Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’
259 pages, hardcover; $26
Mathematician Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” is a lucid, alarming and valuable account of “the dark side of Big Data.”
Recently nominated for the National Book Award, it’s an easily digestible book about a forbiddingly complicated subject. O’Neill explains how mathematical models and algorithms are being weaponized — most often unknowingly — in the U.S. to perpetuate injustice and tear apart the social fabric.
She outlines WMDs’ toxic effect on college admissions, bank lending, criminal sentencing, online advertising, hiring and firing. Across industries, she argues, we’ve been seduced by the apparent objectivity of math as a solution to human bias. But when our mathematical models are based on biases, prejudices and misunderstandings, they only perpetuate them. And when they’re scaled across whole industries and government systems, the adverse effect of those biases multiplies exponentially. Inevitably, O’Neil notes, these WMDs punish the poor and minorities.
“They’re opaque, unquestioned, and unaccountable,” she writes.
Her argument is passionate, her writing polemical. But these aren’t the ravings of a Luddite or a technophobe. O’Neil is a mathematician making clear that this is all bad math. It’s difficult to argue with that.
In an early chapter, O’Neil recounts the “journey of disillusionment” that led her to write this disturbing book, recounting her jump from Barnard math professor to joining the legion of “quants” at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw (where she saw the 2008 financial crisis from the inside) to her time with the Occupy movement and as a blogger (she still writes at mathbabe.org).
O’Neil’s writing is crisp and precise as she aims her arguments to a lay audience. This makes for a remarkably page-turning read for a book about algorithms. “Weapons of Math Destruction” should be required reading for anybody whose life will be affected by Big Data, which is to say: required reading for everyone. It’s a wake-up call — a journalistic heir to “The Jungle” and “Silent Spring.” Like those books, it should change the course of American society.
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.