In the past few months, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Joe, and Maria have wrought severe damage across the Americas, and now, Hurricane Nate barrels towards the U.S. Gulf Coast.
We can, with some accuracy, predict their general trajectories, but the science is still imprecise.
Apparently, however, there is one particular factor about hurricanes that is now completely predictable.
It’s that when we know they’re coming, people pick clean the supermarket aisles of strawberry Pop-Tarts.
No one knows exactly why, but it was enough of a correlation for Walmart data scientists to convince the big box retailer to increase the stock of the snack food in certain high-impact hurricane regions.
This surprising discovery was among many strange finds outlined in the new book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.
The author has confirmed that the Walmart study has been again recently validated. “People have shown me pictures of shelves of strawberry Pop-Tarts disappearing before the recent hurricane,” he noted.
“I think one of the things that show, is that there are a lot of weird relationships that we can’t totally explain. You don’t have to know why there is a relationship, just that a relationship exists.”
The book sheds light on what Big Data – the trillions of gigabytes searched and stored online each day – tells us about some of those “weird relationships.”
Everybody Lies is brimming with astonishing conclusions, culled from information mundane and poignant, that twenty years ago would have been impossible to find. Indeed, without the power of Google, and its “digital truth serum”, we’d never know what people inquire about, often too afraid to admit to others.
These include: When men search about their penis sizes when women search about sexual insecurities, and what are people’s secret fetishes.
“Everybody lies, but they pretty much tell the truth about the searches or the porn sites they visit,” he noted.
“The biggest surprise is that the top Google search in India is: ‘My husband wants me to breastfeed him.’ I would have never guessed that before doing this research. That’s definitely the most surprising thing. Just because it is totally out of nowhere. I didn’t even know that desire existed. I definitely didn’t know it existed in India and, perhaps, nowhere else.”
Debunking traditionally held beliefs with the newly-amassed data sets, Stephens-Davidowitz reveals groundbreaking studies on how winning racehorses are chosen, whether prestigious schools produce successful adults, whether certain socio-economic classes give rise to NBA stars, and what our food tastes are cues to an advance IQ, among many other examples.
Though with these searches, he concedes, come Big Brother-esque ethical concerns.
“Basically, everything you do correlates with something else you might do. So, if you like curly fries on Facebook, it is shown that you are more likely to have a higher IQ,” he notes. An HR department, for example, may choose to take this information seriously and make a judgment on an applicant’s intelligence based on their french fry predilections.
“That’s kind of scary.”
Whereas in the past, hiring departments analyzed education levels, and previous employment history, today a person’s online presence says so much more.
“I think, now, with businesses potentially knowing thousands of things about you with all your internet behaviors, we don’t really have any way to regulate what information they are allowed to use, and what information they are not allowed to use,” he notes.
“With the search data, it’s like new open terrain.”
And to cover your bases, be sure to write “I like curly fries” on your Facebook wall – just in case.