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Book Review: 'Math On Trial' by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

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Math On Trial is a study of several criminal cases where flaws in mathematical and statistical calculations and their analysis led to incorrect verdicts of guilt or innocence. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book!

This may surprise some to note, but I was good with numbers in school, gaining an A* in both Statistics and Mathematics at GCSE level. That, however, is where my entanglements with numeric education ended. Bored with the subject, I gave it up; my major complaint being that it could not, did not, apply to the reality of a person's life.

This assumption may have been correct about filling a litany of workbooks with meaningless problems, but Math On Trial proves I was absolutely not right about the application of mathematics to real world problems.

Taking a series of riveting cases, including murders, rapes and sex discrimination, Schneps and Colmez both chart the history of the use of math in court, and clearly reveal common fallacies in its use. And it is un-put-down-able stuff.

Never have I been this enlivened by mathematics! I found myself tearing through the book, finishing within a few hours, and was particularly struck by several landmark cases that I had glimpsed in the news but not paid much attention to before.

An accusation of murder by Munchausens Syndrome by Proxy leveled against Sally Clark, whose first two infant children died seemingly of SIDS (cot death), is quite irrefutably repudiated by the authors, and the chapter, like all those in the book, is presented in a style that paints a clear picture of the context of the case, so as a reader I felt I had enough knowledge of the entire situation to be able to draw my own conclusions about the verdict.

The book, however, is not unbiased, and does not pretend to be so, highlighting instead bias in the original cases and statistics. The point of view of Math on Trial then, could be said to be biased towards unbias! With this in mind, one of the strengths of the book is how gripping and emotional it is, for a work of non-fiction. I was saddened by the impossibly heartbreaking situation of Sally Clark; I was horrified by the mistakes made in the case of the several rape/murder trials discussed in the book; throughout the reading, I was induced to continue because of my attachment to protagonists and horror at the injustice.

Undoubtedly the most famous case Math On Trial studies, and certainly the one that may well attract the most attention, is the death of Meredith Kercher, and the overturned verdict of guilty for Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox. Using simple probability calculations, the authors make a brilliant case for allowing specific DNA testing into evidence, which had previously rejected by a Judge in appeal court in 2011.

On an entirely separate note, I must mention the design of the book: a lovely hardback, with beautiful paper stock and a gorgeous cover designed to look like a retro thriller. 'Props' to the publishers at Basic Books for several extremely good choices!

Already garnering attention, I think this could be the start of an interesting career for Schneps and Colmez, and look forward to seeing more from them. I would recommend too for parents trying to support teenagers in their studies of mathematics - or in fact, law - as the book, although written at an adult level, puts complex concepts very simply and does not show anything brutal in pictures or go into more disturbing details than you might find on the news.

To sum up, Math On Trial is more than the sum of its parts: when you add it up it's a great little number. You can count on this one being a good one. In addition, it goes well with N mugs of tea and a slice of Pi...

...my apologies.

Seriously, a very worthwhile read. I mean, you do the math.

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