With PV Sindhu’s silver medal in the Olympics, trust the media to be searching for an “idea of India” angle. Nothing gets the idea-of-India wallahs going as much as caste. So, The NewsMinute (TNM) ran an article, “While PV Sindhu fought hard for a medal, many Indians googled her caste.” Apparently the article is based on painstaking data work and served to make several gratuitous observations as “it unmasks the irony of the 21st century like nothing else” that Indians are so “caste-obsessed.” Only problem, like much other “analysis” on caste is that the NewsMinute claims are false. Its staff cannot distinguish relative trends from absolute, nor figure out how either Google Trends or AdWords work. But “caste” is such an un-falsifiable truth about India that “metaphorical data” should be enough. Predictably, the story was picked by The Indian Express and The Times of India as well, and heavily shared on social media.
Here are the article’s claims: “While PV Sindhu was training hard and pushing herself beyond her limits to get India a medal at the Rio Olympics, thousands of Indians, Google statistics show, were searching for her caste-identity.” NewsMinute claimed they “looked up the Google Trends statistics for the term “pv sindhu caste” and found “the results were unsurprisingly disturbing.”
We’ll take a look at a couple of the graphs bandied by TNM. Here TNM shows Google Trends on “PV Sindhu Caste.”
TNM claims “In August, there were at least 10 times more searches for her caste compared to July. So, effectively, millions of Indians have searched for her caste so far.”
How did they arrive at millions? Before we look at their absolute data claims, note that Google Trends are relative (the value at the top of the graph is 100). Why did searches for “PV Sindhu caste” spike? Well, all searches related to PV Sindhu spiked. The graph for PV Sindhu spiked as did practically any keyword you could add to her name. For instance “PV Sindhu mother” shows a very similar spike.
Strange the TNM did not find that “heartening.” Or perhaps in “modernity”, a spike in searches for “PV Sindhu mother” may also be “disturbing.”
What then of absolute numbers in TNM’s claim of “millions” searching for PV Sindhu’s caste? They write: “What about absolute numbers? We culled out the stats for the search term in May, June and July 2016.” Here is their image:
From this they conclude: “As you can see, there were more than 150,000 searches for her caste in June, and nearly 90,000 in July.”
Here TNM uses Google Adwords Keywords planner tool. Except they don’t really know how to use it. The Keywords Planner tool give search volumes for the entire set of “ideas” around your keyword. So there were not 150,000 search on “PV Sindhu caste” as TNM claims. This was for the entire idea space, including searches on just “PV Sindhu.” So how many searches for the exact phrase “PV Sindhu caste”? These were given just below (did they choose not to see?):
There were a total of just 210 average monthly searches for “PV Sindhu caste”. The June search they highlighted has about 150,000 for the entire related search space. Using the 10x relative ratio from Google Trends, about 2100 searches for “PV Sindhu caste” likely happened in August, not “millions” as they claim. Searches of “PV Sindhu” also spiked by 10x or so, as did all related keywords including “PV Sindhu caste.” There is no evidence the ratio was substantially different from June when .14%, or only about a tenth of one percent, of all the searches were for “PV Sindhu caste” in that related search space.
Another analysis also found that search for PV Siddhu’s caste were an insignificant percent of total searches. Of course, with major media pushing the story, they may create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Went to google trends to really check if the ‘caste’ searches on Sindhu were true. pic.twitter.com/zaNvIzhgwy
— V Vinay (@ainvvy) August 20, 2016
How did TNM make such an egregious error? One explanation is that their staff writers, as some people trained in the humanities, are not particularly good with data. But given how major media such as Indian Express and Times of India jumped on the story it points to another phenomenon. These “errors” are a self-fulfilling artifact of colonial consciousness, as is evident in the hyperbole of their conclusions being an “unsurprisingly disturbing” fact.
Colonial consciousness assumes that certain descriptions about India are “truths” about India society. For example, that India is “caste-ridden”, “caste is a hierarchy,” “caste oppression is a fact of life,” “caste has been unchanged for 5000 years” and so on. As Balagangadhara points out, these are not descriptions of India, but descriptions of how Europeans saw India, which have been internalized in the process of (intellectual) colonization. These descriptions are not scientific propositions. Scientific propositions have the property of being refutable. For example, no amount of evidence will suffice to falsify the statement “caste is oppressive,” but one “dalit” beating is enough to “prove” the “self-evident” truth of it.
Thus 2100 searches becomes millions because “it unmasks the irony of the 21st century.” The irony implied is that “caste” remains an “unchangeable truth” about India in the 21st century as it presumably has for thousands of years, since “Asiatic society” is changeless. But the real irony of the 21st century is that we are still stuck with these 19th century European descriptions about India. All our “facts” then can simply reinforce these descriptions, and none can refute it. To do so would mean to get a fresh pair of eyes to access our own experience beyond colonial consciousness. Meanwhile the media can’t help but spin.
Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, author and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon. His essays in the book “Invading the Sacred” contested Western academic writing on Hinduism. He is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and the University of Texas and holds six technology patents. His latest book is “The English Medium Myth.” He blogs at sankrant.org .