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Are You Likely to Commit a Crime? Here’s What Google Data Reveals

In an age of bountiful data, there's dark potential for how corporations and judicial systems could use private details to discriminate against innocent people.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: A big question—if anybody’s seen the movie 'Minority Report' where people are arrested for crimes before they actually commit them, just because the data suggests they’re going to commit a crime—is: are we entering this world with so much data available? And there definitely are clues on the internet that people are considering committing a crime. People really do type “how to kill your girlfriend” on Google or “how to commit a murder”. So what should we do with this information as a society? I think we have to be really, really careful. There’s an ethical and privacy reason to be careful; as a society it’s not supposed to be illegal to have bad thoughts.

But I think there’s also a data science reason for this. One of the things that you do see in this data is that a lot of people have horrific thoughts or make horrific searches without ever going through with a horrific action. So it may be that when we have all this data we think we’re just going to be able to figure out exactly who is a risk of committing a crime or doing something bad, but it may be that it’s just really, really hard because a huge percentage of people look really, really bad on paper but never go through with the action.

There is a study of Prosper, a peer-to-peer lending firm. So people can apply for loans, and scholars analyzed what people wrote in their loan application, and whether they paid back their loan. And they found that you could predict whether someone will pay back the loan based on the words that person used in their loan application. So if a person uses the phrase “I promise” they’re much less likely to pay back a loan, because I guess everybody lies, so “I promise” is a clue that you’re not going to pay back the loan. And one of the more striking indicators, one of the single highest indicators you’re not going to pay back the loan, is if you use the word “God” in your loan application. And this is kind of a little bit eerie and suggests a potentially dark future. It means that someone, a lender, would be “wise” to not give a loan to anybody who mentions God. If someone says, “God bless you” in a loan application they’re put together in a large group of other people who tend, on average, not to pay back their loans.

So there’s real danger to some of this big data where a lot of the correlation—everything kind of correlates with everything else, and sometimes for reasons that we don’t understand, some words people use, or likes they have on Facebook, predict that they’re going to do bad things, even if they’re not really going to do bad things, and they may be punished without even realizing why.

One thing you see in the Google search data related to religion is the questions people have, and they’re usually concentrated in the Bible Belt. But people have kind of loaded questions about God. So “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” or “why does God allow suffering?” or “why does God need so much praise?” These are questions that people might not raise aloud because they don’t want to share their doubts with others, but they turn to Google and ask some really, really loaded questions about some of the stories that they hear related to religion.

Are you a future criminal? You might not think so, says data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, but what do you look like on paper? Have you ever searched something suspicious online? Ever been curious about a dark topic? Just like the film Minority Report, where "future murderers" are arrested before they commit their crimes, we have a similar predictive tool ready-made: Google's search data. People really do search for things like 'how to kill your girlfriend' or 'how to dispose of a body', but as Stephens-Davidowitz points out, it’s not supposed to be illegal to have bad thoughts. Beyond privacy and ethics, data science also backs the idea that you can't predict with any accuracy who will commit a crime, as he says: "a lot of people have horrific thoughts or make horrific searches without ever going through with a horrific action." Data also provides intriguing correlations about who or won't will pay their loans based on a single word used in their loan application, and reveals the questions people in the Bible Belt are too afraid to ask aloud. This kind of data in the wrong hands can leave people vulnerable to discrimination or worse, if society lets its ethics slide. Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Why is everyone so selfish? Science explains

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.

Credit: Adobe Stock, Olivier Le Moal.
Personal Growth
  • Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
  • New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
  • Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
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How Hemingway felt about fatherhood

Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.

Ernest Hemingway Holding His Son 1927 (Wikimedia Commons)
Culture & Religion

Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?

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How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

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The biology of aliens: How much do we know?

Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.

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  • Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
  • "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
  • In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
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