Despite free access to information via the Internet and an increasingly global
world, people still seem to have all sorts of divergent ideas about how the world
works. For example, did you know that eating hot bread and pastries is
incredibly unhealthy? Indeed, it can often even lead to complete bowel
obstruction! I learned this fact as a kid, while growing up in the Soviet Union.
Understandably, I have been very careful to avoid eating hot baked goods.
That is, until recently, when my American girlfriend questioned the validity of my
belief and I began to harbor some doubts. I decided to check if it was actually
true, and asked Google. The results were very clear: I had fallen prey to an old
wives tale. My worldview, shattered.
Incredulous, I searched for the same thing in Russian and arrived at the
opposite conclusion. “What’s up with that?” I thought, and wrote this post.
Asking in different languages
I searched Google for “hot bread unhealthy”, and tallied up the top 5 results:
I then compared it to an equivalent Russian search string: “горячий хлеб
вреден”. The following are my results in English:
My working spreadsheet contains more colorful details
if you are interested.
Language shapes your… search results?
No English language site suggested that eating hot bread was unhealthy. Three of
the top five results explicitly point it out as an old wives tale. The first hit,
the most skeptical of the bunch even cites articles from
the 18th and 19th centuries which have since been refuted.
In stark contrast, no Russian language site suggested that eating fresh
bread was totally fine. Four of five of the top results explicitly said that it
was unhealthy, suggesting that fresh bread is difficult to digest, encourages
swallowing without chewing, and eating it leads to all sorts of gastrointestinal
trouble like stomach pain, inflammation, constipation and full on bowel
obstruction. Oh my!
One possibility is that the environments of the Russian and English speaker are
in fact completely different. The bread making processes in Russia could differ
from other places in the world. Many Russians favor rye bread, which takes some
effort to find in North America, for example. The main reason for unhealthiness
of fresh bread seems to be related to it being undercooked, with the yeast still
being active until it cools. Maybe rye better protects the yeast, or takes less
time or heat to cook?
This and other theories are possible, though not likely. My intuition suggests a
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
There is an expression in Russian: “умом Россию не понять”, which roughly
translates as “Russia cannot be understood with the mind”. There is a certain
mystery deeply ingrained in the national character which, fascinatingly, has
always been a point of pride. The heading of this section is actually taken
from the title of a book about modern Russia, subtitled “The Surreal
Heart of the New Russia”. In Russia, rationalism and skepticism is on the
decline, in favor of traditionalism and magical thinking. Given a rich tradition
of traditions, superstitions, and beliefs in Russian culture, there is a
large pool of absurdity to pick from.
Given that, and my recent search history, you can imagine what I now believe
about the harmful effects of eating freshly baked bread. I don’t much care
whether or not eating fresh bread is healthy, especially since as a card
carrying Celiac, I can’t even enjoy the delicious kind. The fascinating
conclusion from my multilingual sojourn is this:
Having searched for the same thing in their native languages, a Russian
speaker and an English speaker would have arrived at a completely different
The Russian language maps closely to Russia and Russian culture, certainly
more so than English does to any particular country and culture. The
result is that queries in Russian are suspect to a very natural echo chamber,
echoing and amplifying deeply held beliefs with the help of our supposedly
normalizing open Internet.
Translated foreign pages
There are hundreds of other examples of queries that when translated will yield
dramatically different results much like “hot bread unhealthy”/”горячий хлеб
вреден”. There’s a simple formula for finding more. Pick a language and write a
query string, translate it into another language, perform both searches and
analyze the top results.
This sounds a lot like something that can be automated. Indeed, Google used to
automatically translate queries, perform searches with translated queries, and
surface them to the user. Unfortunately this “Translated foreign pages” feature
was removed several years ago, due to lack of usage. Also, there are
difficulties with automating the process. The Google Translation of “hot bread
unhealthy” is “горячий хлеб нездоровый”, which in Russian sounds like the bread
itself is ill, and yields less relevant search results.
It’s surprising how clearly this cultural difference can be seen through the
simple example of warm bread and a search engine. The initial surprise can be
easily explained though, since the search engine crawls a naturally insular
corpus of articles in the same language. Many of the search results in English
cite the same sources. The same is true for search results in Russian. The key
point, though, is that there is very little shared linking between the English
and Russian sites, especially since only 5% of Russians speak English.
The language corpuses seem to be almost completely insulated from one another.
Inevitably, confirmation bias kicks in and you end up with the polarized world
we live in today.
I’d love to see what similar analyses on other search queries. For instance,
there is a Russian gadget called a Minin Reflector, which consists of a
lamp with a blue filter. You simply shine it onto the part of your body that
ails you, and presto, instant pain relief… sigh!
Wrapping up this blog, I am enjoying some delicious, fresh from the oven, hot
muffins. I’ll keep you posted with the definitive truth!
Powered by WPeMatico