The Four-Fifths Rule is Not Disparate Impact: A Woeful Tale of Epistemic Trespassing in Algorithmic Fairness

Parity Technologies, Inc., Technical Report P22-1, v0.3.0

12 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2022 Last revised: 4 Mar 2022

See all articles by Elizabeth Anne Watkins

Elizabeth Anne Watkins

Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy; Data & Society Research Institute

Michael McKenna

Senior Data Scientist

Jiahao Chen

Parity; MIT CSAIL

Date Written: March 3, 2022

Abstract

Computer scientists are trained to create abstractions that simplify and generalize. However, a premature abstraction that omits crucial contextual details creates the risk of epistemic trespassing, by falsely asserting its relevance into other contexts. We study how the field of responsible AI has created an imperfect synecdoche by abstracting the four-fifths rule (a.k.a. the 4/5 rule or 80% rule), a single part of disparate impact discrimination law, into the disparate impact metric. This metric incorrectly introduces a new deontic nuance and new potentials for ethical harms that were absent in the original 4/5 rule. We also survey how the field has amplified the potential for harm in codifying the 4/5 rule into popular AI fairness software toolkits. The harmful erasure of legal nuances is a wake-up call for computer scientists to self-critically re-evaluate the abstractions they create and use, particularly in the interdisciplinary field of AI ethics.

Keywords: disparate impact, AI ethics, discrimination law, metrics, fairness, bias, optimization, employment, civil rights

JEL Classification: C88, K2 ,K4

Suggested Citation

Watkins, Elizabeth and Watkins, Elizabeth and McKenna, Michael and Chen, Jiahao, The Four-Fifths Rule is Not Disparate Impact: A Woeful Tale of Epistemic Trespassing in Algorithmic Fairness (March 3, 2022). Parity Technologies, Inc., Technical Report P22-1, v0.3.0, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4037022

Elizabeth Watkins

Data & Society Research Institute ( email )

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Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy ( email )

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HOME PAGE: http://https://citp.princeton.edu/citp-people/watkins/

Michael McKenna

Senior Data Scientist ( email )

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Jiahao Chen (Contact Author)

Parity ( email )

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6179538640 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://getparity.ai

MIT CSAIL ( email )

Stata Center
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United States
6179538640 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://csail.mit.edu

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