Three papers on algorithms

We are happy to announce that three articles on algorithmic systems linked to the project “Deciding about, by, and together with algorithmic decision-making systems” have just been published.

The first article has appeared in European Political Science and discusses whether and where algorithms could improve decision-making in democratic politics. The paper concludes that in decision areas that are merely about finding the appropriate means for given ends, they may indeed have a place. Policy instrument choice is likely candidate in this regard. It is, however, dangerous to think one could bring algorithmic systems to the heart of political decision-making to achieve better problem-solving. One of the main objections to this possibility is that politics simply is not about problem-solving.

The second paper, published in Current Issues in Criminal Justice discusses in what sense algorithmic risk assessments provide evidence to be used in decision-making, using the example of pretrial in the US. The paper show that there is quite some variation in how existing pretrial tools are designed and point to how there is even further discretion in creating and evaluating these applications. Also, even where pretrial risk assessment tools adhere to methodological standards – and some are exemplary in this respect -, these standards may not be helpful in judging what exactly constitutes “good” decision making. In a nutshell, what counts as a good performance of a risk assessment tool depends on scholarly conventions and these conventions can serve to make comparisons between statistical models, but they cannot directly be transferred to contexts with real-world stakes of decision-making.

Finally the third paper, published in the British Journal of Criminology, looks at three US states to study why they have rolled back the implementation of pretrial risk assessment tools. The development and implementation of these tools are commonly dealt with in policy subsystems with little public attention. However, once a politicization of these tools occurs, the paper argues, this is likely to thwart their implementation. This is not so much a question of technical properties or performance that may or may not characterize these risk assessment rools. Rather, they are likely to reach high-level politics through political actors publicly linking them to ideas and concerns about opacity, fairness and public safety. Strikingly, it seems to be possible to discredit these tools along the lines of a “penal populism”, i.e. through presenting them as an approach that is weak on crime and a threat to public safety. As a result, it is the politically safer option to stick with the status quo.

Pascal König