Cathy O'Neil

American mathematician

Catherine ("Cathy") Helen O'Neil (born in 1972) is an American mathematician, data scientist, and author. O'Neil was awarded in 1993 the Alice T. Schafer Prize from the Association for Women in Mathematics and in 2019 the MAA's Euler Book Prize for her book Weapons of Math Destruction.

Cathy O'Neil


  • ... Eventually, I became a tenure-track professor at Barnard, which had a combined math department with Columbia University.
    And then I made a big change. I quit my job and went to work as a quant for D. E. Shaw, a leading hedge fund. In leaving academia for finance, I carried mathematics from abstract theory into practice. The operations we performed on numbers translated into trillions of dollars sloshing from one account to another. At first I was excited and amazed by working in this new laboratory, the global economy. But in the autumn of 2008, after I'd been there for a bit more than a year, it came crashing down
    The crash made it all too clear that mathematics, once my refuge, was not only deeply entangled in the also fueling many of them. The housing crisis, the collapse of major financial institutions, the rise of unemployment—all had been aided and abetted by mathematicians wielding magic formulas.
  • … techno utopia is this idea that the machine-learning tools, the algorithms, the things that help Google, like, have cars that drive themselves, that these tools are somehow making things objective and fair when, in fact, we really have no idea what's happening to most algorithms under the hood.
  • For shame machines, there is nothing more profitable than a painful and intractable scourge shrouded in mystery. False promises sell, and since they don’t work, the market stays strong. Failure, in fact, is central to the dieting business model, fueling earnings for giants like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. They profit from a never-ending stream of shame-addled, self-loathing repeat customers. Weight Watchers’ former chief financial officer, Richard Samber, told The Guardian that 84 percent of the customers failed in their diets and cycled back to the company. “That’s where your business comes from,” he said.
  • The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.
    Shame is a potent mechanism to turn a systemic injustice against the targets of the injustice. Someone might say, “This is your fault” (for poor people or people with addictions), or “This is beyond you” (for algorithms), and that label of unworthiness often is sufficient to get the people targeted with that shame to stop asking questions.

Quotes about Cathy O'Neil

  • … In her new book, “The Shame Machine,” the writer and data scientist Cathy O’Neil, writing with Stephen Baker, examines how shame has been both commodified and weaponized by a society that is increasingly estranged from real life. Who stands to profit from our ubiquitous shame-driven culture wars? she wonders. And is there anything to be gained from them? …
    … O’Neil suggests that we enter treacherous waters when we start Hester Prynne-ing people online; it is a fantasy to believe that it does anything other than enrich Mark Zuckerberg.
  • ... She is an academic mathematician turned Wall Street quant turned data scientist who has been involved in Occupy Wall Street and recently started an algorithmic auditing company. She is one of the strongest voices speaking out for limiting the ways we allow algorithms to influence our lives and against the notion that an algorithm, because it is implemented by an unemotional machine, cannot perpetrate bias or injustice.