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

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

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

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

Excerpt

Everywhere we turn we are assailed by numbers. Advertisements, news, price reductions, medical information, weather forecasts, investment, risk assessment: all this and more is communicated to us through probabilities and statistics. But the problem is that these figures are not always used to convey information. As often as not, they are used to give us spin: to influence, frighten, and mislead us with the cool authority of numbers and formulas.

Now, you might think this a trivial matter. You may be one of those people who skip past the numbers in the articles you read, who pay no attention to the declarations of sensational increase or decrease in whatever drama is playing out on the front page, whether it be global warming, shark infestations, or illiteracy. At worst, you think, people are mildly misinformed. But as we show in Math on Trial, the misuse of mathematics can be deadly. The same mathematical tricks that mislead the public about market trends and risk and social problems have sent innocent people to prison. Being wrong about the price of oil is one thing; being denied justice due to miscalculation is quite another.

Despite their ubiquity, however, most of these fallacies are easy to spot. The fact is that anyone can make a decent assessment of mathematical statements that appear in popular publications, on common products, and in everyday activities from investment to DNA analysis. Anyone can acquire the simple reflexes to cut through the fog of mathematical deception. All it takes is a little practice to recognize what’s going on. It turns out there isn’t much variation in these numerical sleights of hand, but public ignorance . . .

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