Review of and Reactions to Weapons of Mass Destruction by Cathy O'NeilQuite a good book, though I have a number of nits to pick. Overall the book is worth reading and I'm glad to give it the same strong recommendation that led me to read it, but there are places where her focus seems too shortsighted, especially in terms of the underlying motivations of the problems.
The largest nit is probably the title, not so much directly, but as used in abbreviated form within the text. The title is actually catchy and provocative, though I think it falls short of witty. However, in the text it is reduced to WMD, and that's a serious problem because there is a competing and quite well established definition of WMD. Weapons of Mass Destruction are still a huge problem and frequently mentioned in the news and books. There are good reasons we read about WMDs, but that means that each time WMD appears in this book the reader has to stop and remember the crucial distinction here. Actually, it would be even worse if she had focused more on the mass destruction that can be caused by her WMDs. She didn't go that far in spite of her focus on the scalability of the the weapons. (There's a secondary problem that she probably couldn't have considered, but for Japanese readers in particular, the spoken words "math" and "mass" are hard to distinguish because Japanese does not use the "th" sound. In other words, to a Japanese ear, both "math" and "mass" sound like マス。)
The reading would have been much easier without the conflicting WMD references in the test. Perhaps WM for Weaponized Math or MWs for Math Weapons? The kind of math is actually limited to statistics, so another option could have been SWs for Statistical Weapons. Lots of possibilities beyond the catchy but conflicted WMDs. Just hard for me to recommend this book without a warning about being a more difficult read than it needs to be.
Now for my page-linked comments (though I resisted noting pages until I was halfway through):
On page 115 I was provoked by the passage "a quality computer, like an IBM Selectric", since that was a typewriter, not any type of computer. That was the reaction that went too far...
On page 130 she is talking about a blurred focus on "efficiency and profitability" without justifying the inclusion of efficiency. This reminded me of corporate cancerism, though without the clarify of the singular focus on profit that modern corporations claim they are legally required to pursue.
Page 134 starts considering the misguided destruction of public education in 1983, but I was mostly reminded of "Figures don't lie, but liars figure" and the book Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics from 1976. I felt she wasn't seeing the real problem because she wasn't considering the motivations. She is focused on the attacks on unionized teachers, but she didn't even consider why they would be targeted. I would actually agree that they were part of the motivation was that progressive teachers can encourage progress and change, and conservatives are fundamentally opposed to that, but I think she failed to see the larger attack in which public schools were divided and conquered. The result was a tiny division of good schools to keep up the hopes of the good teachers and the truly concerned parents, while the lion's share of public schools became obedience schools you wouldn't send your dog to. The underlying motive for this wholesale destruction was mostly to reduce property taxes, though the rich landowners were glad to use and exploit such public-school-haters as religious fanatics who had other reasons for wanting the public schools to be destroyed. Though she talks about problems with voting and democracy at various places in the book, she apparently doesn't see how the mushrooms were cultivated in those obedience schools so that Putin (with Trump's help) could harvest them as mushroom voters in 2016.
Page 136 on Simpson's Paradox was quite enlightening, but mostly a reminder of how liars figure. It doesn't matter what the data shows when there are external motivations driving the analysis and the desired outcomes have been predetermined. The liars will find some way to slice and dice it and they are probably planning to take the money and run before the suckers figure it out.
Page 143 was about selective treatment in call centers, and made me paranoid about how I get treated these days. Also reminded me of the extreme form practiced at Apple, where I believe they now block negative comments from even being posted in their discussion forums.
On page 146 she emphasized that it was wrong to study "How have people like you behaved in the past?" She said the ideal question would be "How have you behaved in the past?" Actually, the ideal question would be "How are you going to behave in the FUTURE?"
Page 162 is discussing insurance, but I felt there was general confusion. The basic problem is that it only makes mathematical sense to insure against unlikely events, not likely events. Trying to insure against inevitable events is a kind of oxymoron, because there can't be any profit there if all of the policy holders are guaranteed to collect at some point. They might as well save their money and cut out the insurance company overhead.
Page 180 is talking about viral encouragement of voting via Facebook, but mostly it sounds ridiculously naive in light of the 2016 election. There was no mention of Twitter in the book, either. Page 185 sounded even more naive when she says that she has "no evidence that the companies [Facebook and Google] are using their networks to cause harm." Page 186 sounds almost ridiculous when you consider how Trump just ignores all of the conflicts and counts on each of his contradictory tribes to believe he is telling that particular tribe the truth while lying to all of the others.
On page 205 she is talking about an "oath" that data scientists should take, but the notion seems completely implausible because of her own emphasis on scalability of the WMDs. If a WMD is scalable, then all it would take is one violator of the oath to render it useless. This reminded me again of the moral neutrality of the technology (though she didn't use that phraseology) while the people are going to use any technology for good or bad purposes.