TEDxWarwick: The Hidden Survey

By Mia Sannapureddy

From my perspective, TEDx talks exist to help you learn about a topic that was not on your radar, and encourage you to take interest in a topic that you would otherwise have given little thought. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz did exactly this at TEDxWarwick, introducing the merits of analysing Google searches in a witty yet informative presentation.

Seth began by highlighting a key issue with traditional data collection methods: people can lie – and do so, especially in surveys. Google searches, in contrast, are more realistic representations of attitudes because they are thought to be unmonitored. These can therefore be harnessed and analysed to ‘turn many questions into real sciences’.

Seth also discussed some of the important revelations provided by analysis of Google searches. Regarding racism, suicides and Islamophobic attitudes, he found that:

1. Americans living in areas that collectively Googled more racist terms were less likely to vote for Barack Obama, paid black citizens less on average and were more inclined to suspect black members of committing crimes.
2. When looking at Google searches made immediately before ones for suicide methods, the lack of examples of celebrities with herpes seems likely to have increased suicides
3. Areas with more anti-Muslim searches experienced more hate crimes

With the exception of the prominence of herpes in suicide cases, the conclusions drawn don’t seem ground-breaking. However, the real importance of Google searches lies in their policy implications. An interesting example Seth used was the varying reaction to Obama’s speeches following the San Bernardino attacks: his citing of prominent Muslims resulted in positive searches, whereas talking about the individual’s responsibility to the nation elicited negative searches.

To apply Seth’s work to sustainability, Google searches could be used to track public attitudes to problems of sustainability and to see how policies change these attitudes. The oft-cited prevailing view is that the general public is too busy to care; a better understanding of what shapes these attitudes could thus help formal institutions inform and galvanise the public, in the interest of a more sustainable future.

Header Image: Ben Nuttall, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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