An AMS panel to examine public math models?
On Saturday I gave a talk at the AGNES conference to a room full of algebraic geometers. After introducing myself and putting some context around my talk, I focused on a few models:
- Credit scoring,
- E-scores (online version of credit scores), and
- The h-score model (I threw this in for the math people and because it’s an egregious example of a gameable model).
I wanted to formalize the important and salient properties of a model, and I came up with this list:
- Name – note the name often gives off a whiff of political manipulation by itself
- Underlying model – regression? decision tree?
- Underlying assumptions – normal distribution of market returns?
- Input/output – dirty data?
- Purported/political goal – how is it actually used vs. how its advocates claim they’ll use it?
- Evaluation method – every model should come with one. Not every model does. A red flag.
- Gaming potential – how does being modeled cause people to act differently?
- Reach – how universal and impactful is the model and its gaming?
In the case of VAM, it doesn’t have an evaluation method. There’s been no way for teachers to know if the model that they get scored on every year is doing a good job, even as it’s become more and more important in tenure decisions (the Chicago strike was largely related to this issue, as I posted here).
Here was my plea to the mathematical audience: this is being done in the name of mathematics. The authority that math is given by our culture, which is enormous and possibly not deserved, is being manipulated by people with vested interests.
So when the objects of modeling, the people and the teachers who get these scores, ask how those scores were derived, they’re often told “it’s math and you wouldn’t understand it.”
That’s outrageous, and mathematicians shouldn’t stand for it. We have to get more involved, as a community, with how mathematics is wielded on the population.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t want mathematicians as a group to get co-opted by these special interest groups either and become shills for the industry. We don’t want to become economists, paid by this campaign or that to write papers in favor of their political goals.
To this end, someone in the audience suggested the AMS might want to publish a book of ethics for mathematicians akin to the ethical guidelines that are published for the society of pyschologists and lawyers. His idea is that it would be case-study based, which seems pretty standard. I want to give this some more thought.
We want to make ourselves available to understand high impact, public facing models to ensure they are sound mathematically, have reasonable and transparent evaluation methods, and are very high quality in terms of proven accuracy and understandability if they are used on people in high stakes situations like tenure.
One suggestion someone in the audience came up with is to have a mathematician “mechanical turk” service where people could send questions to a group of faceless mathematicians. Although I think it’s an intriguing idea, I’m not sure it would work here. The point is to investigate so-called math models that people would rather no mathematician laid their eyes on, whereas mechanical turks only answer questions someone else comes up with.
In other words, there’s a reason nobody has asked the opinion of the mathematical community on VAM. They are using the authority of mathematics without permission.
Instead, I think the math community should form something like a panel, maybe housed inside the American Mathematical Society (AMS), that trolls for models with the following characteristics:
- high impact – people care about these scores for whatever reason
- large reach – city-wide or national
- claiming to be mathematical – so the opinion of the mathematical community matters, or should,
After finding such a model, the panel should publish a thoughtful, third-party analysis of its underlying mathematical soundness. Even just one per year would have a meaningful effect if the models were chosen well.
As I said to someone in the audience (which was amazingly receptive and open to my message), it really wouldn’t take very long for a mathematician to understand these models well enough to have an opinion on them, especially if you compare it to how long it would take a policy maker to understand the math. Maybe a week, with the guidance of someone who is an expert in modeling.
So in other words, being a member of such a “public math models” panel could be seen as a community service job akin to being an editor for a journal: real work but not something that takes over your life.
Now’s the time to do this, considering the explosion of models on everything in sight, and I believe mathematicians are the right people to take it on, considering they know how to admit they’re wrong.
Tell me what you think.