If your pal swears to God that he’ll repay a loan, write it off: a tour of the many things that big data can tell us about ourselves.
Trained as an economist and a philosopher, Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, ventures into sociology and psychology with his look at the corpus of search terms run through that site, “a bizarre dataset” that often yields uncomfortable results, revealing hidden reservoirs of racism, sexual insecurity, hypocrisy, and outright dishonesty. For instance, he writes, so-called undecided voters usually aren’t undecided at all; if researching political issues using phrases such as “Trump Clinton taxes,” one’s vote will almost always go to the candidate named first. Pollsters predicted a heavy turnout of African-American voters in favor of Hillary Clinton, but those voters didn’t show up. Meanwhile, the data that Stephens-Davidowitz sifts through reveal a strongly racially motivated vote on the part of whites, speaking to “a nasty, scary and widespread rage that was waiting for a candidate to give voice to it,” even though those same people would profess publicly to being beyond issues of race and indeed “postracial,” in that quaint term of yore. Some of the author’s other findings concern social “tells,” in the language of gambling, such as the hedge words someone might use in conversation: “Fellas, if a woman…‘sorta’ likes her drink or ‘kinda’ feels chilly…you can bet that she is ‘sorta’ ‘kinda’ ‘probably’ not into you.” Yet this book has broader implications than one’s chances of success at a singles mixer. Stephens-Davidowitz looks, for example, at the statistics surrounding political assassination and what happens to a government afterward, recidivism among prison inmates (the harsher the conditions, the more likely a return to crime), the correlation of education and financial success, the keywords of lying, and other big-picture questions.
Statistics wonks will find much of interest in this survey. For the rest of us, this book offers as many reasons to be dispirited about the human condition as the daily headlines.