Ngrams and Human Rights

comments 6
books / data / poverty / statistics

You’ve probably already seen numerous examples of the new Google tool Ngram around the internet lately. It’s a tool that allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s collection. Such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use of a word at a certain time, at least if we accept the following conditions:

  1. what is written in books reflects general usage
  2. Google Books is reasonable representative of the whole written universe, and
  3. the stuff written in English is representative of all the stuff written.

Those are big “ifs”, but still the tool is quite useful in my view. Let’s look at a few things that we care about in this small part of the internet. The graph below shows us that the words “human rights” (blue line), somewhat surprisingly, only started to be used frequently in the 1970s and 1980s, and not immediately after the end of WWII and the promulgation of the Universal Declaration (the traditional view of the watershed). Still, we didn’t look back since then and the importance of human rights shows a steep slope. A common alternative concept, “civil rights” (usually meaning human rights enshrined in the law of a nation, red line), is by now less common, although in the sixties it was more common given the prevalence then of the “civil rights movement”. (Obviously, these conclusions about the frequency of the use of keywords can be skewed if the number of books increases over time, as it probably does. Most of this possible effect is neutralized because the graphs give percentages).

human rights v civil rights ngram

(click image to enlarge)

This other graph also struck me. While poverty (blue line) seems to be a more important and older concern than racism (red line), the recent levels of concern evolve in almost exactly the same way. Perhaps not surprisingly given the close link between these two evils:

poverty v racism ngram

(click image to enlarge)


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