A little under five years ago, I got angry about a piece of fake information, and I decided to do something about it. I was reading a recipe in the New York Times, and the recipe told me, as many, many recipes had told me before, that it would take about 10 minutes of cooking to caramelize onions.
I knew from personal experience that this was a lie. Recipes always said it took 5 or 10 minutes to caramelize onions, and when you followed the recipes, you either got slightly cooked onions or you ended up 40 minutes behind schedule. So I caramelized some onions and recorded how long it really took—28 minutes if you cooked them as hot as possible and constantly stirred them, 45 minutes if you were sane about it—and I published those results on Slate, along with a denunciation of the false five-to-10 minute standard.
It might be the most valuable journalistic work I’ve ever done. After the piece went up, I heard again and again from readers who had thought they were incompetent cooks, because they’d trusted recipes that deceived them. The New York Times began publishing accurate onion-cooking times and even cited the Slate article. The work made it into the Wikipedia page for caramelization for a while, until someone dinged it because I am “not a trained chef” (and because some crank had tried to rebut it with a high-powered restaurant stove). Years after the fact, people still tell me that reading the truth made a difference in their lives.
So when I saw the news that Google’s search result box has been giving people bogus information in its algorithmic search for the One True Answer to various questions, I thought about the onions. If Google can’t figure out whether Barack Obama is plotting a coup or not, or whether or not MSG is lethal, can it at least recognize that the lie about cooking onions is a lie?
I typed “how long does it take to caramelize onions” into Chrome. The answer was worse than I could have imagined:
Not only does Google, the world’s preeminent index of information, tell its users that caramelizing onions takes “about 5 minutes”—it pulls that information from an article whose entire point was to tell people exactly the opposite. A block of text from the Times that I had published as a quote, to illustrate how it was a lie, had been extracted by the algorithm as the authoritative truth on the subject.
Five years after I thought I had buried the falsehood about quick onion cooking, Google is dragging it out of its grave to send it shambling into unsuspecting users’ kitchens. In fact, it made the lie even worse, because Google’s automated text analysis is too dumb to recognize that “about 5 minutes” followed by “about 5 minutes longer” means 10 minutes.
Do not try caramelizing onions in five minutes. And do not listen to Google.
UPDATE: At some point after this post was published, Google stopped promoting “about 5 minutes” as the correct answer and began extracting a more relevant passage from the original post: