Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

Cathy O’Neil published the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy in 2016, was longlisted for that year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction, then won the Euler Book Prize in 2019.

And rightfully so - this is a powerful non-fiction book that details how big data models are unregulated, and often reinforce discrimination.

Read on for a review of this expert piece of literature.

Video Transcript:

Kasey Jones: Hi everyone. I'm Kasey Jones with A Better Jones.

And today I'm going to review the book Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil.

First of all, phenomenal title. Absolutely love that it made me laugh, and also made me super super intrigued, but the book itself is really fascinating.

So Kathy has this really really interesting background. She started out as a professor at Bard teaching. I forget her niche in math, but math stuff, and then decided to go into finance.

And so she started working for a hedge fund, making tons of money, but working in what sounds like a kind of crazy work environment. She really talked about how because they you know, what hedge funds do a lot of, their sort of secret sauce is these algorithms that their quant team develops and so they don't want any individual on that team to have enough information where they can leave and go take that information to a competitor.

So they're left in these little silos. And so they're only allowed to touch certain aspects of it and they never get the whole picture and they're also basically pitted against one another and are disincentivized to be collaborative and to work together, so crazy environment, and then while she was there that's when the economy kind of crashed. And obviously that was the banking industry's fault, pretty much, so a very interesting time, and then she started working at an e-commerce company. And so she's seen this wide array of how mathematical algorithms play a big impact in our culture.

So from an academic perspective, from a banking perspective, and then from a business perspective, she really digs into kind of the rise of the algorithm and what this means and how both our government and our businesses are relying on this in a way that oftentimes does not serve the public good and you know, she compares how they evaluate teachers to, you know, something in kind of the e-commerce world or you know, something totally unrelated, and so she weaves in a lot of these different stories which are fascinating.

And you wind up finding out things about how we adjudicate, how we imprison people, how we teach our children how we buy the products we do. I mean, you name it. She really covers all of it and it's really fascinating because she really emphasizes over and over a couple of components. One, that it's still people making these algorithms, and so there's biases built into them based on who is making them. The things that sort of occur to those people or don't and really makes the case for why having a more diverse team can make a huge difference.

The other thing that she really points out which I loved is that algorithms, the impact of algorithms, depends very much on the intent. So if the algorithm is created by an e-commerce company that's just trying to make as much money as humanly possible, it's probably not identifying the opportunities to make people's lives better. So for example, you know that she's talking about the justice system. Nobody is running experiments on how we imprison people or not running kind of data analysis on what if you educate all of the prisoners? What if you give them really really healthy food? What if you never put somebody in solitary?

Like we don't test those things because often, you know, there's a major prison industrial complex in our country. And so they are incentivized to have as many people in there as humanly possible because that's how they make their money. And so they're not really looking at recidivism rates and how to improve those has nothing to do with how they track prisoners and how they track the behavior both during incarceration and after.

So she really talks a lot about how important it is for us as citizens and those individuals to bring these topics up with our legislators about adding - about enforcing - good intention in a lot of the work, you know kind of that we do and she talks a lot about how when we are gathering a ton of data on different segments of American society, you can spot patterns in there that can help us solve certain problems, but we don't always do that.

We look at - it’s companies looking at solving their own problems or government's looking at cutting costs. It's not about surfacing ideas or solutions that actually make people's lives better and she really stresses that there's a huge missed opportunity to apply these weapons of math instead of they're not towards destruction, but they're actually towards production or towards health and wellness, innovation, well-being, and it's it made me think a lot about our reliance of data and the rise of data and in our society and how there's a lot of opportunity to use this information to do good, and we're missing that opportunity.

So if you're at all interested in just kind of how our world works, and some of the opportunities that are out there for how we can make our world better, I highly recommend this book again.

It's the Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil and we'll have the link in the comments here so that you can click on that and buy the book that way. And we love obviously for you to give us any comments on whether you liked it, whether you hated it, if there's other books that you recommend, as an alternative or in addition to this one, really appreciate it. Hope you enjoy it.


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