Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Hot bread: delicious or deadly?

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:

gurumagazine.orgFor some

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 simpler explanation.

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 world-view.

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!