I started teaching Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy in my class last week. Despite being a mathematician by training (she goes by the moniker mathbabe online), the book makes a strong case for the importance of social science generally and sociology in particular.
O’Neil looks out at the land of big data and its various uses in algorithms and sees problems everywhere. Quantitative and statistical principles are badly abused in the service of “finding value” in systems, whether this be through firing bad teachers, targeting predatory loans, reducing the risk of employee turnover by using models that incorporate past mental health issues, or designing better ads to sniff out for-profit university matriculates. Wherever we look, she shows, we can find mathematical models used to eke out gains for their creators. Those gains destroy the lives of those affected by algorithms that they sometimes don’t even know exist.
Unlike treatises that declare algorithms universally bad or always good, O’Neil asks three questions to determine whether we should classify a model as a “weapon of math destruction”:
- Is the model opaque?
- Is it unfair? Does it damage or destroy lives?
- Can it scale?
These questions actually eliminate the math entirely. By doing so, O’Neil makes it possible to study WMDs by their characteristics not their content. One need not know anything about the internal workings of the model at all to attempt to answer these three empirical questions. More than any other contribution that O’Neil makes, defining the opacity-damage-scalability schema to identify WMDs as social facts makes the book valuable.