Few things annoy economists more than anecdotal evidence. Just think of “mockumentaries” and various news headlines that don’t document “how many” or “how much”, but rather “what happened to a certain person”. It is easy to capture people emotionally with one, drawn out story, but this also goes against an economist’s training in statistics and probabilities. See how Dan Ariely complains about the $48,000 which was spent to rescue one terrier left aboard a ship, only because the dog was featured on local news channels.
Ultimately, and despite Stalin’s morbid quote that “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”, economists are actually correct in wanting to work with concrete data rather than tear-jerking anecdotes, at least for their purposes. This is the main reason why economists have tended to look down upon the humanities, which always seemed to be characterized by fluff.
This, however, might be changing, thanks to Google and Jean-Baptiste Michel of Harvard University. Michel has been digging into the data available thanks to Google books and has been able to start putting quantitative values to cultural studies, such as linguistics. You might not think much of interest could emerge from this, but thanks to this digital collection, we can analyze how often words appear, as well as group of words, and we can study the evolution of words and phrases throughout time. In fact, for the first time we can really estimate how many words truly exist in the english language (apparently slightly over 1 million). We can also find the occurrence of typos, how long it takes new inventions and phenomena to become used in everyday language, how quickly celebrities and pop-culture references fade in and out of existence, among many other things.
We think this is fascinating, and we also welcome the addition of concrete data to fields which seem to abound with anecdotes and personal stories. We do, however, think the term “culturomics” sounds off-putting. Maybe “culturnomics” might work better?
And this also gives us the excuse to show this awesome Google lab “Books Ngram Viewer”: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=computer%2Ccar&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3
I can see many economists, statisticians and mathematicians taking a renewed interest in the humanities in the near future.