In The Shame Machine (Crown, Mar.), data scientist O’Neil examines how corporations and institutions exploit shame.

How has the weaponization of shame changed in the digital age?

Social media incentives us to dunk on each other. But even in an “old-fashioned” industry like weight loss, it’s changed. Growing up in the fatphobic 1970s and ’80s, the messages about fatphobia were much more direct, more in your face. Nowadays, we have this whole wellness industry where there is a huge amount of language and marketing around pretending we’re not talking about fat-shaming people, we’re talking about health. Everything has become a little bit coded, or very coded.

Can you give an example?

Noom [markets itself] as new agey and non-shaming, but it is in fact the same old fat-shaming. The studies that support it are exactly the same programs of all weight-loss studies, and they all have their little statistical holes. Anyone who doesn’t keep up with their logging of food doesn’t get put in the study, so only the people who stay with it get included, which is probably a very small percentage of all people. The people who stuck with the program are almost by definition the people who have lost weight, and even then, it’s only for a short amount of time.

As a mathematician, you’re trained to spot these kinds of statistical biases. How do you explain them to non-mathematicians?

I don’t even think of myself as a mathematician so much as a communicator at this point. For me, that is the thing: how do I get this mathematical notion to come across to people that desperately need to understand what’s happening? There’s a lot of pseudoscience in all these shaming tactics—if the shaming wasn’t enough, you’re convinced because you’re ashamed to say you don’t have a PhD in math. It’s sadly, in my opinion, a part of the education of scientists—it’s expected that we are going to cast this magical wand to intimidate people. It’s especially wrong at this moment because we are so desperate to get people to trust science. But why would people trust science if it’s been cast as a “shut-up-and-listen” type of magic spell?

Do you have recommendations for people stuck in a shame cycle?

This is not a self-help book. I personally did not get out of shame, although this book has helped me think through my patterns of shame. At this point, I am so aware and always on the prowl for people trying to shame me or other people, I can almost see it as a visible thing. Shame is powerful in a way that is pre-rational—we feel shame faster than our brains can think through it. This is why it’s so successful in getting us to buy stuff or stop asking for our rights, and also why it’s so powerful to have the ability to spot shame.