Math On Trial

Math On Trial

How Numbers Get Used And Abused In The Courtroom

Book - 2013
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Describes the issues that can result when mathematical arguments are improperly used and discusses ten trials where this was the case, including the Dreyfus Affair, the case of Diana Sylvester, and Charles Ponzi's original scheme.
Publisher: New York :, Basic Books,, [2013]
ISBN: 9780465032921
Characteristics: xi, 256 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Additional Contributors: Colmez, Coralie 1988-


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nftaussig May 29, 2013

Leila Schneps, a mathematician at the University of Paris who earned her doctorate at Harvard University, and her daughter Coralie Colmez, who earned a First in mathematics at Cambridge University, describe the misuse of mathematics in court cases. With the exception of the Charles Ponzi case, in which they explain why exponential growth made the failure of his scheme inevitable, they focus on the misuse or misunderstanding of probabilities in the courtroom. They show how the misuse of probability can lead to false certainty when, for instance, the probabilities are based on false estimates (the Joe Sneed case) or probabilities that are not independent are multiplied (the Sally Clark case). They also show that statistical data can mislead. In a chapter in which they argue that sex discrimination led to the denial of a tenure application for a female mathematician at the University of California at Berkeley, they also show that what appeared to be sex discrimination in admission to graduate school there was actually an example of Simpson's paradox. The mathematics in the book is explained intuitively. The authors shy away from explicit calculations that might scare off a lay audience. Had they included such calculations, I suspect they would have avoided an incorrect binomial probability calculation of the probability that three sixes will appear in sixes rolls of a die. While I understand the mathematical argument they made for retesting the DNA in the Amanda Knoz/Rafaelle Sollecito case, the mathematical argument would have been more convincing if they discussed what would happen if the coin were tossed 100 times rather than twice. It was also unclear to me why they came to the conclusion that both Knox and Sollecito were guilty even if a new DNA test showed Meredith Kercher's DNA was on the knife in his kitchen.

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