Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom [NOOK Book]

Overview


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...
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Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom

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Overview


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.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A mother-daughter team of mathematicians turn the potentially dry topic of statistics and probability theory into an entertaining tour of courtroom calculations gone wrong. Schneps and Colmez structure their investigation around high-profile trials in which a mathematical premise was misused, therefore resulting in a possible miscarriage of justice. The cases they describe are independently interesting, and the mathematical overlay makes them doubly so. Each of the 10 chapters begins with a description of the relevant misapplied mathematical premise, then dives into the details of the cases themselves. Defendants past and present people the pages, including Alfred Dreyfus, the scapegoat for an infamous late-19th-century French spy scandal; Hetty Green, “the witch of Wall Street;” Charles Ponzi, whose eponymous scheme was his and—nearly 90 years later—Bernie Madoff’s downfall; and Amanda Knox, the supposed culprit of an internationally notorious 2009 murder in Italy. The mathematics tackled are not trivial, but as the problems are unraveled and the correct analyses explained, readers will enjoy a satisfying sense of discovery. Schneps and Colmez write with lucidity and an infectious enthusiasm, making this an engaging and unique blend of true crime and mathematics. 32 b&w images. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

BBC Focus (UK)
“[Math on Trial] has all the marks of a good mystery: tense conflicts, diverse characters and shock conclusions….Numerical errors are not unique to the courtroom: similar issues crop up elsewhere in life, which makes this book’s message all the more important. Gripping and insightful, it successfully highlights the dangers of carelessly sprinkling mathematics over real-world problems.”

Washington Independent Review of Books
“Schneps and Colmez’s clever use of headline-grabbing case studies and digestible explanations of mathematical problems combine to argue for the careful use of numbers by advocates and lay juries alike. Their warnings remain relevant today as courtrooms face greater use of DNA evidence and other sophisticated forensic technologies.”

MAA Reviews
“The authors shine, and the dramatic presentation [of the court cases] will grip many readers…. [Math on Trial] stimulates both thought and interest….Engaging reading.”

Publishers Weekly
“An entertaining tour of courtroom calculations gone wrong…. The cases they describe are independently interesting, and the mathematical overlay makes them doubly so…. As the problems are unraveled and the correct analyses explained, readers will enjoy a satisfying sense of discovery. Schneps and Colmez write with lucidity and an infectious enthusiasm, making this an engaging and unique blend of true crime and mathematics.”

Kirkus Reviews
“Fill[ed] with wonderful accounts of frauds and forgeries involving the likes of Charles Ponzi, Hetty Green and Alfred Dreyfus….the authors’ analysis of the recent Amanda Knox case [is] particularly chilling…. [Math on Trial is] intrinsically fascinating in its depiction of the frailty of human judgments.”

Steven Strogatz, Professor of Mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of x
“Taut and gripping, Math on Trial just might establish a new genre, in which true crime story meets the best of popular science. Utterly absorbing from start to finish.”

Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan, authors of Chances Are…: Adventures in Probability and Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err Is Human
“The originator of sociology, Auguste Comte, said that applying probability to moral questions was the scandal of mathematics. Math On Trial charts the ambivalent—occasionally disastrous—role that math has played in several classic and some recent legal cases. It vividly shows how the desire for ‘scientific’ certainty can lead even well-meaning courts to commit grave injustice. There ought to be a copy in every jury room.”

Kirkus Reviews
Chronicles of miscarriages of justice due to the misuse of statistics, combined with blow-by-blow accounts of criminal trials. Schneps and Colmez are a mother-daughter pair sophisticated in the ways of probability. Schneps studied math at Harvard, and her daughter has a math First from Cambridge; both are members of an international team dedicated to improving the use of statistics in the courtroom. Many of their accounts will make readers weep with rage--e.g., a mother imprisoned for murder in the deaths of her two infant children, largely based on the false assumption that the deaths were independent events, so the likelihood that they happened by chance was vanishingly small; an interracial couple convicted of robbery based on multiplying a bunch of inaccurate probabilities of nonindependent descriptors (black man with beard: 1 out of 10; man with mustache: 1 out of 4, etc.) to conclude that only the defendants fit the bill. The testimony of "experts" in all these cases inevitably overwhelmed the jury and brought the guilty verdicts. Fortunately, the cases were overturned on appeal when true experts explained errors and/or presented new evidence. The authors move on to more subtle applications of probability theory and fill out the volume with wonderful accounts of frauds and forgeries involving the likes of Charles Ponzi, Hetty Green and Alfred Dreyfus. Interestingly, the authors cite Harvard's Laurence Tribe, whose decades-old essay decrying the use of math in the courtroom led to a decline. Now, because of DNA testing, probability has made a comeback. How it was applied--and eventually ignored--makes the authors' analysis of the recent Amanda Knox case particularly chilling. Required reading for aspiring lawyers, but also intrinsically fascinating in its depiction of the frailty of human judgments.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465037940
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 629,362
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author


Leila Schneps studied mathematics at Harvard University and now holds a research position at the University of Paris, France. She has taught mathematics for nearly 30 years. Schneps’s daughter, Coralie Colmez, graduated with a First from Cambridge University in 2009, and now lives in London where she teaches and writes about mathematics. They both belong to the Bayes in Law Research Consortium, an international team devoted to improving the use of probability and statistics in criminal trials.
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