Friday, July 7, 2017

New to the rec shelf: Everybody Lies, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Here's the thing about podcasts. I find that I really like the ones that double as NPR shows, but don't like the ones that are just people talking about a particular subject. I'm not sure if it's a lack of structure or what, but even when I like the person hosting the podcast, I quickly get bored by the chatter. Why is this ironic? Because that's pretty much me when I go on a radio show to talk about books.

One show/podcast that I often like listening to is Freaknomics Radio. Inspired by the book (and it's spinoffs, I guess), it's hosted by the co-author Stephen Dubner, with the occasional contribution of economist Stephen Levitt. Sometimes the show hits right on the nose of what I'm thinking, like its episode that investigated why there are so many mattress stores. There's an epilogue to that story - Mattress Firm, who fattened up and bought a bunch of competitors, which is why there are multiple locations on both Highway 100 and Miller Park Way, itself sold off to a South African Company. Don't forget, venture capital generally means exit strategy.

Another episode that I really enjoyed featured Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who uses Google searches to uncover when and how people lie, as well as answers to all sorts of weird questions, such as when do most people form their s political affiliations. The interview was connected to the release of his book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Reveals About Who We Really Are. I think I was affected by an advance review that called the book depressing. A lot of the media focus has been on how Stephens-Davidowitz's data analysis showed that we continue to be more racist that we admit in public, or even in surveys. There's also a lot of sex data.

But more than the negative data, I was most fascinated about their analysis of Obama's post-terrorism attack speeches, and how curiosity about prominent Muslims in American history, sports, military, and architecture let to less anti-Muslim searches and more curious searches to learn more about the positive impact of Muslims, which I didn't find depressing, but inspiring*. As I've learned from other psychology books, there are people who only react to carrots, not sticks, which was, by the way, tied into another piece of Stephens-Davidowitz's data about the effect on prisons to harden instead of reforming criminals.

The truth is that Everybody Lies, when it is not tackling the heavy duty subjects, can be quite entertaining. The author has a sparkling, often-self-deprecating wit, such that I wouldn't just recommend this book to folks who like data driven economics and behavioral psychology books, but also someone who's a fan of Larry Davidson. Where did that come from? I loved the author trying to figure out why he loves the Mets but his brother does not. I appreciated the comfort of knowing that Facebook data may reveal a lot about our behavior as well, but it's not true that all our friends are smart, more sophisticated, wealthier, and worst of all, happier than we are.

And while he bursted my bubble that money doesn't buy happiness - lottery winners, in general, do wind up happier - he gave me solid advice on what to do if a neighbor wins the lottery. Move away, fast, or you'll buy your way into bankruptcy trying to keep up.

Stephens-Davidowitz (photo credit Jim Hauser) had a stint at Google, after starting his data research during his schooling.  Now he's writing op-eds for The New York Times and speaking professionally. Since I'd like to hear him and I think it's a long way off to another book that might involve a tour, I'm hoping someone who has a big budgeted speaking engagement series will sign him up and we can sell books. It's a win-win-win.

*The truth is that if you read these kinds of books, you learn that some people are good, some people are bad, but most people are in the middle, and can go either way. Cheating is bad, but apparently cheating on taxes is not so bad for most people, at least in private. Something that nudges (yes, I was a fan of the book Nudge) folks to go in a positive direction is pretty great.

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