What is it about?

We produce numbers in all sorts of ways. Some of them are visible, such as a statistical figure (employment rate of a country) or a ranking (which is the N.1 university in the world) of the prediction of a model (we consume 1.7 planets every year). Some are hidden, e.g. the result of an algorithm for conceding credits. Some appear quite remote from the act of quantifying, such as a software for facial recognition. All these instances of quantification are different and yet they share some common pathologies. Which ones? How can these be tackled?

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Why is it important?

There is an incredible heterogeneity in the degree of awareness of the problem in the different families of quantifications. While in statistics a 'statistical war' is in full swing, and all problems are brought up in the open, in the field of mathematical modelling everything seems to be going well. While the problems with the use of metrics are debated by experts, society still has a huge appetite for them. Why ethics of algorithms is a present concern, commercial and corporate interests my game the debate in their favor.

Perspectives

This is an urgent problem, ranging from the proper use of statistics to surveillance capitalism, via the many instances in which fantastic, misleading or outright dangerous numbers are generated. Understanding the common ingredients of our addiction to numbers and how these are used is necessary to develop a strategy of resistance. Important signals come from the French movement of Statactivisme, from the epistemologists - especially from a current known as post normal science (PNS), and from the discipline of law,

Professor Andrea Saltelli
University Pompeo Fabra, Barcelona School of Management

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This page is a summary of: Ethics of quantification or quantification of ethics?, Futures, December 2019, Elsevier, DOI: 10.1016/j.futures.2019.102509.
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