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(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)


Statistics, standardized testing, crime prediction, Google, Facebook, “Moneyballing,” insurance risk analysis, and mathematical models all have one thing in common; they can all fall into the catch all term of “big data.”

There are very few parts of modern life that are not impacted by big data; for better or for worse. The mathematical models that harness vast amounts of data are used for everything:  to determine who should receive a bank loan, which teachers should be fired, whether to hire a particular worker, where police should patrol, which colleges are the best to apply to, which students should offered a place in a college, how sports are played, and even the sentences that convicted criminals should receive.

Some of these mathematical models are transparent.  The model featured in the book and movie “Moneyball” (you can read my review of the movie here) would be an example of a transparent model. The data and the rules that lead to the model’s conclusions are open and available for everyone to see. However, more and more, the models are opaque and it is these models that Ms. O’Neil goes after with devastating logic and passion.

The fundamental issue with these opaque models, other than a lack of openness and therefore the impossibility to challenge their assumptions, is that they can suffer from a lack of feedback or create self-reinforcing feedback loops. Because the models are opaque, many people may not even realize that are in a mathematical model, or that the model is partially or wholly responsible for their circumstance.

As Ms. O’Neil states in her introduction: “Without feedback; however, a statistical engine can continue spinning out faulty and damaging analysis while never learning from its mistakes. Many of the W.M.D’s (Weapons of Math Destruction) I’ll be discussing in this book … behave like that. They define their own reality and use it to justify their results. This type of model is self-perpetuating, highly destructive, and very common.”

Ms. O’Neil does go to some great lengths to stress that a lot of these models have been built with the intention of being fairer. The idea being that removing flawed human beings from decisions that could be made by mathematical models would remove their biases and faulty logic from the progress. However, it is these same flawed humans that are creating the models and without proper feedback, monitoring, and proper understanding of statistics, the models themselves can cause far worse problems than the ones they are supposed to solve.

Written for the layperson, about a subject that would cause most peoples eyes to glaze over unless written by Ms. O’Neil, this is a great and important book and one that I feel will become only more important as mathematical models become even more entwined in our lives. This is also an important book for those is position to make use of mathematical models in their business as there can be significant pressure to accept the word of a program when we should be asking some pretty hard and detailed questions; not only to ensure that what we are getting is correct, but also to ensure that we are not contributing to the Weapons of Math Destruction problem.

Garbage in – Garbage out, has never been more apt.  

I have been reviewing books for a number of years now; however, movies have always been my passion and on occasion I have used movies in staff meetings for the accessibility of the message. I decided that it was time to share some of these.

 (Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)


Moneyball, based on the excellent book by Michael Lewis of the same name, follows the real life story of the Oakland A’s baseball team. In particular, Moneyball documents the Oakland A’s struggles of trying to be successful with a budget a mere fraction of their competitors. The realization of their manger, Billy Beane – played by Brad Pitt, that they either have to “adapt or die” is one that many businesses can relate to. The solution that Oakland A’s adopted was to look at the data about players, which informs hiring and firing, objectively rather than emotionally.

Looking at a problem from outside the box and understanding what a problem actually is, not what you have always thought it was, is a huge lesson for most managers. It is also one that is difficult to teach. However, the lesson of being prepared to do what others will not is one that many from the business world will be familiar with – or at least should be. Overcoming the objections, and down right obstructionist behavior, of those who have not bought into your ideas should also be familiar territory for most managers. The movie treats these issues with respect, and although there is an obvious “good guy / bad guy” dynamic, it is easy to overlook this and see the issues being discussed from both sides.

Since the publication of the book, the statistical approach to fields that have previously been lacking such analysis has become know by the colloquialism “Moneyball.” And although the initially baseball was dramatically changed by Billy Beane and the Moneyball approach, there are signs of it falling out of favor.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the book, or the movie, because of this change in the idea’s fortunes. Indeed it actually signals a misunderstanding of the limitations of the approach and of statistics in general. As is stated in the movie: “The first person through the wall always gets bloody.”

The movie does break some of its own rules for dramatic effect; however, these are minor sins given how excellent the movie is as a whole. Interestingly, the movie also has two of the best scenes I have ever seen about terminating an employee. New managers could do a lot worse than follow Brad Pitt’s advice on the matter that can be found in Chapter 8 at the 1:00:00 mark explaining the right and wrong ways to go about a termination. Chapter 10 at the 1:18:00 mark actually shows Jonah Hill”s character putting that advice to use and it is a highly accurate and realistic portrayal of how a termination should be done.

As a management tool, Moneyball is a great business story cloaked in a sports jacket. Both the good and the bad of analytics are on display here, as well as the difficulty of being a pioneer and trying to overcome entrenched ideas whose only validity is “that’s the way we have always done things.”

You may not like baseball, but this is a smart story, based on a smart book, about smart people. It also has the added advantage of being highly entertaining.

You could do a lot worse.

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