An Interview with Dr. Cathy O’Neil

By Carrie Diaz Eaton, Associate Professor of Digital and Computational Studies, Bates College

Using Popular Books in Teaching and Learning

Last semester I organized a book club for my program. I was teaching a Discrete Modeling and Structures course, which attempted combine mathematical modeling with the study of structures for programming.  One of the elements of the course is the discussion of the design of programming, and because our program is rooted in Equity as a value, I wanted to give the students the option to think about Equity issues in modeling and programming.  I chose Dr. Cathy O’Neil’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction as a class reading (also discussed in my last post).  

I have often chosen a popular reading book to accompany my class.  I am an advocate for using reflection as a tool to promote metacognition around mathematics. In calculus, I would have students read The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sturner, to prompt students to reflect on “talent” as being something that is practiced often. Where as some books like The Math Gene  by Keith Devlin emphasize the intrinsic capability or “nature” within all of us to do math, The Practicing Mind, offers a companion tale about deliberate practice as a mechanism to “nurture” it. I credit that idea to Dr. Erin Bodine, who uses the book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin in her calculus course and to my graduate Statistics professor, Charles Cweick, who assigned books like Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner and Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You by Gigerenzer to make the statistics I was learning relevant to my life. When I let the bookstore know that I would be using Weapons of Math Destruction as a companion text to my course, they helpfully let me know I was not the only professor to have recommended it for reading - and so the idea of a community book club was born.

The students really took to the book. I think no one was quite sure the first time we met - and we met once a month to tackle a third of the book each time. But by the second meeting, the enthusiasm was readily apparent and by the last meeting students were grappling with how they might fight for the kind of social justice that Dr. O’Neil describes. We also had visitors from all over campus - from not just our program, but from the neuroscience program, mathematics department, and our academic support centers in writing and mathematics. My class was a bottom up sampling of discrete modeling and structure, which only took students as far as 2 dimensional nonlinear difference equations and basic network analysis. This book was a top down approach, showcasing the broader impact of programming design and modeling with data on real lives. It provided the kind of real life connections that motivated students to do delve deeper.

So - if I could have interviewed Dr. O’Neil, what would this community ask her? What would I have asked her? What would my students ask? Imagine my excitement when I realized that this year’s Mathematic-Con SIAM-AMS-MAA Gerald and Judith Porter Public Lecture at the Joint Mathematics Meetings would be delivered by none other than Dr. O’Neil herself! Imagine my shock when the MAA connected me to her so that I could ask her those questions that had been burning in my mind towards the end of the semester. Instead of transcribing the entirety of the interview, I have chosen some highlights to share with you. Passages in ** are my own reflections to her words.

Cathy O’Neil and Carrie Diaz Eaton at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Baltimore 2019

Cathy O’Neil and Carrie Diaz Eaton at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Baltimore 2019

MAA Math Values: Community, Inclusivity, Communication, and Teaching & Learning

To me, I saw the book club as an exploration of all of the principles of Math Values, developing community among students and faculty in a new program, examining issues of equity, inclusion and justice, and encouraging communication in the teaching and learning environment.  I thought readers of this blog might be interested in her perception of these same math values.

Diaz Eaton: When I read your book, I felt that it really resonated with the Math Values: Community, Inclusion, Teaching and Learning, and Communication. Do you feel like those values resonate with you?

O’Neil: I really don’t distinguish between “communication” and “teaching and learning...” those are the way you communication. If you value communication… you have to learn to teach, so that’s the same idea for me.  Community and Inclusion also mean the same thing to me. To have a vibrant, growing, modern community, is to be inclusive, is to find ways to include - which of course means always to be on the lookout for better ways of communicating, better ways of learning, better ways of teaching.  The training I got when I became a mathematician was really good for all of these things... In my education, I learned how to not be defensive about being wrong. Mathematicians ideally get to that point - where if I try to teach you something, and you find a mistake, I appreciate it. I am grateful, because it has taught be quickly, it has skipped over a bunch of time I would have wasted, it has moved me faster.  And that is what a good community does. It doesn’t simply include, a good community progresses - progresses even through things that are hard and things that are uncomfortable. The idea is I like to just go through that discomfort rather than try to around it, because there is no way around it.

Community is the only thing that mathematics has. Mathematics is not intrinsically a thing. Mathematics is defined by what the community of mathematicians think is interesting and worthwhile. We do a relatively good job, not perfect job, of doing that as mathematicians. If we focus on a little more on that, on curating explicitly and openly why we think this thing is interesting, why we think this unsolved math problem would be good to know, without relying on fake explanations - because the truth is at the end of the day it’s because we think it is beautiful, this is why. If we could focus on that - acknowledging that we don’t really have any argument beyond we think it is beautiful, but spending a little more time on explaining why we think it is beautiful and why we think this is interesting and worthwhile - then our community would be better off and we would be more inclusive. And we would have spent more time educating and learning, so I think community is the first, but it is only thing that matters.

*My own commentary and reflection, I’ll bracket by an asterisk from now on: From my perspective, I think what I hear is “if you are doing Community right, you are doing the others,” which I wholeheartedly agree with.  I was surprised that she centered mathematics itself as a human enterprise and therefore completely centered in community. But this is a useful framing, because it might be easy for some to strip the human element from mathematics, but to remind us of its human-constructed origin, reminds us that the two cannot so easily be untwined.*

Diaz Eaton: This is interesting because I hear some similarities in something I was trying to explain to someone else, which is being inclusive in terms of mathematics versus being inclusive in terms of mathematicians. What are we really talking about here - are we talking about the mathematics or are we using it as a proxy for talking about the inclusivity of mathematicians?

O’Neil: The fact is different parts of the community will consider different things beautiful and they should have their say, so that is a form of inclusivity. Just like, I’m a classical musician fan, but I’m going to listened to Cardi B - which I did yesterday, and I actually didn’t like it - but I want to be the kind of person that actually listens. I want to try to like new things. And mathematicians should be like that too - and this is my opinion - but we shouldn’t be snobs about things because that is self-defeating and it narrows and restricts us.

Diaz Eaton: Especially as fields like data science emerge?

O’Neil: There’s no proof in data science - there is evidence… It is not a thought experiment, data science is empirical, which is good and bad. The good thing is it has real applications and power. And the bad thing is, it has lots of power, and people are often measuring the wrong thing to see what is the consequence of that power. They are measuring their profits rather than ensuring social justice, so it is an unconstrained potential science - not a science yet, but it’s not mathematics. When I do data science, I do thought experiments. Mathematical thinking makes headway in data science, but what I do as a data scientist is not math, but the way I decide what to do is math.

*I think this is good dialogue for us all to have, because we should be expansive in the ways we approach the inclusivity of mathematics, but then it is healthy to consider both sides of the argument when it comes to considering whether what we do is mathematics or not. I see Dr. O’Neil engage in both sides of that debate. I personally tend to be as inclusive as possible about my definition of mathematics, and as long as a domain involves mathematics, I am happy to say it is part of the mathematics family. Perhaps this is a cultural perspective too - all my relatives are just “cousin” and it does not matter whether 2nd or twice removed, and all are family.*

On her book, Weapons of Math Destruction

Diaz Eaton: In your book, you use a lot of examples of the everyday things, motherhood, the everyday tasks, the shopping. So who were thinking about as your audience - who were you writing this to, and how did that mold and shape the book?

O’Neil: I wasn’t trying to go for only nerds, I was trying to go for people who aren’t nerds and consider themselves unqualified. We are cowed and overly trusting of algorithms because we are not experts in math and science, but we are definitely smart enough. We need people, humans, to basically understand what they are all about and ask probing, tough questions. Because at the end of the day, we find out they are working in our best interests, because we need to educate ourselves - not about the math, it’s not a math test. I consider it much more of a political fight. So it is a question about what is fair. And I don’t think anyone is like: sorry I’m not qualified to talk about what is fairness. Plenty of people say they are not qualified to talk about the math.  The real damage is being wrought by the marketing and arrogance that allows us to consider this the realm of technical knowledge rather than the realm of questions of fairness. When it is affecting people like it does, and I’ve demonstrated in the book how much it does, it can no longer be an expert realm. It’s just not okay.

Diaz Eaton: What is the bridge that gets the students that don’t have the technical knowledge but want to make contributions to this field?

O’Neil: There is no bridge, unless they want to get a job in building algorithms. This is ultimately a question of solidarity and activism. But it is really really tricky. Teacher unions can do something about the teacher value-added model. And the Chicago teacher union strike was an example of that. I suggested they could hire me as an expert witness that might testify in court. That is what it looks like to fight this. It doesn’t happen at the individual level, it happens at the union level or the organizing level. But how do you organize everyone that got rejected from a job unfairly? They don’t even know they got a rejection unfairly and they don’t know everyone else who got rejected unfairly either. How do you organize? How do you unionize? So you can’t. So you have to talk at the society level about how data is used against us. The good news is that politicians are starting to think about this. There was a Bloomberg article just last weekend, where he talked about my book and that we need to start thinking about how the law should be employed when algorithms are involved. There are laws that are being bypassed by algorithms right now. If regulators got on that and figured out how to enforce their own laws - they should hire me as a consultant, by the way (*laughs*). That would be great, and it would also pave the way to see what other kinds of things we can demand.

*At this point, I am pretty excited that she brought up collective action as a key part of the social justice and equity challenges mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, and data scientists are now embroiled in today - whether we have yet accepted that ethical responsibility or not. It was important to me that she validated this type of work.”

Diaz Eaton: This is great because the idea of collective action is part of another course I am teaching, because we are helping to co-organize this conference called “Bringing the Conversation of Inclusivity and Data Science to the Ecology and Environmental Science Community.” And I was just at the Data 4 Black Lives conference this past weekend (link prior post here).

O’Neil: Yes, I went to that last year.

Diaz Eaton: The side by side work of community organizers and people who had the power of data at their disposal was incredible. We are not getting as close to that as what that could look like. Do you think that is the model for moving forward?

O’Neil: Yes, absolutely. I am writing a new book. It’s about shame as a social mechanism. It is not a math book, but I talk about Weapons of Math Destruction. I talk about math shaming - the power that is wielded when people say it is math, you won’t understand it - and people give up their rights, because they are like “Oh it is math, I won’t understand it.” That’s shame. And it is a powerful and potent weapon. And the only way to disrupt that weapon is by organizing. I have this framework of punching up shame versus punching down shame. What we need more is punching up shame, which is essentially solidarity and activism. Putting a spotlight on bad uses of data and preventing punching down shame, whether it is in the form of Jim Crow Laws, in the form of food stamp work requirements, or if it is in the form of automatic cessation of welfare checks, because an algorithm decided you were a leech.  Those are all examples of punching down shame, and the only way you can punch up against them is through action by broad-based grassroots solidarity and activism.

Diaz Eaton: Hey did you see the AWM shirt? (I show off the shirt I am wearing that I bought the previous day at the AWM booth and read it to her) Change, Group Action, Unity, and Equality.

O’Neil: Love it.

Diaz Eaton: Isn’t it great - I bought two

*And then we selfied the occasion to immortalize it on Twitter forever.*