Weapons of Mass Destruction Rhetorical Analysis



The big data algorithms control the economy, causing inequality to increase and the gap between the rich and poor to grow. Cathy O’Neil writes about the danger of big data computer programs that rule the economy in Weapons of Math Destruction. She informs the readers, the everyday civilians that have no knowledge of the algorithms that are utilized. The book is about the economy today making it non-fiction, it is a book that informs the reader about a problem with the economy that few know of. In the introduction alone, Cathy O’Neil uses rhetorical appeals, anecdotes, and personification to convey to the reader that big data algorithms are a danger to the economy and persuade the reader to continue reading the rest of the book. 

Throughout the introduction, O’Neil builds ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade the reader to continue reading about WMDs. In the beginning portion, O’Neil builds ethos by sharing her childhood experience regarding her love of math from a young age and her Ph.D. in mathematics. “My love for math eventually became a passion. … I majored in math in college and went on to get my PhD” (O’Neil). Additionally, the author talks about the discovery she made while working as a quantitative analyst for D. E. Shaw, “that mathematics, once my refuge, was not only deeply entangled in the world's problems but also fueling many of them”(O’Neil 1). These build O’Neil’s credibility in the math field as she has a Ph.D. in mathematics and has worked in a hedge fund putting the theories she’s acquired into practice. Furthermore, uses logos by giving facts about other well-known companies and compares those companies to the WMD. 

“At Big Data companies like Google, by contrast, researchers run constant tests and monitor thousands of variables. … They use this feedback to hone their algorithms and fine-tune their operation. … Attempting to calculate the impact that one person may have on another over the course of a school year is much more complex. … What's more, attempting to score a teacher's effectiveness by analyzing the test results of only twenty-five or thirty students is statistically unsound, even laughable. The numbers are far too small given all the things that could go wrong”. (O’Neil 5)

The difference between the two companies also influences pathos, as a search engine acquires more data and makes more improvement compared to WMDs. Moreover, the anecdotes O’Neil uses add to the pathos making it a major part of her tactic to persuade the reader to continue reading about the danger of WMDs. Finally, at the end of the introduction, O’Neil has the reader emotionally attached to the cause, feeling pity for those affected by WMDs and anger towards the ones responsible.  

Another rhetorical device O’Neil uses is anecdotes, stories about the people affected by WMDs, specifically the story of Sarah Wysocki, a fifth-grade teacher. The anecdotes convey to the reader the truth of the WMDs and how they affect people and increase the gap between the rich and poor. An anecdote O’Neil uses to demonstrate this is the story of a person who suffers misfortune and has their credit score fall, this contributes to them not get hired, which pushes them further into poverty thus lowering their credit score further (O’Neil 8). This anecdote illustrates the danger of WMDs and adds to pathos drawing the reader into continuing reading about the evil WMDs. Additionally, regarding the story about the teacher, even though the teacher was newer to school, she had already received plenty of praise. “One evaluation praised her attentiveness to the children; another called her "one of the best teachers I've ever come into contact with." ”(O’Neil 4). However the teacher ended up getting a poor score on her evaluation from an algorithm, this anecdote paints the picture of how a WMD can change the life of people without them understanding how. The teacher ended up getting fired without a proper explanation except that the algorithm is never wrong and the decision can never be altered. “the high number of erasures and the abnormally high test scores—there were grounds for suspicion that fourth-grade teachers, bowing either to fear or to greed, had corrected their students' exams.” (O’Neil 9). The teacher lost her job due to fellow teachers being untruthful and manipulative in the previous year or even years. O’Neil uses the teacher story throughout the majority of the introduction as it demonstrates a person being wrongfully punished as a result of others being deceitful yet not being able to change the verdict and must suffer the consequences. While this particular story had a pleasant note as the teacher got hired at a different school, not everyone is as lucky. Furthermore, this anecdote contributes to pathos and convincing the reader to learn more about the dangers of WMDs on the economy. 

Furthermore, O’Neil uses the rhetorical device personification to describe WMDs, painting an image in the reader's mind of the type of person WMDs are similar to. WMDs are kings, “They do not listen. Nor do they bend. They're deaf not only to charm, threats, and cajoling but also to logic—even when there is good reason to question the data that feeds their conclusions”(O’Neil 10). O’Neil personifies a WMD, by personifying a WMD she makes the WMD seem like a king. It doesn’t listen to anyone and doesn’t waver in their decision nor change even when change is necessary. “But for the most part, the programs deliver unflinching verdicts, and the human beings employing them can only shrug, as if to say, "Hey, what can you do?" ”(O’Neil 10). Additionally, it gave off the interpretation of humans being slaves to technology and machines, their word is law and it does not change. The everyday citizens that were directly affected by the verdicts of WMDs could do nothing but accept their fate, forced to listen to a faulty algorithm because “Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal”(O’Neil 3). Additionally, O’Neil depicts WMDs as gods as well, “Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists.”(O’Neil 3). The algorithms are made by faulty humans but regarded as the ones with the highest power followed by their makers, most citizens know nothing about the algorithms that evaluate them. In addition, this adds to pathos by appealing to the reader's emotion, specifically their love of freedom, as humans are controlled by WMDs they are losing their freedom in that regard. Also, O’Neil uses the personification of WMDs to assist in accomplishing her goal to persuade the reader to continue reading about the dangers of WMDs. 

All in all, Cathy O’Neil’s use of rhetorical devices such as rhetorical appeal to convince readers that she has enough knowledge to be speaking about this subject matter, also to persuade readers to care about the dangers of WMDs through facts and by appealing to their emotions. Giving the readers a glimpse of how citizens are affected by big data algorithms through the use of anecdotes. Both anecdotes and personification were used to continuously appeal to pathos, ultimately to get the reader emotionally attached to the problem and to pull their heartstrings thus persuading them to continue reading the book. Cathy O’Neil uses rhetorical appeal, anecdote, and personification to achieve her goal of swaying the reader to read a book about math regarding the dangers of big data algorithms and to care about the topic of the book.