Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.


Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.

More Black & White vs. Color in Dreams

More Black & White vs. Color in Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyMary Walsh, a psychotherapist and grad student at the GTU, offered an intriguing idea about color variations in dreams: “I wonder if the change in our waking experience of color impacts our dream experience. Photopic vision functions only in good illumination which we have more of for longer periods of time nowadays. Scotopic, or night vision, I think, provides the ability to distinguish between black and white. Could the fact that we see more color for more hours each day and use our photopic vision more cause us to dream in color more often? Maybe dreams have changed.”

I think Mary’s right that more attention to the neurophysiology of vision and the cultural/technological changes of modernity will be helpful in making better sense of this question.

Also, Bob Van de Castle reminded me that his 1994 book Our Dreaming Mind has a good discussion of color dreams (pp. 253-256 and 298).  After reviewing several experimental studies, Van de Castle concludes that “color appears in dreams with much greater frequency than is generally acknowledged.  The saturation or intensity of color in dreams seems to vary along a continuum.” (p. 255)

Bob Hoss is another IASD member who has done especially detailed investigations of color in dreams.

I’ve just read Eric Schwitzgebel’s longer paper, “Why did we think we dreamed in black and white?” in 2002, and I’m grateful for his extensive research on this topic.  He admits that he has larger philosophical fish to fry–he says “I write in service of the broader thesis that people generally have only poor knowledge of their own conscious lives, contrary to what many philosophers have supposed.” (p. 649), an argument he elaborates in his recent book Perplexities of Consciousness (2011).  I don’t think I’d want to argue with him about that general idea.  And I agree that “our knowledge of the phenomenology of dreaming is much shakier than we ordinarily take it to be” (p. 649).

But I suspect Schwitzgebel views this as an insoluble problem because of the fundamental limits of introspection and conscious self-knowledge.  I see it as a problem that can be solved by better empirical research that builds our knowledge of dream phenomenology on  firmer foundations.

Looking at some of the initial data I’ve drawn from the SDDb, it seems clear that most people dream fairly often, but by no means always, of colors and black and white.

Here’s a link to an SDDb search for reports of 25+ words with references to achromatic colors.  472 reports show up, out of 5193 reports of that length.  White appears most often, black next, gray third.

And here’s a link to an SDDb search for reports of 25+ words with references to chromatic colors.  476 reports show up, out of 5193 reports of that length.  Red appears most often, followed by blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple.

In studies of people who have kept long-term dream journals, I’ve found lots of variation in this area.  Some people have more chromatic color references in their dreams, and other people have more achromatic references.  Some people have very high overall frequencies (e.g., Merri, whose dream series of 315 dreams is available on the Dreambank, has by my count 44.4% of her dreams with at least one chromatic reference and 40% with at least one achromatic reference) and others quite low (Paul, whose series of 136 dreams is available on the SDDb, has 0% chromatic and 1.47% achromatic references).

I don’t know of any theoretical perspective that can encompass all this data.  Isn’t it paradoxical to think about the colors we see when we’re asleep and our eyes are closed?  Perhaps we need a new paradigm entirely to make adequate sense of the visual qualities of dreaming experience.

But I still hold to my “Dorothy Hypothesis”: This whole question in mid-20th century psychology of whether we dream in color or black & white was generated by the 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz, with its dramatic contrast between the drab black & white (sepia, really) of Kansas and the gaudy, transcendent technicolor of Oz.


Note: Schwitzgebel’s article appeared in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33 (2002), 649-660.