A reading club with a view to the future

035 Cathy O’Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction

The book discusses how the increasing use of big data and algorithms has negative impacts on individuals, society, and democracy, including perpetuating inequality and discrimination.

Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction


Cathy O'Neil argues that the use of algorithms and big data in fields such as education, employment, and policing is creating a "weapon of math destruction" that perpetuates inequality, discrimination, and oppression. These algorithms, which are often opaque and difficult to understand, can lead to erroneous conclusions and reinforce biased decision-making. O'Neil provides numerous examples of the negative impacts of these algorithms, including how they can limit opportunities for marginalized groups and perpetuate societal biases. She calls for greater transparency and accountability in the use of algorithms and highlights the importance of addressing the underlying social and economic inequalities that are perpetuated by these systems.


Title: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Author: Cathy O'Neil

Publishing Year: 2016

Publisher: Broadway Books

Length in hours: 6 hours and 23 minutes

5 main ideas

  1. The use of algorithms and big data in decision-making has become pervasive and can have significant negative impacts on individuals, particularly marginalized groups.
  2. These algorithms can reinforce biases and perpetuate discrimination and inequality, particularly in areas such as education, employment, and policing.
  3. The use of algorithms and big data in decision-making can be opaque and difficult to understand, making it difficult for individuals to challenge these systems.
  4. Greater transparency and accountability is needed in the use of algorithms, particularly in terms of understanding the underlying assumptions and biases that are embedded in these systems.
  5. Addressing the negative impacts of algorithms and big data requires a broader societal approach that addresses underlying social and economic inequalities.
Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction

5 funny quotes

  1. "At the time, nobody realized that the bell curve was being used not just as a graphic illustration, but as a cudgel."
  2. "The good news is that algorithms don't have to be either evil or infallible. They can be designed to serve human values and interests."
  3. "There are mathematical models to calculate how much energy is in poop. There are also mathematical models to calculate how much energy it takes to deal with all the poop."
  4. "The job was boring and paid poorly, but it was just so much easier than farming."
  5. "In many cases, the models work better than their human counterparts. They don't have bad days, they don't get bored, they don't get hungry, they don't get headaches, and they don't care about politics."

5 thought-provoking quotes​

  1. "Models are opinions embedded in mathematics."
  2. "When it comes to microtargeting, the Internet has become a massive laboratory for refining the tools of behavior modification on a population scale."
  3. "Data is being used to police people, and the tools are biased."
  4. "The dystopian future I've been describing is not a projection; it's not a warning. It is our present."
  5. "The question to ask about any model is not whether it is true, but whether it is illuminating and useful."

5 dilemmas

  1. The tension between the efficiency and accuracy of algorithms versus the ethical considerations of fairness and bias.
  2. The potential for WMDs to perpetuate and exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities.
  3. The question of whether or not algorithms should be transparent and subject to public scrutiny.
  4. The challenges of regulating and governing algorithms that operate across national and international borders.
  5. The dilemma of whether or not to use algorithms to automate and make decisions in high-stakes areas like medicine, law enforcement, and national security.

5 examples

  1. The use of WMDs by the Target Corporation to determine which of its customers were pregnant and target them with advertising campaigns.
  2. The COMPAS system, used by U.S. judges to determine a defendant's likelihood of reoffending and make sentencing decisions.
  3. The use of value-added models by schools to evaluate teachers based on student test scores.
  4. The use of predictive policing algorithms by the Chicago Police Department to target neighborhoods for increased surveillance and arrest.
  5. The use of credit scoring algorithms to determine who qualifies for loans and at what interest rates.

Referenced books

  1. "The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information" by Frank Pasquale
  2. "Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor" by Virginia Eubanks
  3. "Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism" by Safiya Umoja Noble

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"Data is being used to police people, and the tools are biased."

Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction
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