Weapons of Math Destruction?

mathweaponAs a retired mathematician, how could I resist this book title? When I read that economic inequality was furthered by use of mathematics, I was even more intrigued. I’m also a retired political activist. In fact, I’d like to retire and wake up on November 9th.

My first thought was that like any tool, mathematics could be used for harm or good. One can use a hammer to work for Habitat for Humanity or do someone serious harm. I was being a prig in taking the clever title too literally.

Okay, so how is math being used to keep the poor, well poor? According to the author, Cathy O’Neil, algorithms and big data, intentionally or not, target the poor, reinforce racism, and amplify inequality. In a court of law or in a general education course on critical thinking, guilt by association is decried as irrational. Yet, that’s exactly what happens when one’s zip code is used to determine loan eligibility or  a loan’s interest rate along with home and car insurance rates.

Employers use credit scores to measure responsibility, but this equates dependability with higher income. If your credit record is due to unemployment, your unemployment keeps you unemployed.  In order to prevent unfair bias in sentencing, recidivism models were adopted by some states. However, the model includes criminal records of friends and family.

Personality tests have been devised for employment purposes. The math presumably only figures in the final score of acceptable answers. It’s not clear math has been used to verify a correlation between passing and performance on the job. The tests have been accused of measuring averageness, thereby denying outliers whose creativity could be an asset. This simply adds up (pun intended) to unfairness across the board rather than a bias against the poor.

McNeil calls these tests WMDs and labels them opaque and unfair. There is no explanation of what went wrong when these measures are used to deny life benefits.

Not mathematics, but the use of statistics is responsible for this judgment by association. More precisely, if you have a zip code, credit score, or other identifier that a software program places you in a demographic less likely to succeed,  it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I read a very interesting review of the book that made me return to my thought about a tool’s capacity for good or harm. The reviewer had been poor and later lived in a neighborhood with a favorable zip code. While the reviewer suffered from the algorithms mentioned in the book, he also talked about some of the positive aspects of the tools. He appreciated more police deployment in his high crime zip code and a mechanical measure of tardiness, which prevented bosses from forgiving their pals.

If nothing else, Ms. O’Neil has heightened awareness of built-in biases in programs where we expect objectivity.




4 thoughts on “Weapons of Math Destruction?

  1. The genies are out of the bottle, big data lives. There are now databases with thousands of pieces of information on each of us. It is not a matter of will that data be used, the only question is by whom and why. The difference between the good guys and bad guys is that one thinks they know what is better for you than you do. Data can be used to tell you what is good for you – as does my Kaiser health record and my dental records. But some day may government monitor what foods you buy, how much exercise you get, how much TV you may watch, which news stations and take action based on the data. They probably even know who you have coffee with. Seeya soon.


    • Thanks for the comment. I agree big data is like the air we breathe. Unless we live in a cave we can’t get away from its consequences even if only ads targeted toward us. Even though I have no secrets, it creeps me out to see an ad on FB for something I shopped for online. In the big scheme of things I guess it’s innocuous if you concede ads are going to find you where you live.

      It’s the unintended (but predictable) consequences this book describes which have a large impact on people’s lives that are worrisome.


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