The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


published June 2018

Google as a window into our private thoughts

Scientific American (cover)

What are the weirdest questions you’ve ever Googled? Mine might be (for my latest book): “How many people have ever lived?” “What do people think about just before death?” and “How many bits would it take to resurrect in a virtual reality everyone who ever lived?” (It’s 10 to the power of 10123.) Using Google’s autocomplete and Keyword Planner tools, U.K.-based Internet company Digitaloft generated a list of what it considers 20 of the craziest searches, including “Am I pregnant?” “Are aliens real?” “Why do men have nipples?” “Is the world flat?” and “Can a man get pregnant?”

This is all very entertaining, but according to economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who worked at Google as a data scientist (he is now an op-ed writer for the New York Times), such searches may act as a “digital truth serum” for deeper and darker thoughts. As he explains in his book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (Dey Street Books, 2017), “In the pre-digital age, people hid their embarrassing thoughts from other people. In the digital age, they still hide them from other people, but not from the internet and in particular sites such as Google and PornHub, which protect their anonymity.” Employing big data research tools “allows us to finally see what people really want and really do, not what they say they want and say they do.”

People may tell pollsters that they are not racist, for example, and polling data do indicate that bigoted attitudes have been in steady decline for decades on such issues as interracial marriage, women’s rights and gay marriage, indicating that conservatives today are more socially liberal than liberals were in the 1950s.

Using the Google Trends tool in analyzing the 2008 U.S. presidential election, however, Stephens-Davidowitz concluded that Barack Obama received fewer votes than expected in Democrat strongholds because of still latent racism. For example, he found that 20 percent of searches that included the N-word (hereafter, “n***”) also included the word “jokes” and that on Obama’s first election night about one in 100 Google searches with “Obama” in them included “kkk” or “n***(s).”

“In some states, there were more searches for ‘[n***] president’ than ‘first black president,’ ” he reports—and the highest number of such searches were not predominantly from Southern Republican bastions as one might predict but included upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, industrial Michigan and rural Illinois. This difference between public polls and private thoughts, Stephens-Davidowitz observes, helps to explain Obama’s underperformance in regions with a lot of racist searches and partially illuminates the surprise election of Donald Trump.

But before we conclude that the arc of the moral universe is slouching toward Gomorrah, a Google Trends search for “n*** jokes,” “bitch jokes” and “fag jokes” between 2004 and 2017, conducted by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker and reported in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, shows downward-plummeting lines of frequency of searches. “The curves,” he writes, “suggest that Americans are not just more abashed about confessing to prejudice than they used to be; they privately don’t find it as amusing.” More optimistically, these declines in prejudice may be an underestimate, given that when Google began keeping records of searches in 2004 most Googlers were urban and young, who are known to be less prejudiced and bigoted than rural and older people, who adopted the search technology years later (when the bigoted search lines were in steep decline). Stephens-Davidowitz confirms that such intolerant searches are clustered in regions with older and less educated populations and that compared with national searches, those from retirement neighborhoods are seven times as likely to include “n*** jokes” and 30 times as likely to contain “fag jokes.” Additionally, he found that someone who searches for “n***” is also likely to search for older-generation topics such as “Social Security” and “Frank Sinatra.”

What these data show is that the moral arc may not be bending toward justice as smoothly upward as we would like. But as members of the Silent Generation (born 1925–1945) and Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) are displaced by Gen Xers (born 1965–1980) and Millennials (born 1981–1996), and as populations continue shifting from rural to urban living, and as postsecondary education levels keep climbing, such prejudices should be on the wane. And the moral sphere will expand toward greater inclusiveness.

topics in this column: , , , , ,

8 Comments to “Soul-Searching”

  1. Sean B Says:

    Just as science progresses one death at a time, so does society.

  2. JP Marshall Says:

    What is the problem using the words in your story. I was tough that
    “The more a word is used the less power it has to offend.” You are silly for not spelling “the N word” but using the term “fag” or “Bitch”. Can you explain it to a poor old timer like me?

  3. Daniel Lynch Says:

    Consider the powerful American meme, “(n***) ain’t folk!” It is the source of most of our problems and may well be the cause of our destruction. Only one word fits at the beginning, other politically correct circumlocutions render the phrase nonsensical.

    That a whole bunch of people just lost their jobs on the Roseanne show demonstrates how prevalent this meme remains, no matter how many asterisks you spread across the page.

  4. Nancy Mills Says:

    JP Marshall raises a good point. Why is the N word so powerful it can’t be printed, but words like “fag” and “bitch” and far worse get by? I remember getting in a really stupid argument in a facebook thread, which escalated to the point where my “opponent” used all kinds of filthy language ,,, M.F., c—, bitch, etc. I took offense and said, “How would you fell if I called you a dirty n—-?” I wound up in Facebook jail.

  5. Zee Says:

    Words are funny, but the people who use them are funnier. I’ve heard people who take offense at the word niggardly, as if it might be an ethnic slur (it’s not), and I’ve heard of polls where rural people think homo sapiens means that you are a boy who only dates other boys. It all comes down to education.

    As for prejudice, I don’t think we as humans will ever completely overcome that due to the fact that people are always busy comparing themselves to other people. In a bubble where everyone is the same, then maybe, but that’s not a realistic way of seeing the world.

  6. Tom Willson Says:

    My remarks may be off-topic, since I am more interested in the actual subject of the article than yet another conversation about race relations in the USA that is undergird by the assumption that race relations are all puppies and sunshine everywhere else in the world.
    The idea that Google searches can be used to uncover the more authentic attitudes of a nation is extremely promising to someone who is overly familiar with the limitations of psychological and sociological questionnaires and surveys. There are however many caveats that need to be considered. Not the least of these is the self selection problem. Internet access and internet usage is far from evenly distributed over our population. Growing up in an openly racist sub-culture, I didn’t need to do any research to find enough racist jokes to keep Andrew Dice Clay going for a 30 minute set. I would like to see what other issues readers can identify.

  7. Justin Case Says:

    “A word means just what I want it to mean – no more, and no less.”
    Dumpty, H.

  8. Heidi Says:

    Tom Willson – RE: your thoughts on self-selection. I thought the same thing about how ‘Frank Sinatra’ was thought to be a search term attributed to older generations, where I would make the assumption that a younger person would be more likely to search ‘Frank Sinatra’ due to lack of knowledge or experience of the subject matter.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data.