The Jakarta Post
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz offers a tour of the modern world, where our Google searches can reveal our deepest truths. (The Jakarta Post/-)
Many of us like to believe that we are the exception, and we are not so predictable that our Google searches can reveal our deepest truths. But what we believe isn’t always fact.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a fascinating read that reveals just how much the human race has come to trust Google with its secrets and queries. In it, Stephens-Davidowitz tells readers that even though they may not know it, “you are a data scientist, too”.
Humans have taken to the internet and become an open book. We create a false sense of self, a perfect life we project to our followers and friends. But at the same time, when we can be anonymous, we also tell it our darkest secrets. We are honest with the internet in a way we have struggled to be honest with one another.
But when faced with the knowledge that there is a person on the other end, everybody lies. And thanks to what is called social desirability bias, we tend to make sure we say what will make us look the best, even if it doesn’t always end up lining up with the truth.
As Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist and author who graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. in economics, explains: “The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be […] People will admit more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them. However, on sensitive topics, every survey method will elicit substantial misreporting.”
So, in order to get into the depths of what humans actually think, Stephens-Davidowitz analyzed almost a decade’s worth of Google Trends, the feature on the world’s most-used search engine that allows users to see what searches have been made when and where, and at what frequency.
In the book, he touches on everything from race relations in the United States and who exactly gets to play in the NBA, to concerns during pregnancy — all through the lens of research through Google Trends.
Stephens-Davidowitz understands that his readers are not data experts and might not know what the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test is. Don’t worry, he admits that he himself doesn’t even remember its exact purpose. He makes sure his language is conversational and easy to grasp, even if the topic itself can be challenging to wrap your mind around.
In the same vein, some might dismiss the language featured in the book as too casual and too lowbrow, which is a valid complaint. But this also allows anyone, regardless of their background in data, to pick it up.
Everybody Lies does feel like it’s trying to lengthen itself by giving the same or similar examples repeatedly. It seems as if Stephens-Davidowitz wants his readers to understand the point he is making but does not always trust them to get it right away.
Some of the revelations also feel a little too obvious, like when he touches on things like gender bias and race. For example, Stephens-Davidowitz outlines how “parents are two and a half times more likely to ask ‘Is my son gifted?’ than ‘Is my daughter gifted?’”
The idea that in many places boys are favored and believed to be smarter than girls is not a new one. Maybe it is surprising to see just how widespread the attitude is, sure, but it’s not particularly eye-opening.
Regardless, Everybody Lies is a unique take on what we do and don’t know about ourselves, and it is fascinating to see just how the world’s largest search engine drives it all. (sul/wng)