09/29/2016 10:56 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2017

Cathy O'Neil Answers Questions About Mathematics

These questions originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answers by Cathy O'Neil, mathematician and author of Weapons of Math Destruction, on Quora.

Q: How do algorithms and mathematical models threaten democracy?

A: In two ways. First of all, algorithms serve to pick winners and losers, and the losers are consistently poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities. That leads to increased inequality, which is itself a threat to democracy, because it's really difficult to be a civically engaged person when you don't have a good job.

Second, political micro-targeting is bad for democracy in general. It allows campaigns to target people unevenly and to distribute information very unevenly, in the sense that they profile all the voters and then decide to show each voter only what they want that person to see.

What's efficient for campaigns is inefficient for democracy. We'd benefit much more from transparency than cherry-picked messages from political campaigns designed to manipulate us.

Q: Are you frustrated by misleading headlines in the media?

A: Yup. Math is not racist. My most major complaint is that racist and corrupt practices are being shielded behind mathematics. People trust and are intimidated by mathematics, so it's an effective shield, but of course math is innocent.

Q: What is the history of Big Data technology?

A: I don't know the answer to that because I'm not a historian, but when I was researching my book I came across two topics that I found highly relevant to Big Data. You can go look them up yourself: 1. phrenology and 2. Fordism.

Also, there's the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) fad from the 1970s. This is all pseudoscience stuff posing as something scientifically objective, but was used to control powerless people.

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