Monday, September 9, 2019

Book review: Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Thanks to WHSLA member Michele Matucheski for this book review:

I just finished reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s newish book,  EverybodyLies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell About Who We Really Are.
I learned some new and surprising things about humanity.

People tell Google all kinds of things they wouldn’t tell their best friend.  The author even went so far as to call the Google search box truth serum.  As a Librarian and professional searcher, I don’t see the point of confessing to Google, because it’s just a search engine and a utility.  But that’s not how many people use it.  After studying gobs of big data, Stephens-Davidowitz asserts that online searches reveal people’s true thoughts. That’s how he was able to deconstruct what happened with the 2016 election, and how so many of the accepted polls and trusted data sources got it so wrong in predicting the outcome.  He was able to pick up on a disturbing undercurrent of racism and white supremacy that most people did not admit to in polite company, ie the official polls.

Time and time again, the author points out examples where the accepted and government data just plain got it wrong because they were using outdated and archaically slow methods of data collection.  One heartbreaking example was about the rise of child abuse rates after the economic downturn in 2008.  Traditional government agencies, who were themselves cut back, were not getting any more reports of child abuse.  They would probably only be getting the very worst cases anyway.  Google search logs told a very different story with heartbreaking queries like:  Why does my father beat me?  How to tell if a kid is being abused at home?

What people say is not necessarily what they do.   He also talked about the new frontiers Big Data will open for the social sciences.  The anonymous search logs show a very different picture than what people admit to in more formal surveys.  If they are talking to someone, they know to be on their best behavior and may tell the interviewer what they expect to hear – again, the polite company factor.

Think of “official” polls and surveys.  If someone is being asked in person, they want to look good and honorable, so they give the socially acceptable answer – not necessarily how they really feel. For example: Do you eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day?  People will answer yes, because they know they should. 

Don’t compare your real life to everyone else’s social media lives.  People tend to be on good behavior on social media where people are watching, but when they think they are alone and otherwise anonymous, the truth comes out. 

Don’t have time to read the book?  Listen to his TED Talk on "The Secrets in Our Google Searches."

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