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Bogus Algorithms in Health and Schools

July 7, 2014

As is almost always the case, the Mathbabe, Cathy O’Neill, has written a blog post full of thought provoking questions on the use of data. The big question O’Neill poses in today’s post is this: “What Constitutes Evidence?” She poses this question in the context of the collection of health data that will presumably be used to rank and evaluate doctors and patients in ways that have not been clearly defined but seem to be universally accepted. She asks readers if she is paranoid in her fear that this data, once collected, will be misused? Virtually all her readers assure her that she is NOT irrational in her fears or her concerns. I share her concern… but also fear that this will be yet another instance of us using quantification in lieu of judgment… and when that occurs, bad things often follow. I left the following comment to her post, providing an example from education where statistical algorithms have replaced human judgment… namely… VAM:

What evidence is there that ANY statistical models used to draw conclusions from aggregated data are valid and reliable? We want to believe that there is a way to quantify things to replace human judgment. Human judgment based on data can be flawed and colored by misjudgment… but, in a well conceived bureaucracy it can be subjected to further review by others. We seem to think that “dispassionate quantification” that substitutes precision for accuracy requires no review.

An example of this bogus quantification is best found in education where statistically flawed algorithms are used as the basis for judging performance with no recourse available. You’ve written frequently and eloquently about the VAM hoax… what makes you think the medical field is going to develop a more sophisticated means of “scoring” doctors or patients?

Here’s what I observe happening: we have no faith in fairness or due process and less faith in “the government” or “the system” and WAY too much faith in quantification… Readers of this blog know that I have questions and concerns about the officials we’ve elected to lead us and some of the decisions these officials made… but I prefer an imperfect elected human being to an unelected computer program developed by a mid-level contract employee who’s company submitted the lowest bid for a project.

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