The Lowdown: This Weapons of Math Destruction Summary is based on the popular book from Cathy O’Neil, which shows how Algorithms are guised as factual, but are still biased and can lead to people to believe ideas which are not true.
During 2008, the United States dealt with a severe economic collapse due to the housing bubble popping. After this occurred, and there was some semblance of normalcy again, businesses and people wanted a way to better predict when a collapse might occur again. Therefore, businesses started investing heavily in math, and specifically, building predictive algorithms which would determine how long programs would be positive or negative.
From these investments into algorithms, and the success they were providing, algorithms were then used in a variety of other aspects of life. People within society have been told a long time that numbers cannot lie; once you add in the seemingly positive feedback algorithms were providing, it seems like it is a win-win on using math to help shape society.
However, O’Neil shows that numbers are biased based upon the person who is building the algorithm. Unfortunately, people can use numbers to show the one side of the argument they agree with, and can completely leave out the counterbalance of the argument. This can lead to some policies being put into place which are not harmless.
The Three Main Lessons you’ll learn from Weapons of Math Destruction include:
- Why Algorithms work for judging baseball players, but not for High School teachers.
- How numbers are used to manipulate where you go on the internet
- Algorithms might help in ranking colleges, but it has an inadvertent effect
Lesson One: Why Algorithms works for baseball, but not for High Schools
Of the four major sports in the United States, baseball is a sport which has the highest amount of statistical significance. This is mostly due to them playing the most games, 162 in a season, which means there are more data points available. The explosion of resources being poured into statistics means we know every tendency of every batter and pitcher in the game, which gives the players a lot more information to work thru compared to any other time in history.
The reason this works so well for baseball is because all of this information is available to all players, teams and fans. The stats are very transparent, and from this, the algorithms continued to get refined and allow everyone to judge for themselves how successful the predictions were.
In contrast to this, a lot of states are now using a system to judge teachers and how well they are doing. These algorithms use a variety of different data points, but they actually don’t share what those are and how they are weighted. This means that teachers really do not know how they are being judged, which causes them to perhaps teach in a different way than they are either accustomed to or teach in a way which is not best for the students. When algorithms are not transparent, then they cause more damage then what they were intended to.
Lesson Two: How Numbers are used to Manipulate where you go on the Internet
After the housing crisis had bottomed out the US Economy, and the floor was found, O’Neil went to go work for an e-commerce company. She had already started to sense that Math was being used to manipulate Americans concerning certain behaviors, and during her time within e-commerce, she became convinced.
From all of the math and algorithms being used, a term was created called Big Data. During the early 2010’s, the internet really exploded thru being able to access the internet thru a personal phone. From accessing the internet thru your laptop and your phone, you are providing more data points for companies to know what you like and don’t like, and they take that information and start to manipulate the ads you see on a regular basis.
Big data is able to pull information for different sources to complete a profile on you, and from this, they can bombard you with the same ads across all devices. Big Data is able to control what you are exposed to and can also quantify how many times you visit certain sites – based on this, they truly regulate what you do and see on a daily basis, and you are more than likely not even aware how they are able to manage you.
Lesson Three: Algorithms might help in ranking colleges, but it has an inadvertent effect
When High School Juniors and Seniors start looking at colleges (as well as parents), one of the main things they look at is how a college is ranked, and how each major is ranked at each college. Everyone takes these at face value, as it is conducted by experts.
However, what is not shown are all the data points which go into these rankings. These rankings typically steer students to choose the schools which are ranked the highest, which in turn leads those colleges to charge a much higher rate for tuition than they otherwise would. Due to this, it allows other colleges to also raise their rates in order to stay up with the market. It is an inadvertent effect from math, but the correlation is clearly there.
My Personal Takeaway
Having statistical data certainly has its place with society, and allows people to make a more educated decision.
It is clear, though, that the results need to be transparent; otherwise, you only get one side of the story and the results can have an unintended consequence.
If someone offers you data, but cannot show how they go there, then you need to question this and not accept it until they can show you everything.
And be aware of what you are shown on the internet – Big data is attempting to control what you see.
Put into Action
Always ask about where the data comes from, and don’t take the data results at face value. You should analyze the results, and any system which doesn’t show you how the results are formed should always be questioned.
You should consider buying this book if…
Weapons of Math Destruction is an excellent read for those who enjoy analytics and want to learn more about how math is used to shape our world today.
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