Wednesday, 4 January 2017

REVIEW: "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy" by Cathy O’Neil

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
by Cathy O’Neil
Copyright September 2016
Hardcover, 272 Pages 

An engaging read on the intersection between data science and politics, education, law enforcement, healthcare and more. The practical orientation of the book makes it a compelling read for data nerds and less mathematically inclined readers alike. This book is especially hospitable to those without prior knowledge in data science, with its conspicuous reader-friendly signposts amply situated throughout the text in addition to illustrative use of refreshing analogies. Newcomers to the world of big data will be astonished by the trove of fresh ideas and will enjoy a mentally stimulating read consisting of systematic and logical arguments coupled with an eclectic range of fascinating examples. 

Be cautioned that the author’s bold expression of distaste and “outrage” toward what she deems Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) and their associated injustices percolates through to her tone of writing and choice of citations, the reader is thus advised to harbor an open mind as he or she peruses the book and its arguments. Bluntly highlighting the ugly reality as the author perceives it and fearlessly questioning prevailing assumptions, the book rather effectively informs the reader of potential misuses and abuses of big data. 

The book as a cohesive whole reinforces the primary range of negative traits O’Neil attributes to WMDs. With reiteration, O’Neil communicates the opacity, non-transparency and unfairness of the mathematical models, their lack of humanity and indifference toward their predominantly poor and minority victims, their short-sighted predisposition for profitability and efficiency, and their untenable systems decaying from the paucity of error feedback. With the self-perpetuating nature of WMD-generated vicious cycles, compounded with ultimately inevitable errors bound to plague every statistical system, these penalizing models seemed ripe to cause catastrophic harm. 

The book covers a great assortment of WMDs. Amongst the more fascinating include those in the educational sphere, particularly one apparently linked to, and even incentivizes, the phenomenon of skyrocketing tuition—ranking models targeting institutions of higher education. Of a strikingly unwholesome goal a school could become entangled in is to take pride in rejecting increasing numbers of applicants; by doing so the institution lowers its acceptance rate and thus betters its ranking. School-to-school marketing is yet another curious trend the author ascribes to a school disproportionately committing itself to cosmetic goals of improving its overall reputation at the expense of genuine progress in educational excellence and quality. 

The criminalization of poverty by flawed predictive crime models such as PredPol, the exploitation of the ignorant through predatory advertising as exemplified by the Corinthian College scandal, and the contribution of the risk model attached to mortgage-backed securities to the disastrous 2008 financial crisis are some rather poignant examples of WMD-damage. Other interesting forms of WMDs discussed include workforce scheduling software, recruitment personality tests, credit card and insurance e-scores, recidivism models and more. 

The book also contains a delightful sampling of interesting non-WMD examples gleaned from the captivating world of data science. The marketing strategies employed by the Obama re-election campaign is one such example, with intriguing explorations of scored profiles of American voters which “not only gauged their value as a potential voter, volunteer, and donor but also reflected their stances on different issues.” Reflecting technological advances and trends in our contemporary society, the Facebook algorithm is an unavoidable topic, whilst the discussion of software systems enterprising to quantify characteristically non-quantifiable matters, such as employee generation of ideas, makes the reading experience even more engrossing. 

War metaphors used in the chapter titles are particularly fitting. With titles such as “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” and “arms race,” they rather effectively reinforce the author’s strong stance and intent to paint WMDs as monumentally destructive. 

Depending on the individual, the reader may or may not be ruffled by the author’s occasional mocking statement—“People who favor policies like stop and frisk should experience it themselves,” a comment preceded by its supposed justification, “a crucial part of justice is equality. And that means, among many other things, experiencing criminal justice equally.”

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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