What do you imagine a book with the title “Weapons of math destruction” is about? This book is another product of a blog that was converted into a book. Nothing bad with that. The opposite. I find this book as one of the good examples of how important I think it is for scientists (and other experts) to share all this information with us, the society. Its author Cathy O’Neil (@mathbabedotorg) is a Mathematician and an ex-academic that moved to finance, to work with numbers related to the global economy. To be honest I find finance fascinating. I quite enjoy reading about finance and learning about the global economy. But we all know, deeply inside, that whenever something is about the global economy there must be a sort of monster lurking in the deep waters of the amount of money that it conveys. Well, for Cathy some lessons were taught by the housing crisis in 2008. She tells us about one of the many monsters that can exist whenever we are dealing with large numbers that can be profitable. As she puts it in the book: if misused, math can multiply the chaos and misfortune. Specially because the power of math combined with the current computing power will enhance its efficiency of whatever effects our models have. The discussion here is more about highlighting the responsibility we must acknowledge when working with information, with big data and the math models applied to the world’s problems, rather than blaming the science [math], finance or the institutions. Yes! Mathematicians, Statisticians, for sure Physicists (and others, many others) are studying us. But, is it all wrong and are they all bad?
This book will tell you how they study us. All of us. It will tell you more about how big data rule out our lives. What are the consequences of this data collection that provides ‘them’ with information about us? Who are ‘them’? Nowadays a computer program will decide if your resume is worth of consideration or if you as a citizen qualify for a loan. Schools and Universities also use algorithms to determine if a teacher/lecturer is good or not. Many of these models have proved to be biased and unfair; and this book explains in more detail the destructive characteristics of such biased models.
Do we really experience in our daily lives these models’ outcomes? There’re so many examples. The most obvious can be trying to find our dream job on Linkedin or finding the perfect match in an online dating site. But there are others that might not seem as obvious, like the “stop and frisk” policy where a crime prediction software has come with wrong conclusions having a seriously damaging impact on human lives. What about the obscure practices from Facebook? I read this book few months before the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. By the time it was all over the internet it all seemed to me like very old news. I had learnt already that we are subject to micro-targeting for political campaigns and other advertising such as for-profit universities. To be honest, this is quite perceptible in our daily interactions in Facebook. For instance now that we are going through campaigns for presidencial elections in Mexico, unlike previous elections in 2006 and 2012 this time Facebook only advertise information related to my favourite candidate. Not that I have stated it in my timeline but I must’ve liked other posts about this candidate repeatedly over the years. Do not think I am unaware of it.
So what? What can we do about it? Is everything bad an evil? Should I panic over the idea of someone watching me at all times? No. The answer is no. We need to be aware of these issues to be cautious, but most importantly, we must work towards creating fair models that are transparent. Cathy O’Neil puts it very nicely, and tells us exactly what that means. I particularly enjoyed (quite a lot) reading this book. The underlined message expresses very well what I really stand for. In the era when society demands everything to be approved by some sort of science, let’s never forget that Science and Numbers without social awareness (in the sense of social conscience with principles and ethics) are something that will do more harm than good and that it’ll definitely work against us.