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Friday, 19 January 2018

Criminally Incompetent Academic Misinterpretation of Criminal Data - and how the Media Pushed the Fake News


On 17 Jan 2018 multiple news sources (e.g. see here, here, and here) ran a story about a new research paper ‎ that claims to expose both the inaccuracies and racial bias in one of the most common algorithms used for parole and sentencing decisions to predict recidivism (i.e. whether or not a defendant will re-offend).

The research paper was written by the world famous computer scientist Hany Farid (along with a student Julia Dressel).

But the real story here is that the paper’s accusation of racial bias (specifically that the algorithm is biased against black people) is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of causation and statistics. The algorithm is no more ‘biased’ against black people than it is biased against white single parents, ‎ old people, people living in Beattyville Kentucky, or women called ‘Amber’. In fact, as we show in this brief article, if you choose any factor that correlates with poverty you will inevitably replicate the statistical ‘bias’ claimed in the paper. And if you accept the validity of the claims in the paper then you must also accept, for example, that a charity which uses poverty as a factor to identify and help homeless people is being racist because it is biased against white people (and also, interestingly, Indian Americans).

The fact that the article was published and that none of the media running the story realise that they are pushing fake news is what is most important here. Depressingly, many similar research studies involving the same kind of misinterpretation of statistics result in popular media articles that push a false narrative of one kind or another.

Our article (5 pages): Fenton, N.E., & Neil, M. (2018). "Criminally Incompetent Academic Misinterpretation of Criminal Data - and how the Media Pushed the Fake News" http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.32052.55680  Also available here.

The research paper: Dressel, J. & Farid, H. The accuracy, fairness, and limits of predicting recidivism. Sci. Adv. 4, eaao5580 (2018). 

Thanks to Scott McLachlan for the tip off on this story.

See some previous articles on poor use of statistics:

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