Wild About Math! Making Math fun and accessible


Leila Schneps & Coralie Colmez – Inspired by Math #26

"Math on Trial" is an engaging yet very serious book about how mathematical fallacies can lead to abuse in the courtroom. I had the pleasure of interviewing the mother-daughter team who co-authored the book. They're a very enthusiastic pair who are committed to shining a spotlight on these mathematical errors that wrongly send people to prison.

I hope you enjoy listening to this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.

About Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

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.

About "Math on Trial"

From the publisher's web-site:
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.

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  1. On the one-head-in-ten trials, I get 10 x 1/2^10, or 0.98% chance the coin is fair, not 8% as you do. Where did I go wrong?

    For two heads, I get (10C2) x 1/2^10, or 4.4%, whereas you get 16%. Can you clarify?

    Peter Martin

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