Cathy O’Neil and the virtues of honesty, justice, humility and courage

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

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From: https://mathbabe.org/contact/

Cathy O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice, and of humility and courage. 

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at MIT, and a professor at Barnard College […] She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis […]. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene […]. She wrote “Doing Data Science” in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She wrote the book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy“, and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.

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In this book, she provides a broad range of examples of the harms that algorithms can do–intentionally or unintentionally. Very often, poor people suffer the hardest: “Promising efficiency and fairness, [these algorithms] distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy” (p. 199). She coined the term Weapons of Math Destruction, to refer to algorithms with the following characteristics: their outcomes have large effects on people’s lives and society; they work invisible and are inaccessible for scrutiny or critique; their usage tends to spread like wildfire, e.g., affecting an entire industry; and they lack proper feedback loops and checks, so that they can all too easily derail.

Existing unfairness and injustice–which, in the US, often concur with discrimination based on race, resulting in poverty and lack of opportunities–are propagated through algorithms: “Big Data codify the past.” (p. 204) […] She argues that “we need to impose human values on these systems, even at the cost of efficiency” (p. 207).

  • Her TED Talk: “The era of blind faith in big data must end

O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice. She unveils the lies surrounding algorithms and their unwarranted promises, in order to critique the injustice and unfairness they propagate and exacerbate. For her, honesty, about what math can do, and cannot do, and advocating and striving for justice go hand in hand.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of honesty as “respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately” (2016, p. 122), and justice as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of … technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how … technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

In addition, O’Neil embodies the virtues of humility and courage. Humility because she knows very well what math can do, and cannot do. She critiques many widespread practices: using invalid proxies, e.g., using people’s financial credit scores to assess risks related to driving a car and setting a price for car insurance; the lack of feedback loops, which are critical for putting a faulty algorithm, e.g., one that effectively creates random outputs, back on track; and focusing on those variables that can be quantified and data which are easily available, instead of deciding that algorithms make no sense, e.g., because the desired results are qualitative or hard to put into numbers. Moreover, she embodies courage in that she experiences both fear and hope in intelligent ways: she understands the dangers of algorithms, and she has hope that we can “disarm (p. 199) and “dismantle” (p. 202) these Weapons of Math Destruction.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of humility asa recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), and courage as a “disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).


Possibly, you find that Cathy O’Neill embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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