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Google Searches Are A Window Into Our Culture


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The fact we all use Google so much has led some social scientists to think of Google searches as a window into our culture. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins me now to talk about some unusual social science research.

Welcome to the program.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So what do these Google searches tell us about ourselves?

VEDANTAM: Millions of people are searching for things everyday on Google. And the people at Google realized that if they track those searches these patterns can tell us about what's happening in people's lives.

So a year or so ago, the folks at Google realized that as the flu was spreading from state to state, people's search terms were changing. So people would search for things like what do I do if I have a sore throat or what do I do if my child is running a high temperature. And by tracking these searches, Google discovered, long before public health authorities discovered, how the flu was spreading from state to state.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Google has a new tool. I mean, I don't know how new it is - new to me.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, it's called the Google Correlate tool. And basically what they've done is they've made these kinds of searches available for free on the Internet to anyone who wants. So, in fact, I'm going to bring Google Correlate up here. And I'm going to type in the search term, guns, into Google Correlate.

WERTHEIMER: That's a nice hot topic.


VEDANTAM: And if you look closely at guns, you can see that the search terms that are correlated with guns are very gun like. There's handguns. There's rifles.


VEDANTAM: Right. So the Google Correlate tool tells you where in the country people tend to be searching for this term and what other terms are correlated with the search term. And many of the findings are intuitively obvious. You would expect that people searching for guns would also be searching for rifles. But where the tool gets interesting is when some of these searches produce correlations that are unexpected.

So give me a search term, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: OK. Most of my searches have to do with recipes and food. And today I was looking at how much beef costs. Try filet mignon.



VEDANTAM: So here's the interesting thing.


WERTHEIMER: Roman Catholic churches, Italian men and terror squad.

VEDANTAM: You know, so this is what's so fascinating about this Google Correlate too. I mean, why would Roman Catholic churches be correlated with filet mignon?

WERTHEIMER: Beyond the fact that it's interesting, what does it tell us, these correlations?

VEDANTAM: There's a sociologist that I spoke with at the University of North Carolina. His name is Phil Cohen. And what he did is he said can we apply this tool to politics. And so he said let me search for prominent, liberal and conservative commentators - people like Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert, or Rush Limbaugh.

And what he found, unsurprisingly actually, was that the places where people were doing a lot of searches for the liberal commentators tended to be liberal places. They were places that tended to vote for President Obama in the 2008 election.

WERTHEIMER: California.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. But he also found that the places which searched for the liberal commentators also tended to search for very particular kinds of foods.

WERTHEIMER: Now, that is very strange.

VEDANTAM: So let me play you a little bit of what Phil Cohen told me in terms of what the liberals who are searching for Rachel Maddow are also searching for, in terms of their food.

PHIL COHEN: On the liberal list are arugula pasta, beets nutrition, beets urine, fake meat, fennel salad, firm tofu, a variety of vegetarian cooking, vegetarian recipes. Something like a Republican stereotype of what a liberal food diet might be.


VEDANTAM: I have to say, that's a pretty funny list.

WERTHEIMER: It is a very funny list. So what does the other side eat?

VEDANTAM: So on the other side - what he found on the other side was not so much that people were searching for particular kinds of foods...

COHEN: But things about dieting, acai berry diet, prescription weight loss and weight loss pills.

VEDANTAM: And so what it suggests is that when we think about our political orientations, we tend to think that our ideologies determine whether we're Democrats or Republicans. But I think what this research is at least hinting at, is the possibility that our political orientations are really a matter of our identities, are a matter of our cultures. And so if you're somebody who's a vegetarian, who like beet salad, it's very unlikely that you're going to be a Republican.

WERTHEIMER: Data mining has always been helpful to political people. That's the thing I know the most about. They look for who is subscribing to what publication. They look to who drives what kind of car. Does this do something different?

VEDANTAM: I don't think it's doing something qualitatively different. I think it's just allowing political consultants - and I'm sure they must be using this tool - to get at this information much more quickly.

So if you're a political consultant who isn't using Google Correlate, I actually think you're probably being irresponsible. Because what this is showing us is that if you're a Democrat who's trying to reach Democratic voters, one very effective way to do it is to organize something to do with vegetarian cooking. And you can be pretty sure that almost everyone who shows up is going to be somebody who you want to talk to.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar, thank you.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Wertheimer
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Shankar Vedantam
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.