Thursday, September 15, 2016

Weapons of Math Destruction is a great read

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
by Cathy O’Neil
Published by Crown on September 6, 2017

Similar in concept to Freakonomics, Weapons of Math Destruction looks at how data affects action, sometimes negatively, in surprising ways.

Statistics are used to make decisions about a lot of things from baseball defensive tactics to weeding out supposedly less effective teachers. When looked at objectively (as in baseball where everyone can see the same statistics and draw conclusions), the data can help reduce risk in decision-making. When algorithms are poorly created or hidden from view, assumptions can be drawn and acted upon without seeing the full story.

Cathy O’Neil, who has an extensive background in analytics and holds a PhD in Mathematics from Harvard, goes into the perfect amount of detail in explaining how algorithms are designed, what they intend to measure, and what happens after the fact.

For example, she explained how the college rankings by U.S. News & World Report evolved through the years in an effort to improve accuracy. As colleges understood what data was being used to calculate their score in the rankings, they were able to game the system. Because SAT scores of incoming students factored in to overall ranking, some colleges paid the SAT fee for accepted students to retake the SAT for a chance to improve their scores, in hopes of raising the overall college ranking. Another college significantly raised its rank by hiring top professors -- professors who only visit the colleges for a few weeks out of the year, but claim the school as their affiliation thereby having all of their published work attributed to that school.

So what happens when organizations figure out how to work the rankings in their favor, and other organizations decide to cheat, too?

It happens in finance, prisons, schools, and just about anywhere. O’Neil also argues that racism is partly a product of poor data that has led to assumptions which, in turn, have led to people looking for statistics to match the assumptions.

Weapons of Math Destruction was a fantastic read. Her background in analytics is extensive and she has researched her topics thoroughly. This book will make you think.

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Please see my book review and affiliate disclaimer.


  1. This probably not something I would have read but it sounds interesting. I will have to give it a try.

  2. NPR just did a piece on this yesterday (I think)! Definitely very interesting!