The Shame Machine: Author Cathy O’Neil Interviewed by Danielle Spencer

by Danielle Spencer

The Shame Machine

Cathy O’Neil’s The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation (Crown) was released on March 22, 2022. O’Neil is the author of the bestselling Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown 2016) which won the Euler Book Prize and was longlisted for the National Book Award. She received her PhD in mathematics from Harvard and has worked in finance, tech, and academia. She launched the Lede Program for data journalism at Columbia University and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. O’Neil is a regular contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

Danielle Spencer: Can you speak a bit about your background and what led you to write this book?

Cathy O’Neil: I’m a mathematician and a child of two mathematicians. Very nerd-centered childhood, where science was the religion of the household. They were otherwise atheists. I became a data scientist at some point, also a hedge fund analyst.

Weapons of Math DestructionAnd then I started trying to warn people about the dangers of algorithms when we trust them blindly. I wrote a book called Weapons of Math Destruction, and in doing so I interviewed a series of teachers and principals who were being tested by this new-fangled algorithm called the value-added model for teachers. And it was high stakes. They were being denied tenure or even fired based on low scores, but nobody could explain their scores. Or shall I say, when I asked them, “Did you ask for an explanation of the score you got?” They often said, “Well, I asked, but they told me it was math and I wouldn’t understand it.”

That was the first moment I thought, “Oh my God, shame is so powerful.” That was math shame, evidently, because it wouldn’t have worked on me. [laughs] I’m a mathematician. You’re not going to shame me on math. If you tell me I wouldn’t understand something because it’s math, I’d say, “Dude, buster, if you can’t explain it to me, that’s your problem—not mine.” I would just be bulletproof to math-shaming. Read more »

Who’s ashamed of the work they do?

by Emrys Westacott

An old joke that is regularly rehashed goes something like this. A schoolteacher is asking a class of ten-year-olds what their parents do for a living. The children describe the work their mothers and fathers do as mail carriers, firefighters, librarians, electricians, cabinet makers, and so on, until it is little Sammy’s turn.

“So what does your dad do, Sammy?” asks the teacher.

“Er….he works as a male stripper at a BDSM sex joint.”

Teacher, flustered: “Oh! Really Sammy? He doesn’t strike me as the type….Is that really true?”

Sammy: “No, not really. The truth is he works for [Donald Trump] but I was too ashamed to say.”

Obviously, “Donald Trump” here is a placeholder for any political figure who one wishes to insult. But the joke raises an interesting question. What kind of work , if any, is shameful? And it also suggests a way of posing the question: viz. what kind of work might a child be ashamed to admit that their parents performed?  This is an interesting dinner table conversation topic.

Whether or not a certain line of work is shameful or honorable is, of course, culturally relative, varying greatly between places and over time. Farmers, soldiers, actors, dentists, prostitutes, pirates and priests have all been respected or despised in some society or other. Moneylending at interest was once a despised practice, held by Christian authorities to be sinful; but eventually the modern banker became an icon of boring respectability. Read more »

Post-truth, post-shame politics

by Emrys Westacott

How does one criticize and resist politicians who have zero concern for truth? 20160910_FBC512This is one of the problems posed by the Trump presidency . Trump, throughout his campaign, and now in office, lies as easily as he breathes. To take just one example, in a meeting with the National Sherriff's Association on Feb. 7th, he said that the murder rate in the US is the highest it's been in 47 years. In fact it is currently lower than in most of those years. Lists of Trump's blatant lies can be readily found on many web sites.

Obviously, Trump is not the first politician to tell whoppers. Politicians who are in the pockets of the banks, the oil companies, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, weapons manufacturers, and so on have long suppressed, denied, or bent the truth for reasons of self-interest. But the brazenness of the lying is unusual. In normal, rational, civilized discourse, there are background conventions understood by all parties. According to philosophers like Paul Grice and Jürgen Habermas, these provide a framework that makes most ordinary communication possible. One of these conventions is that what we say is supposed to be true. Another is that we are supposed to be sincere. There are contexts where these conventions may not hold in the usual way–e.g. when we are haggling at a yard sale–but most of the time they are in place. Imagine how it would be if they weren't? If you were to ask someone for directions or for the time, you couldn't assume they'd try to tell you the truth. So in such a world you would never bother asking. Without assumptions of this sort in place, the most banal conversations would become pointless since we'd have no reason to think that anything being said was tethered to reality.

The gold standard regarding rational discourse is science, which prides itself on its disinterested search for objective truth. But the same conventions operate in many other spheres. Historians, journalists, judges, and sports commentators, all feel the same obligation to respect hard evidence and eschew contradictions.

Read more »