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The Worst Math Ever Used In Court

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As math and our minds both become more sophisticated, we can use strategies like probability to fill gaps in the unknown. That’s particularly useful in a court of law, where we almost never have all the facts we need. But what happens when bad math makes an uncertain situation even worse? In this case, people go to prison. And all it took was the misapplication of the product rule.

By inventing a series of probabilities and pretending that they were independent, a Los Angeles prosecutor ruined the lives of Janet and Malcolm Collins. A complex situation involving bad witnesses, racism, and prosecutorial overreach was reduced to a simple multiplication problem that never, ever should’ve been a part of the trial.

If there’s an upside to this catastrophe, it’s that the California Supreme Court used an appeal to the Collins trial to eviscerate bad math in the courtroom and lay the foundation for more appropriate uses of math going forward. From its roots as a “veritable sorcerer” to processing what several newspapers called “Trial By Computer,” the Collins probability trial has extended over 50 years of influence on legal proceeding — and we’re just getting started.

*** SOURCES ***

People v. Malcolm Collins on Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2393563144534950884

Opinion on People v. Collins: https://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/people-v-collins-22583

People v. Collins, Harvard Wiki: https://wiki.harvard.edu/confluence/display/GNME/People+v.+Collins

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Hosted and Produced by Kevin Lieber
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Research and Writing by Matthew Tabor

Editing by John Swan
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