Life" of course appears in the show's title. As for "human," you may be able to find it somewhere in the 17-page review, but I couldn't.)

What's all this got to do with anything here on the Beginning of Human Life blog? Two points:

First, by all means try out the Google search which uses the exact phrase. You'll find a stupendous range of opinion from one end of the spectrum to the other (as well as a stupendous range of styles, and of references to further reading, and of, well, let's say "reasonableness").

The second point is a bit more abstract, which is that Google can be used sloppily or well -- and that it shares this characteristic with the other tools of particular interest to the BoHL blog: reason, morality, ethics, conscience, science, history, rhetoric, politics. Use any or all of them (including Google) with little or no discipline, and you'll get results of almost no use to anyone else. (And maybe, despite your fondest hopes and beliefs, of almost no use to you yourself.) Wield them like a scalpel or a tweezers, though, and --maybe -- things will start to fall into place.

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