Computing Reviews

Weapons of math destruction : how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy
O’Neil C., Crown Publishing Group, New York, NY, 2016. 272 pp. Type: Book
Date Reviewed: 01/12/17

We live in a data economy and, as this book argues, mathematical models are its engines. It was Gauss that reminded us that “mathematics is the queen of the sciences” [1]. Reading this book shows that mathematics is no fairy queen. O’Neil explains the malevolent usage of mathematics to develop what she has termed “weapons of math destruction” (WMD). Mathematics is being used to build data models that encode human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias; models that are opaque, highly scalable, and because of their scalability, do damage to society.

These data models are being used to punish teachers in low-income, low-performing schools; to sell very risky mortgage-backed securities (like those that led to the Great Recession); and to not employ certain demographics that the models deem deficient in some psychosocial skills. The list goes on. The issues with these models are that they work on correlation but fail to acknowledge that correlation is not causation, and they are not revised to reflect the changing world. This means that their pernicious effects remain long after the world for which they were built has changed.

This is a highly useful book for people who want to start learning how these WMDs work in our ever-expanding data economy. It will open your eyes to the inequities built into today’s data economy, and probably instigate you to arm yourself with the techniques needed to address them. Remembering Whitehead [2], who said:

The art of free society consists in the maintenance of the symbolic code, and in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either into anarchy, or slowly atrophy into useless shadows.

Each one of us must be alert and demand the opening up and continual revisions of these WMD models, if we do not want our society to decay into anarchy or slowly atrophy.

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1)

von Waltershausen, W. S. Gauss zum Gedächtniss. S. Hirzel, Leipzig, 1856, https://archive.org/details/gauss00waltgoog.


2)

Whitehead, A. N. Symbolism: its meaning and effect. Fordham University Press, New York, NY, 1985.

Reviewer:  Tope Omitola Review #: CR144993 (1704-0226)

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