Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom
In the wrong hands, math can be deadly. Even the simplest numbers can become powerful forces when manipulated by politicians or the media, but in the case of the law, your liberty – and your life – can depend on the right calculation.
In Math on Trial, mathematicians Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez describe ten trials spanning from the nineteenth century to today, in which mathematical arguments were used – and disastrously misused – as evidence. They tell the stories of Sally Clark, who was accused of murdering her children by a doctor with a faulty sense of calculation; of nineteenth-century tycoon Hetty Green, whose dispute over her aunt’s will became a signal case in the forensic use of mathematics; and of the case of Amanda Knox, in which a judge’s misunderstanding of probability led him to discount critical evidence – which might have kept her in jail. Offering a fresh angle on cases from the nineteenth-century Dreyfus affair to the murder trial of Dutch nurse Lucia de Berk, Schneps and Colmez show how the improper application of mathematical concepts can mean the difference between walking free and life in prison.
A colorful narrative of mathematical abuse, Math on Trial blends courtroom drama, history, and math to show that legal expertise isn’t always enough to prove a person innocent.
Featured On Episode #227
Math on Trial
This week, guest host Rachelle Saunders explores the ways that math can help (and hinder) the pursuit of justice. She speaks to mathematician and University of Paris Professor Leila Schneps, co-author of the book Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom. And she’s joined by Patrick Ball, to talk about his work as Executive Director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group.