In the new book, Weapons of Math Destruction, author and mathematician Cathy O'Neil rips the curtain away from the mathematical models that have come to govern our existence. These models or algorithms are used increasingly in more areas of our lives, from the Human Resources department to the marketing field and even to the political arena. In some cases these models are based on no solid research, the parameters just sounded logical and they could be quantified, so into a formula they went -- alas for us, the ordinary consumer, job-hunter, and citizen.
The most timely chapter is towards the back, regarding algorithms and civic life. The chapter starts off detailing how Facebook controls what hits the top of your feeds each day, or even each hour. One day they decided to find out if FB could help increase voter turnout. It turns out that yes, if people can post on FB that they voted, that exerts a positive influence on others to vote as well.
Even more insidious, though, was a study conducted by Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson who asked undecided voters to use a search engine to learn about upcoming elections; unbeknownst to the undecideds, though, was the fact that they had programmed the search engines to skew results to favor one party over another. The results, they said, shifted voting preferences twenty percent!!
That is an astonishing swing and one that is very disturbing for anyone who values democracy. If anyone can program search engines to skew results in favor of one party as if it were an innocuous choice between Coke and Pepsi, what hope is there for our grand experiment as a republic??
Just as insidious are the political campaigns that the GOP microtargets to gullible voters, as reported by Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at Univ of North Carolina. He says “these groups pinpoint vulnerable voters and then target them with fear-mongering campaigns, scaring them about their children's safety or the rise of illegal immigration. At the same time, they can keep those ads from the eyes of voters likely to be turned off or even disgusted by such messaging.” (my italics added)
These microtargeted messages are likely to be the reason nearly half of Republicans still believe the myth that Pres. Obama is a Muslim, or was born outside the USA, or any of the other hoaxes.
I could start my own microtargeted campaign, for example, saying that it is fated for Hillary Clinton to become president because she was 45 years old when she first moved into the White House – and now, looky, she is in line to become the forty-fifth president of the United States!! Wow. It must be fate!!
When we are kept in the dark about what our neighbors are being fed, it is very difficult to counter that messaging with more accurate, objective material. I suspect that these micro campaigns are why so many voters refuse to listen to any facts in support of the other side, so thoroughly have they accomplished their brainwashing. And I think that term is accurate, for brainwashing is exactly what it is.
To back up, what is a Weapon of Math Destruction? It is a mathematical model that is marked by three things: Opacity, Scale, and Damage. No one can explain to you what goes into the formula, and they never will because that might mean people will game it; it is the opposite of transparency. And it is applied to thousands if not millions of people without regard for individual circumstances – to students, loan applicants, job applicants, parole applicants, etc. And it can permanently damage your life – because you can never fix the error.
Have you ever heard of the Kronos test? It is a type of personality test widely used in assessing job applicants. You probably took it at least once. It is currently being challenged as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But whether you are presented with the Kronos or some other personality test, the bottom line is that personality tests ranked very low in on the scale of predictive value of various candidate selection processes. They were only one-third as helpful as cognitive exams, and also far below reference checks. Yet employers still use them to filter out job candidates. Why?
The questions in them are almost nonsensical, so forget about trying to game the test. And the tests are really worthless, so I would refuse to take them if I were you. Only mass boycott can get companies to drop them. Or successful lawsuits, but that's the expensive way.
The most aggravating part about these Weapons of Math Destruction like the personality tests is that they lack a feedback loop. The test is never corrected to conform with whether it accurately picked a good employee -- or not. They are totally different from various sports formulas for predicting what kind of pitch a given pitcher will throw in a given situation – because if it chooses wrong, the formula is almost always tweaked to conform to the hard statistical reality it crashed against.
Not with the typical human resources tools of screening tests and so forth. In fact, the author compared them to phrenology, the pseudoscience of reading bumps on a person's head.
There is much material in this book I could trot out for display, especially the algorithms used for determining parole (there's another place the ACLU should look at) but this review has gone long enough. I can sum up so many of the fancy mathematical models in one phrase: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out)!!
Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O'Neil, Crown an imprint of Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, 2016, 218 pages text, 260 pages with notes and index. ISBN is 9780-553418811
I received a copy of this book for free from Blogging for Books in return for posting a review online.