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Math on Trial

How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

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3:24pm, June 13, 2013

“Torture numbers and they will confess to anything,” author Gregg Easterbrook once wrote in a magazine piece on climate change. But his quip could have been thesubtitle for this new book on the abuse of numbers in the courts.

Its authors, mother-daughter mathematicians, belong to a research group devoted to improving the use of statistics in criminal trials. Each chapter focuses on cases exemplifying a particular class of statistical error. Poignant tales detail exonerations resulting from faulty math used in the original trials (errors usually corrected only after intervention by statisticians, some of whom stepped in independently).

In one example, the authors tell the stories of grieving mothers charged with child abuse after each lost several children to crib death. Gross miscalculations of the probability that this might occur repeatedly within a

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