Posts Tagged ‘Injustice’

Weapons of Math Destruction

May 10, 2018

The title of this book is identical to the title of a book by Dr. Cathy O’Neil. The subtitle is “How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.” Dr. O’Neil is a mathematician. She left her academic position to work as a quant (a quantitative expert) for D. E. Shaw, a leading hedge fund. Initially she was excited by working in the global academy. But the economy crashing in the autumn of 2008 caused her to reevaluate what she was doing.

She writes, “The crash made it all too clear that mathematics, once my refuge, was not only deeply entailed in the world’s problems, but also fueling many of them. The housing crisis, the collapse of major financial institutions, the rise of unemployment—all had been aided and abetted by mathematicians wielding magic formulas. What’s more, thanks to the extraordinary powers that I love so much, math was able to combine with technology to multiply the chaos and misfortune, adding efficiency and scale to a system that I now recognized as flawed.”

She writes that the crisis should have caused all to take a step back and try to figure out how math had been misused and how a similar catastrophe in the future could be prevented. She writes, “But instead, in the wake of the crisis, new mathematical techniques were hotter than ever and expanding into still more domains. They churned 24/7 through petabytes of information, much of it scraped from social media, or e-commerce websites. And increasingly they focused not on the movements of global financial markets but on human beings, on us. Mathematicians and statisticians were studying our desires, movements, and spending power. They were predicting our trustworthiness and calculating our potential as students, workers, lovers, criminals.”

These math-powered applications were based on choices made by fallible human beings. Although some choices were made with the best intentions, many of the models encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Dr. O’Neil came up with a name for these harmful kinds of models: Weapons of Math Destruction, or WMDs for short.

She notes that statistical systems require feedback—something to tell them when they’re off track. The example she provides is that if amazon.com, through a faulty correlation, started recommended lawn care books to teenage girls, the click would plummet, and the algorithm would be tweaked until it got it right. However, without feedback, a statistical engine can continue spinning out faulty and damaging analysis while never learning from its mistakes. These models end up defining their own reality and use it to justify its results. She writes that this type of model is self-perpetuating highly destructive—and very common.

This book focuses on the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. It discusses harmful examples that affect people at critical life moments: going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job.

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Why False Confessions Trump Evidence

June 30, 2015

Perhaps the most blatant example of the title  is the case of the Central Park Five.  This case attracted enormous attention as it supposedly characterized “wildings”  that were taking place.  Here five black men were convicted of raping and brutalizing a young woman.  There is a video piece on this that I encourage you to watch should you get the opportunity. You will see how the police interrogated these suspects, not with the hope of getting at the truth, but rather at getting them to confess, which they did.  However, it was quite clear from the physical evidence that the police were intent on getting confessions rather than seeking the truth.  The physical evidence at the scene indicated that this was not a gang rape.  And the DNA evidence, which is regarded as close to a gold standard as one can find for legal proceedings, completely exonerated these five men.

One of the reasons that confessions are regarded so highly is that juries ask themselves “Why would individuals incriminate themselves?  Don’t they know about their Fifth Amendment rights?
If you have viewed or get the opportunity to view the interrogations of the Central Park Five  you will see the extreme pressure these individuals are placed under in uncomfortable conditions for prolonged periods of time.  Moreover, there is psychological research showing that people can be falsely convinced that they did actually commit the crime (see the healthy memory blog post “False Memories Leading to Confessions” ).  And they are told that the investigation will continue, so being desperate or wrongly convinced, they reason that eventually truth will out and that they will be exonerated.

Research has indicated why these false confessions are so powerfully persuasive.  Common sense informs people that people will not incriminate themselves, these confession contain credible narratives (which often are created during the interrogation process), these narratives corrupt other evidence and undermine the truth-seeking process.

So what can be done about this?  First of all,  people, police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and appeals courts should be made aware of this research and question the reliability of these confessions.  Interrogations should be videotaped and reviewed.  There are recommended procedures for these interrogations and these procedures need to be followed.

An Apology and an Explanation

April 30, 2014

Some time has passed since my last post.  So, I apologize, but here is the explanation.  I had ordered a renewal of my security software for my XP.   I was able to download it, but I received an error message so I could not install it.  So I clicked on help.  That provided a phone contact to the help desk.  They offered to scan my computer to see what the problem was.  This was an interesting procedure.  I allowed them to gain remote access to my computer while I watched.  They reported that my computer was in sad shape and needed to be cleaned.  They offered to do this for a price and also sold me a multi-year support contract.  I did this because the promised to keep my XP computer going for years,and I dreaded moving on to Windows 8.  I watched while the cleaned my computer remotely.  I should say that they supposedly cleaned my computer.  This took close to an hour and then the moment of truth came.  They tried to restart my computer.  Of course shutting done is a prerequisite to restarting the computer.  It never shut down.  I had to force it down.  Then when I tried to restart the computer it kept trying to boot up and never succeeded.  I had watched them destroy my XP!  Moreover, they had the temerity to bill me for destroying my computer.  Of course, I am going to refuse these charges.

Now came the dreaded problem of getting a new computer.  I thought I might be able to cope with Windows 8 if I had a touch screen.  I was wrong.  So I returned the computer and bought a Mac.  Now I am in the process of learning its “intuitive” interface.

I am furious that Microsoft can force us into these upgrades.  We go through these periodically at the office.  Days are lost learning to cope with the so-called upgrade.  Moreover, I always fail to see any benefits from the upgrade.  When one’s personal computer needs to be upgraded, it is even more traumatic.

I don’t think Microsoft should be allowed to do this.  They should not be allowed to discontinue the support of an operating system.  Moreover, everything needs to be backwards compatible.  Before an individual, company, or the government agrees to an upgrade, the benefits of the upgrade need to be made explicit.  There should be warnings regarding time lost as a result of changes resulting from the upgrade.  And individuals, private companies, and the government should be allowed to sue for unanticipated losses in time, money, and in mental anguish.