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Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are Hardcover – May 9, 2017
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“This book is about a whole new way of studying the mind . . . an unprecedented peek into people’s psyches . . . Time and again my preconceptions about my country and my species were turned upside-down by Stephens-Davidowitz’s discoveries . . . endlessly fascinating.” (Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature)
“Move over Freakonomics. Move over Moneyball. This brilliant book is the best demonstration yet of how big data plus cleverness can illuminate and then move the world. Read it and you’ll see life in a new way.” (Lawrence Summers, President Emeritus and Charles W. Eliot University Professor of Harvard University)
“Everybody Lies relies on big data to rip the veneer of what we like to think of as our civilized selves. A book that is fascinating, shocking, sometimes horrifying, but above all, revealing.” (Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants)
“Brimming with intriguing anecdotes and counterintuitive facts, Stephens-Davidowitz does his level best to help usher in a new age of human understanding, one digital data point at a time.” (Fortune, Best New Business Books)
“Freakonomics on steroids—this book shows how big data can give us surprising new answers to important and interesting questions. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz brings data analysis alive in a crisp, witty manner, providing a terrific introduction to how big data is shaping social science.” (Raj Chetty, Professor of Economics at Stanford University)
“Everybody Lies is a spirited and enthralling examination of the data of our lives. Drawing on a wide variety of revelatory sources, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz will make you cringe, chuckle, and wince at the people you thought we were.” (Christian Rudder, author of Dataclysm)
“A tour de force—a well-written and entertaining journey through big data that, along the way, happens to put forward an important new perspective on human behavior itself. If you want to understand what’s going on in the world, or even with your friends, this is one book you should read cover to cover.” (Peter Orszag, Managing Director, Lazard and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget)
“Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, has spent the last four years poring over Internet search data . . . What he found is that Internet search data might be the Holy Grail when it comes to understanding the true nature of humanity.” (New York Post)
“Everybody Lies is an astoundingly clever and mischievous exploration of what big data tells us about everyday life. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is as good a data storyteller as I have ever met.” (Steven Levitt, co-author, Freakonomics )
“A whirlwind tour of the modern human psyche using search data as its guide. . . . The empirical findings in Everybody Lies are so intriguing that the book would be a page-turner even if it were structured as a mere laundry list.” (The Economist)
From the Back Cover
How much sex are people really having?
How many Americans are actually racist?
Is America experiencing a hidden back-alley abortion crisis?
Can you game the stock market?
Does violent entertainment increase the rate of violent crime?
Do parents treat sons differently from daughters?
How many people actually read the books they buy?
In this groundbreaking work, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard-trained economist, former Google data scientist, and New York Times writer, argues that much of what we thought about people has been dead wrong. The reason? People lie, to friends, lovers, doctors, surveys—and themselves.
However, we no longer need to rely on what people tell us. New data from the internet—the traces of information that billions of people leave on Google, social media, dating, and even pornography sites—finally reveals the truth. By analyzing this digital goldmine, we can now learn what people really think, what they really want, and what they really do. Sometimes the new data will make you laugh out loud. Sometimes the new data will shock you. Sometimes the new data will deeply disturb you. But, always, this new data will make you think.
Everybody Lies combines the informed analysis of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, the storytelling of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and the wit and fun of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics in a book that will change the way you view the world. There is almost no limit to what can be learned about human nature from Big Data—provided, that is, you ask the right questions.
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What has allowed us to access this pool of unguarded opinions and truckloads of data concerning human behavior is the Internet and the tools of "big" data. As the author puts it, this data is not just "big" but also "new", which means that the kind of data we can access is also quite different from what we are used to; in his words, we live in a world where every sneeze, cough, internet purchase, political opinion, and evening run can be considered "data". This makes it possible to test hypotheses that we could not have tested before. For instance, the author gives the example of testing Freud's Oedipus Complex through accessing pornographic data which indicates a measurable interest in incest. Generally speaking there is quite an emphasis on exploring human sexuality in the book, partly because sexuality is one of those aspects of our life that we wish to hide the most and are also pruriently interested in, and partly because investigating this data through Google searches and pornographic sites reveals some rather bizarre sexual preference that are also sometimes specific to one country or another. This is a somewhat fun use of data mining.
Data exploration can both reveal the obvious as well as throw up unexpected observations. A more serious use of data tools concerns political opinions. Based on Google searches in particular states, the author shows how racism (as indicated by racist Google searches) was a primary indicator of which states voted for Obama in the 2008 election and Trump in the 2016 election. That's possibly an obvious conclusion, at least in retrospect. A more counterintuitive conclusion is that the racism divide does not seem to map neatly on the urban-rural divide or the North-South divide, but rather on the East-West divide; people seem to be searching much more for explicitly racist things in the East compared to the West. There is also an interesting survey of gay people in more and less tolerant states which concludes that you are as likely to find gay people in both parts of the country. Another interesting section of the book talked about how calls for peace by politicians after terrorist attacks actually lead to more rather than less xenophobic Google searches; this is accompanied by a section that hints at how the trends can be potentially reversed if different words are used in political speeches. There is also an interesting discussion of how the belief that newspaper political leanings drive customer political preferences gets it exactly backward; the data shows that customer political preferences shape what newspapers print, so effectively they are doing nothing different from any other customer-focused, profit making organization.
The primary tool for doing all this data analysis is correlation or regression analysis, where you look at online searches and try to find correlations between certain terms and factors like geographic location, gender, ethnicity. One hopes that one has separated the most important correlated variable and has eliminated other potentially important ones.
There are tons of other amusing and informative studies - sometimes the author's own but more often other people's - that reveal human desires and behavior across a wide swathe of fields, including politics, dating, sports, education, shopping and sexuality. There's plenty of potentially useful material in these studies. For instance, some of the data that indicates gaps in educational or social attainment in different parts of the country are immediately actionable in principle. Google searches have also been used to keep track of flu and other disease epidemics. Sometimes finding correlations is financially lucrative; there is a story about how a horse expert found that success in horse races seems to correlate with one factor more than any other: the size of the left ventricle. Another study isolated the impact of the early growing season on the quality of wines. There is no doubt that financial firms, supermarkets, newspapers, hospitals and online purveyors of everything from pornography to peanuts are going to keep a close eye on this data to maximize their reach and profits.
Generally speaking I enjoyed "Everybody Lies"; for the scope of the material, the easy-going style and some of the counterintuitive observations it reveals. My main reservation about the book is that I think the author overstates his case and sometimes sounds a little too breathless about the great changes these tools are going to bring. More than once he uses the term "revolutionary" in describing these data tools, but I am much more suspicious of their ultimate utility. Firstly, data does not equal knowledge; rather, it is the raw material for knowledge. As the author himself acknowledges, understanding correlation is not the same as understanding causation, and it's in very few cases that a true causal relationship between people's Google searches and their true nature can be established. Part of the reason I think this way is because I don't believe that a person's Google search is as reflective of their innermost desires as the book seems to think, so what a person truly believes may go way beyond their online behavior. Consider the studies revealing people's sexual preferences for instance; how many of them point to trivial idiosyncrasies and how many are indicative of some deeper truth about human brains? The tools alone cannot draw this distinction. At the end of the day you could thus end up with a lot of data (including a lot of noise), but teasing apart the useful data points from the red herrings is a completely different matter. In this sense, looking at Google searches and other information can be a reductionist and simplistic approach.
Secondly, it's usually quite hard to control for all possible variables that may reflect a Google search; for instance in concluding that racism contributes the most to a particular political behavior, it's very hard to tease out all other factors that also may do so, especially when you are talking about a heterogeneous collection of human beings. How can you know that you have corrected for every possible factor? Thirdly and finally, the "science" part of "data science" still lacks rigor in my opinion. For instance, a lot of the conclusions the book talks about are based on single studies which don't seem to be repeated. In some cases the sample sizes are large, but in other cases they are small. Plus, people's opinions can change over time, so it's important to pick the right time window in which to do the study. All this points to great responsibility on the part of data scientists to make sure that their results are rigorous and not too simplistic, before they are taken up by both politicians and the general public as blunt instruments to change social policies. This responsibility increases especially as these approaches become more widespread and cheaper to use, especially in the hands of non-specialists. When you are in possession of a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.
Considering all these caveats, I thus find tools like those described in this volume to be the starting points for understanding human behavior, rather than direct determinants of human behavior. The tools themselves can tell you what they can be used for, not necessarily what problems would benefit the most from their application. The many interesting studies in this book certainly answer the "what" quite well, but most of them are still quite far from answering the "how" and especially the "why". They point out the path to the door, but don't necessarily tell us which door to open. And they can be especially impoverished in illuminating what lies beyond; for that only a true understanding of the human mind will pave the way.
This epistemology changed completely in a spam of a decade, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, for one reason: we've been telling the truth to Google, and they have been judiciously listening. And the truths we have been telling Google on sex, racism, antisemitism, mental health and politics are coarse, frightening, disturbing, and altogether too human to ignore.
Using a mountain of data from Google searches and other social media like Facebook and Twitter, Stephens-Davidowitz wrote a click-bait book full of insights on humanity based on "the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche." (p. 14). The digital truth serum, as he calls Google Search data, offers a glimpse at many things social scientists dream to understand, from sexual taboos, proclivities and insecurities, to political bias in the press and latent racism hidden in searches for jokes. A plethora of bewildering information about how creepy we really are.
From all the factoids he describes, the one that surprised me the most was female consumption of pornography that depicts violence against women: "Fully 25 percent of female searches for straight porn emphasize the pain and/ or humiliation of the woman” (p. 121). Let that sink in for a minute. The book is full of surprising data points like this. Also, it doesn't entirely fall prey to the Big Data a-theoretical hype; discussions on A/B testing, out-of-sample prediction and natural experiments in economics balance the correlational narrative with a good dose of causal inference, which is often missing in books that describe stuff from large data sets.
Its nice to see social science losing all those self-inflicted bounds when new data appears with new questions. It's not about resolving ad hoc, compartmentalized questions, but refining old inquiries and incrementally gaining practical knowledge about them. The credibility revolution in empirical economics, which made the reliability of estimates second-order to deliberate or naturally occurring experiments, coupled with the replicability of research, continues its set path. Stephens-Davidowitz writes in his conclusion on Big Data that "The revolution, instead, will come piecemeal, study by study, finding by finding. Slowly, we will get a better understanding of the complex systems of the human mind and society." (p. 273). Exactly.
Coda: Metadata used in the book can be found in the author's webpages. Kudos for that.
“Everybody Lies” is a fascinating dive into the world of “Big Data”. The core premise of the book is that by mining large data sets we can answer questions more accurately than through other methods. Behavioral and psychological questions can be addressed without the filter of a poll or questionnaire, where “everybody lies”. Thus, in theory, we capture a more accurate representation of people’s real prejudices and desires through big data searches than through polling.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz uses quirky and often humorous examples to show the power of big data. One example from the book revealed that I was one of the 7% who finished “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (I am not sure whether that is a good or bad thing).
The data is the data, but the interpretation is subjective. My concern is that the subjective conclusions drawn from the data will be presented as fact rather than what they are – subjective interpretations of the data (however statistically significant). As such, there is a danger that such information will be misused. We still need to be cautious in determining the meaning of the data.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz brings the topic to life with terrific story telling about a wide number of subjects. The author has performed a great service by making this very important topic comprehensible to “the rest of us”.