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Fun With Data: Has Economics Become Less Popular?

December 17th, 2010 · 3 Comments
Fun With Data

Has economics become unfashionable? This is a question posed by reader Trent on Facebook, and, taken at first glance, it seems a little random. On the other hand, it’s a question that has become a bit more answerable thanks to Google. From the New York Times:

With little fanfare, Google has made a mammoth database culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books available to the public for free downloads and online searches, opening a new landscape of possibilities for research and education in the humanities.

The digital storehouse, which comprises words and short phrases as well as a year-by-year count of how often they appear, represents the first time a data set of this magnitude and searching tools are at the disposal of Ph.D.’s, middle school students and anyone else who likes to spend time in front of a small screen. It consists of the 500 billion words contained in books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian.

The intended audience is scholarly, but a simple online tool allows anyone with a computer to plug in a string of up to five words and see a graph that charts the phrase’s use over time — a diversion that can quickly become as addictive as the habit-forming game Angry Birds.

Well, I can at least confirm that last part, since guess what I’ve been doing all morning? (On a side note, the article refers to the term “culturomics”, which I really object to on principle, if for no other reason than doesn’t “culturenomics” make so much more sense?) Trent’s question was based on the following observation, via Google Labs:

Clearly I can’t date Google because it doesn’t label its axes. I can only assume that the vertical axis is the percentage of books that year that contain the word…or something like that, I’m not really sure. Regardless of what the interpretation of the percentages are, the pattern is indeed a bit perplexing. I have a couple of hypotheses that have little to do with an actual decline in the popularity of economics:

  • Fun with math: These numbers are being reported as percentages, and there are two ways to make a percentage smaller: you can either, in this case, make the number of economics references go down or make the number of books go up. While it is theoretically possible that the percentage of economics references goes down somewhat because of all of the unauthorized biographies of Sarah Palin and Justin Bieber that are flooding the market (yes, sticklers, I know that the data only goes through 2008), I don’t think that those books are enough to explain a drop by more than a factor of 2 since 1990. (Also, while you do see similar patterns for words like history, they are not as extreme. On the other hand, you see an almost identical pattern if you graph sociology.)
  • Selection bias: The documentation for the project states that the dataset represents about 4 percent of all books ever published. If this 4 percent isn’t a random sample, then it’s quite possible that the more recent books in the sample are skewed against economics. For example, this could happen if publishers of economics books are less friendly with Google Books than publisher of other books, since the econ publishers would be less likely to allow their more recent books into the sample. I can’t find a good explanation of how the sample is constructed, and the best insight I can locate is the following:

    the best data is the data for English between 1800 and 2000. Before 1800, there aren’t enough books to reliably quantify many of the queries that first come to mind; after 2000, the corpus composition undergoes subtle changes around the time of the inception of the Google Books project.

The overall point is that I am not entirely convinced that economics is becoming unfashionable (especially since my anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite), but the finding in the data is striking nonetheless. Some others that I find interesting:

Keynes versus Hayek:

(Am I the only one who finds it creepy that the Keynes spike is in the year of Hayek’s death?)

Behavioral economics:

Yep, this is totally funner than Angry Birds. What else would be interesting to look at here?

Tags: Fun With Data

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 D_cz // Dec 17, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Tyler-inspiration?

    Some great comments are there

    http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/12/google-ngram-the-word-liberty.html

  • 2 Eugene Zilman // Dec 17, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    I think the dataset they let you download and these charts are flawed as hell. The frequency of words/strings is just their results, and they don’t even explain how they arrived at them.

    Playing with ~10TB of text like this sure is interesting, but I guess since they can’t release that directly to the public they get to have all the fun.

    Heh, I wish one of the googlers would just give it to wikileaks. Lawsuits and ensuing bruhaha not withstanding it would be an epic service for humanity.

  • 3 David // Dec 18, 2010 at 11:35 am

    I wonder if the data set includes self-published books. Self publishing is much easier now than it was 20 years ago. If so, I imagine those would be overwhelmingly romantic novels and the like and only rarely deal with economics.

    What I find interesting is that behavioral economics had a small spike in 1960 and virtually disappeared again for 10 years. Any idea what caused that spike? Maybe something in marketing?

    Since we’re having fun with data: I wonder if there’s a correlation between books containing the word “Hayek” and recessions. Some of those spikes seem to be just before we hit a recession. :p

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