E-book Evaluate: Weapons of Math Destruction

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Massive Information Will increase Inequality and Threatens Democracy
Cathy O’Neil
Crown New York 2016
E-book Net Web site: https://weaponsofmathdestructionbook.com

The Creator’s Weblog: https://mathbabe.org

My Ranking: 4/5

Cathy O’Neil is a Harvard Ph.D. mathematician, former assistant professor at Barnard School, former Wall Road “quant” on the D.E. Shaw hedge fund, former Wall Road threat metrics developer at RiskMetrics Group, a former knowledge scientist with Web promoting agency Intent Media, and former Occupy Wall Road activist who blogs at https://mathbabe.org Weapons of Math Destruction is her third e-book (her first was Doing Information Science: Straight Speak from the Frontline). Weapons of Math Destruction has been excerpted in The Guardian, reviewed within the New York Instances and different venues, and been the topic of a number of podcast interviews and video talks and interviews by and with Cathy.

Weapons of Math Destruction focuses on the potential or precise hurt of the mathematical fashions which might be proliferating within the present Massive Information/Information Science/Machine Studying craze. The e-book is primarily involved with fashions, typically secret and proprietary, used to generate scores akin to instructor efficiency scores, legal recidivism scores, and credit score scores which might be utilized in crucial selections akin to hiring and firing, approving loans, sentencing criminals. Within the writer’s terminology, a Weapon of Math Destruction is a foul mannequin or a superb mannequin used badly that adversely impacts numerous individuals. The e-book and the writer is very involved with unfair discrimination in opposition to minorities, notably African-Individuals, and the poor. The e-book is devoted to the underdogs.

Weapons of Math Destruction is a play on the notorious Weapons of Mass Destruction or WMD’s used to justify the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The e-book ceaselessly makes use of the acronym WMD however for the Weapons of Math Destruction.

The e-book provides many examples of mathematical fashions in present or latest use. The e-book provides good causes for doubts about many of those fashions. Quite a few the fashions, such because the controversial Worth Added Fashions (VAM) for lecturers, are fashions I’ve run throughout earlier than and have substantial doubts about. The e-book provides a superb introduction to and overview of the particular and potential risks of mathematical fashions right now.

Important Weaknesses

The e-book has some important weaknesses. It has little precise math: not a single method and only some numbers and really transient explanations of some ideas akin to Simpson’s Paradox — cited in an try to elucidate the decline in SAT scores between 1940 and the publication of the Nation at Danger Report in 1983 in the course of the Reagan Administration. It depends on restricted analyses, typically referencing exterior sources, and proclamations from the writer {that a} mannequin is a Weapon of Math Destruction. Whereas it raises doubts, typically robust doubts, about a number of fashions, it doesn’t present an in depth evaluation demonstrating that the mannequin is incorrect and dangerous.

Nearly all of the examples are complicated and require additional analysis by the reader to judge the e-book’s claims in regards to the fashions. That is most likely unavoidable given the complexity of real-world mathematical modeling nevertheless it stays a weak point.

The e-book has a chapter on the U.S. Information and World Report school rankings, blaming them for the run-up in tuitions — after adjusting for inflation — at many schools and universities for the reason that rankings debuted in 1983. I discovered this argument unconvincing. The e-book argues that the rankings pressured schools and universities to spend giant sums of cash on sports activities stadiums, constructing, profitable sports activities groups, whopping salaries for increasingly more directors, and lots of different costly actions to keep up or elevate their rating.

All of this exercise takes place inside an enormous ecosystem surrounding the U.S. Information rankings, whose mannequin features because the de facto legislation of the land.

O’Neil, Cathy (2016-09-06). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Massive Information Will increase Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Kindle Areas 924-925). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Version.

The U.S. Information rankings are actually not the legislation of the land. Faculties and universities have all the time had the choice of ignoring them and emphasizing each individually and collectively by way of school and college associations the associated fee advantages and low tuitions from avoiding pointless expenditures on sports activities groups, directors, and different white elephants.

When corporations and different establishments elevate costs, typically reporting document income or document administrator salaries on this case, and seem like gouging their prospects, they often cite a wide range of excuses. “Mommy, the federal government made me do it!” In the USA, the commonest excuse appears to be the federal government. The pharmaceutical trade funds extensively cited research by the Tufts Middle for the Research of Drug Improvement blaming FDA approval prices and different scapegoats, somewhat than the large income of the trade, for hovering drug prices.

When gasoline costs soared within the late 1990’s after a sequence of oil trade mergers that created ExxonMobil, ConnoccoPhilips, and different giants, the trade and its apologists blamed state and native gasoline taxes, restrictions on drilling on public lands, and varied environmental laws for the sudden run up in costs (to not point out Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden, the by no means ending battle between Israel and the Palestinians in a rustic conspicuous for its virtually complete lack of oil, and perennial strife in Nigeria — overseas governments and overseas politics).

Whereas the U.S. Information and World Report is just not really the federal government, describing it as “the de facto legislation of the land” locations the blame someplace far-off from the universities and universities who really set the costs and make the selections.

The chapter “Civilian Casualties: Justice within the Age of Massive Information” really cites knowledge displaying a pointy drop in homicides and different violent crimes correlated with the adoption of the “damaged home windows” and “zero tolerance” policing insurance policies that the e-book criticizes. A former Occupy Wall Road activist, the writer expresses robust liberal and left-wing convictions that end in contradictions like this in a number of locations within the e-book.

Some credited these energetic campaigns for dramatic falls in violent crimes. Others disagreed. The authors of the bestselling e-book Freakonomics went as far as to correlate the drop in crime to the legalization of abortion within the Seventies. And loads of different theories additionally surfaced, starting from the falling charges of crack cocaine dependancy to the booming Nineteen Nineties economic system. In any case, the zero-tolerance motion gained broad help, and the legal justice system despatched thousands and thousands of principally younger minority males to jail, a lot of them for minor offenses.

O’Neil, Cathy (2016-09-06). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Massive Information Will increase Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Kindle Areas 1303-1307). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Version.

But many within the public related this system with the sharp decline of crime within the metropolis. New York, many felt, was safer. And statistics indicated as a lot. Homicides, which had reached 2,245 in 1990, have been right down to 515 (and would drop under 400 by 2014).

O’Neil, Cathy (2016-09-06). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Massive Information Will increase Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Kindle Areas 1370-1372). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Version.


Determine displaying the sharp drop in homicides within the Nineteen Nineties’ from Bureau of Justice Statistics, Particular Report, August 2007, NCJ 214258, Black Victims of Violent Crime by Erika Harrell, Ph.D. BJS Statistician

Ineffective Options

The e-book affords two doable options to the perils of the mathematical fashions, machine studying, and “algorithms” which might be proliferating within the fashionable world. Each are unlikely to be efficient.

The primary answer is a “Hippocratic Oath” for knowledge scientists. Merely put, pledge to “do no hurt.” The Hippocratic Oath has already confirmed ineffective in stopping a variety of abuses and easily errors in drugs. Because the grim saying goes: “some individuals are monsters.” Maybe extra considerably, most knowledge scientists are workers who derive all or most of their earnings from a single employer who can simply dismiss them in the event that they object. This can be a substantial deterrent to most individuals, particularly these with households to help. Most individuals usually are not monsters however neither are they tremendous heroes.

The second answer is for the federal government to require auditing and a few type of certification of mathematical fashions analogous to the credit score scores supplied by Moody’s, Fitch, and different companies within the lead as much as the monetary disaster in 2008. Quite a few legal guidelines and laws of this kind have been in place on the time and as Weapons of Math Destruction rightly notes with appreciable outrage, proved completely ineffective.

A extra skeptical public unwilling to borrow for brand spanking new houses and residential enchancment tasks might need prevented the housing bubble and subsequent crash however authorities laws together with intensive auditing necessities clearly didn’t. The crony capitalist system with its bipartisan revolving doorways between authorities and trade that has been more and more referred to as out in the course of the present bitter election in the USA renders authorities regulation and reform unlikely to succeed.

To be truthful, I can’t at current provide higher options than the e-book proposes, however they’re unlikely to work.


I like to recommend studying the e-book or not less than listening to a few of Cathy O’Neil’s podcast audio interviews and YouTube video shows on Weapons of Math Destruction. Though the e-book has some important weaknesses, it’s a complete and detailed introduction and overview of a rising downside brought on by the misuse or deliberate abuse of arithmetic and statistics coupled with fashionable highly effective computer systems and excessive bandwidth networks.

Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction Interview on the Ford Basis

© 2016 John F. McGowan

Concerning the Creator

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves issues utilizing arithmetic and mathematical software program, together with creating gesture recognition for contact gadgets, video compression and speech recognition applied sciences. He has intensive expertise creating software program in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visible Fundamental and lots of different programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs creating pc imaginative and prescient algorithms and software program for cell gadgets. He has labored as a contractor at NASA Ames Analysis Middle concerned within the analysis and growth of picture and video processing algorithms and know-how. He has revealed articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the invention of methane on Mars), and low-cost entry to house. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Know-how (Caltech). He could be reached at [email protected].