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Analytics Magazine

Inside story: Weapons of mass instruction

Cathy O’Neil’s provocative book, “Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy,” created quite a stir in the analytics community when it was released last fall. In the book, O’Neil, a data scientist who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard, explores the dark side of big data and data science, including the fairness, power and risks of mathematical models and their potential negative impact.

In its review, The New York Times wrote that “O’Neil’s book offers a frightening look at how algorithms are increasingly regulating people,” while Reuters opined that the book “… is the big data story Silicon Valley proponents won’t tell … [It] pithily exposes flaws in how information is used to assess everything from creditworthiness to policing tactics… A thought-provoking read for anyone inclined to believe that data doesn’t lie.”

For its part, Amazon described the book as follows: “A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life – and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.” Yikes!

In this issue of Analytics magazine, we offer two more viewpoints on O’Neil’s book from a couple of fellow quants: Vijay Mehrotra and Eric Siegel. Vijay is perhaps best known to readers of Analytics magazine as the author of the popular “Analyze This!” column, while Eric is a household name in the worldwide analytics community as the founder of the Predictive Analytics World series of conferences. Both are educators (Vijay as a professor at the University of San Francisco, Eric as a former instructor at Columbia University), both are entrepreneurs (Vijay with multiple high-tech start-ups and angel funding, Eric with PAW and other initiatives), both are accomplished authors and speakers, both have incredible knowledge and passion of and for high-end analytics, and both enthusiastically recommend “Weapons of Math Destruction” – but for somewhat different reasons.

As educators, Vijay and Eric’s commentary offers instructive insight on not just “Weapons of Math Destruction,” but also on the state of analytics, and the challenges and ethics issues all of those involved in the profession now face.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet read “Weapons of Math Destruction,” but I’m looking forward to doing so, and Vijay has offered to send me his copy. In the meantime, I highly recommend you read both Vijay’s Analyze This! column and Eric’s Viewpoint article in this issue of Analytics.

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