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Barocas on Ethics of Data Science in Practice

Info Sci’s Solon Barocas, along with Data & Society Founder/President Danah Boyd, team up to craft this thoughtful commentary on the current divide between data scientists and critics of artificial intelligence. Writing in Communications of the ACM, the pair begins by noting Mark Ackerman, who remarked during a similar discord in the tech/ethics space in the late 1990s, that designing and implementing AI tools is immensely complex because the world is complex.

Carrying out interviews with data scientists, Barocas and Boyd learned ethical deliberations are at the heart of scientists' everyday work and that flawed systems should not reflect nefarious, corrupt ends on the part of scientists but rather the challenge of building systems with multiple trade-offs and “genuine value conflicts”. 

 “Broad critiques of data science practices cannot account for the diversity of practices, concerns, or efforts among data scientists,” they write.

Barocas and Boyd conclude by extending a peace offering to both sides:

“The critical writing on data science has taken the paradoxical position of insisting that normative issues pervade all work with data while leaving unaddressed the issue of data scientists' ethical agency. Critics need to consider how data scientists learn to think about and handle these trade-offs, while practicing data scientists need to be more forthcoming about all of the small choices that shape their decisions and systems.”