Math on Trial

Math on Trial

How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom

eBook - 2013
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In the wrong hands, math can be deadly. Even the simplest numbers can become powerful forces when manipulated by journalists, politicians or other public figures, but in the case of the law your liberty--and your life--can depend on the right calculation.

Math on Trial tells the story of ten trials in which mathematical arguments were used--and disastrously misused--as evidence. Despite years of math classes, most people (and most jurors) fail to detect even simple mathematical sophistry, resulting in such horrors as a medical expert's faulty calculation of probabilities providing the key evidence for a British mother's conviction for the murder of her two babies. The conviction was later overturned, but three years in prison took its toll--Sally Clark died of acute alcohol intoxication in March of 2007. Mathematicians Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez use a wide range of examples, from a mid-19th-century dispute over wills that became a signal case in the forensic use of mathematics, to the conviction and subsequent exoneration of Amanda Knox, to show how the improper application of mathematical concepts can mean the difference between walking free and life in prison.

The cases discussed include:
-The Case of Amanda Knox (How a judge's denial of a second DNA test may have destroyed a chance to reveal the truth about Meredith Kercher's murder)
-The Case of Joe Sneed (How a fabricated probability framed a son for his parents' grisly killing)
-The Case of Sally Clark (How multiplying non-independent probabilities landed an innocent mother in jail for the murder of her children)
-The Case of Janet Collins (How unjustified estimates combined with a miscalculated probability convicted an innocent couple of violent robbery)

A colorful narrative of mathematical abuse featuring such characters as Charles Ponzi, Alfred Dreyfus, Hetty Green, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Math on Trial shows that legal expertise isn't everything when it comes to proving a man innocent.
Publisher: New York : Basic Books, 2013
ISBN: 9780465037940
Branch Call Number: EBOOK 345 Sch589 2013
Characteristics: 1 online resource (273 pages)
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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