I Read 'Weapons of Math Destruction' Because of Barbara Fister's Review

And so should you.

October 2, 2016

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

Published in September of 2016.

Is Weapons of Math Destruction really good, and worthy of your time and treasure?  Definitely.

Do I have some quibbles with the book? Yes - see below - but none that should stop you reading (or assigning in your courses) this excellent and thought provoking book.

Would I have read Weapons of Math Destruction if I hadn’t first read Barbara Fister’s review of the book? Nope.

Let us take each of these in turn.

The Book:  A better title for Weapons of Math Destruction, a title that I really don’t like, would have been The New Data Economy and the Matthew Effect. What Cathy O’Neil does very well in this book is demonstrate how our new data economy exacerbates income and wealth disparities, accelerates inequality, and further separates the haves and the have-nots.

Insurance companies charge higher premiums to good drivers who live in poor neighborhoods than bad drivers who live in rich neighborhoods.  The police target citizens of high crime areas for surveillance, aggressive questioning, and fast arrests - creating a feedback loop that ensures that the crime statistics stay geographically concentrated.  Job applicants with good credit scores are more likely to be offered jobs  - actions that only ensure that those with existing financial difficulties will have future economic difficulties. The list goes on and on.

Weapons of Math Destruction is an important antidote to our current higher ed infatuation with big data.  The chapters on how an over reliance on data and black box algorithms in the public K-12 world has caused ridiculous amounts of stress for qualified and dedicated educators should give us all pause in applying similar techniques to our higher ed world.

Some Quibbles:  Cathy O’Neil is a former math professor, a data scientist, and an activist. She is really good at explaining how complex algorithms are design and operationalized - and how these algorithms are driving ever larger sections of the economy.

My quibble is that the book would have been more persuasive if it were more balanced.  In my world of higher ed we are trying to leverage big data to learn more about how people learn.  We are looking to data to find early warnings as to where we can provide extra assistance and resources to students in danger of doing poorly in a class.

O’Neil takes on both the college rankings and the for-proft educational sector - but she does not explore how data and learning analytics are also having positive impacts on postsecondary education.

The Recommendation:  Does Barbara Fister deserve a cut of the $9.56 that I spent to buy the audiobook?  (I am an Audible Platinum member - a good deal if you are a big audiobook listener).  Perhaps the fabulous and highly selective residential liberal arts college Gustavus Adolphus College, where Barbara is on the faculty as a librarian, deserves some of the proceeds - or at least our thanks - for being Barbara’s academic home.

While reading Weapons of Math Destruction I imagined that I was in conversation with Barbara.  I wanted to ask her if she also thought that the book would have been more persuasive in its criticism of the data economy if it also offered some of the benefits of institutions, the government, and companies of taking a data-centric approach.  I was wondering if Barbara was also looking for some practical steps that we can take as employees, voters, and consumers to mitigate the damaging impacts of algorithms on the poor and the marginalized. 

When someone who you greatly respect and admire recommends a book there is a good chance that that book will get read.  My recommendation is that publishers should send every book that they publish to Barbara Fister, and that the book industry (and all book lovers) should support Gustavus Adolphus College.

To whom do you listen to find your next book?

Will an algorithm ever be able to pick up - and then take action from - the fact that an influential reviewer can drive a book's awareness and sales?

Should publishers and booksellers spend more time trying to get books into the hands of influencers like Barbara Fister?

What are you reading?


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