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Bayes' Theorem and Trayvon Martin: How a Little Math Reveals the Mistake Made by the Zimmerman Jury

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Using careful scientific analysis, the author assesses George Zimmerman guilt for manslaughter. It is impossible to find him guilty of murder. By overreaching with murder, the prosecution forfeited a convincing case that would have exposed the defense's "magic trick" – taking doubt to an improbable extreme. If we are to achieve justice in such complex cases, the author arg Using careful scientific analysis, the author assesses George Zimmerman guilt for manslaughter. It is impossible to find him guilty of murder. By overreaching with murder, the prosecution forfeited a convincing case that would have exposed the defense's "magic trick" – taking doubt to an improbable extreme. If we are to achieve justice in such complex cases, the author argues, we need to abandon the "moral outrage" approach which attempts to create the dangerous fiction of "moral certainty." In science – in other words, real life – there are only probabilities and these need to be coolly and objectively measured. We also need rational criteria for "reasonable doubt." The law will continue to fail us as long as it clings to quasi-religious principles of truth and personal conviction. DNA evidence has upset this old order, and it is time for science to play a bigger role in courtroom debate. The jury was effectively faced with the proposition, "What is the probability that Trayvon Martin apparently intended to inflict great bodily harm on George Zimmerman?" If that probability is too low for reasonable doubt, then Mr Zimmerman is guilty of manslaughter. In measuring that probability, we cannot use Mr Zimmerman's own (and highly flawed) testimony – whether or not guilty, we know he would have a story of self-defense. We must look to crime statistics, which are analyzed in the book. But then we also need to weigh in the fact that, "George Zimmerman decided to fatally shoot Trayvon Martin." How does this affect the probability that Trayvon Martin intended great bodily harm? This is where we need that great masterpiece of scientific thought, Bayes' Theorem. You don't have to be math-minded to see how this tragic case is clarified by Bayes' Theorem. The author describes in detail the type of problem we are faced with – a very rare event is known to have happened; by how much does that increase the likelihood that an even rarer event happened? In this case, an unarmed teenager was shot dead by a complete stranger in a public place. How does that affect the probability that this unarmed teenager had just told the stranger, "You are going to die tonight"? We simply cannot approach a solution to this problem rationally without using Bayes' Theorem. In science, we have learned that hard lesson from many years' of faulty drug trials. In our complacent legal system, on the other hand, we never know how many guilty people we let go free, and how many innocents we lock up. A key to progress is to recognize that our concept of "beyond reasonable doubt" requires better definition in a modern world of probability measurement. The concept was invented literally to protect Medieval Christian jurors from the flames of Hell and, after the better part of a millennium, has failed any further scientific definition. Jurors therefore swing violently between probable guilt, moral guilt, certain guilt and all measures in between, encouraging prosecutions to focus on emotional outrage and defenses to split infinite degrees of doubt. During the last five-hundred years, while science has increased life expectancy from 45 to 85, and reduced disease and famine by 90%, the legal establishment has taken pride in its unchanging concepts of evidence and proof. This may be because too few lawyers complete an education in science. In any event, it is time for scientists to press lawyers to embrace the world of probability measurement. And we can begin that work through the appropriate education of jurors. Put another way, while scientists give us iPhones and miracle cancer cures, famous lawyers carry large blocks of concrete into courtrooms in order to show us that they are hard and could hurt us.


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Using careful scientific analysis, the author assesses George Zimmerman guilt for manslaughter. It is impossible to find him guilty of murder. By overreaching with murder, the prosecution forfeited a convincing case that would have exposed the defense's "magic trick" – taking doubt to an improbable extreme. If we are to achieve justice in such complex cases, the author arg Using careful scientific analysis, the author assesses George Zimmerman guilt for manslaughter. It is impossible to find him guilty of murder. By overreaching with murder, the prosecution forfeited a convincing case that would have exposed the defense's "magic trick" – taking doubt to an improbable extreme. If we are to achieve justice in such complex cases, the author argues, we need to abandon the "moral outrage" approach which attempts to create the dangerous fiction of "moral certainty." In science – in other words, real life – there are only probabilities and these need to be coolly and objectively measured. We also need rational criteria for "reasonable doubt." The law will continue to fail us as long as it clings to quasi-religious principles of truth and personal conviction. DNA evidence has upset this old order, and it is time for science to play a bigger role in courtroom debate. The jury was effectively faced with the proposition, "What is the probability that Trayvon Martin apparently intended to inflict great bodily harm on George Zimmerman?" If that probability is too low for reasonable doubt, then Mr Zimmerman is guilty of manslaughter. In measuring that probability, we cannot use Mr Zimmerman's own (and highly flawed) testimony – whether or not guilty, we know he would have a story of self-defense. We must look to crime statistics, which are analyzed in the book. But then we also need to weigh in the fact that, "George Zimmerman decided to fatally shoot Trayvon Martin." How does this affect the probability that Trayvon Martin intended great bodily harm? This is where we need that great masterpiece of scientific thought, Bayes' Theorem. You don't have to be math-minded to see how this tragic case is clarified by Bayes' Theorem. The author describes in detail the type of problem we are faced with – a very rare event is known to have happened; by how much does that increase the likelihood that an even rarer event happened? In this case, an unarmed teenager was shot dead by a complete stranger in a public place. How does that affect the probability that this unarmed teenager had just told the stranger, "You are going to die tonight"? We simply cannot approach a solution to this problem rationally without using Bayes' Theorem. In science, we have learned that hard lesson from many years' of faulty drug trials. In our complacent legal system, on the other hand, we never know how many guilty people we let go free, and how many innocents we lock up. A key to progress is to recognize that our concept of "beyond reasonable doubt" requires better definition in a modern world of probability measurement. The concept was invented literally to protect Medieval Christian jurors from the flames of Hell and, after the better part of a millennium, has failed any further scientific definition. Jurors therefore swing violently between probable guilt, moral guilt, certain guilt and all measures in between, encouraging prosecutions to focus on emotional outrage and defenses to split infinite degrees of doubt. During the last five-hundred years, while science has increased life expectancy from 45 to 85, and reduced disease and famine by 90%, the legal establishment has taken pride in its unchanging concepts of evidence and proof. This may be because too few lawyers complete an education in science. In any event, it is time for scientists to press lawyers to embrace the world of probability measurement. And we can begin that work through the appropriate education of jurors. Put another way, while scientists give us iPhones and miracle cancer cures, famous lawyers carry large blocks of concrete into courtrooms in order to show us that they are hard and could hurt us.

3 review for Bayes' Theorem and Trayvon Martin: How a Little Math Reveals the Mistake Made by the Zimmerman Jury

  1. 5 out of 5

    Chuck Alexander

  2. 4 out of 5

    Hatchet Mouth

  3. 5 out of 5

    Emilia Matovic

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