The value in the algorithm

The LA Times has an interesting interview with self-described “data skeptic” Cathy O’Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction. Although the Times puts her skepticism in terms of big data, her concerns are really about values in science. Algorithms, she suggests, have a veneer of objectivity but always reflect choices and valuations. When the algorithms are secret, then the values incorporated in them aren’t open to scrutiny. She says:

I want to separate the moral conversations from the implementation of the data model that formalizes those decisions. I want to see algorithms as formal versions of conversations that have already taken place.

She also makes a point about how polling isn’t just objectively reporting on the state of the electorate, something I would probably have mused about if I’d written the post about the election that I never quite wrote:

[P]olitical polls are actually weapons of math destruction. They’re very influential; people spend enormous amounts of time on them. They’re relatively opaque. But most importantly, they’re destructive in various ways. In particular, they actually affect people’s voting patterns. … Polls can change people’s actual behavior, which disrupts democracy in a direct way.

I’ve ordered a copy of her book, and when it arrives I will put it on top of the stack of books I regret not having read.

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