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Simple Example of the Prosecutors Fallacy

Suppose a city has a population of 1,000,000 people. Suppose one of them commits a crime (stealing a cookie). Suppose eye-witness testimony provides police with information that leads to 10 suspects and eventually one of them is charged with the crime and brought to trial. The prosecutor makes the following argument: If this person is innocent, the probability that he matches the eye-witness description is very very small. It is therefore unlikely that this person is actually innocent. In other words, assuming the defendant was actually innocent, the chance of his matching the eye-witness description is just too small to believe he is not guilty. Therefore, he must be guilty. Using the language of conditional probability, the prosecutor is saying the following: Let M = the event the defendant matches the eye-witness description and let I = the event that the defendant is innocent. Now the prosecutor says, because ( ) is small, we should not believe his is actually innocent. With the numbers in this example, the prosecutor would argue, =
9 999,999

= .000009 , because, assuming there are 999,999 innocent

people, there are only 9 that are innocent and match the description. This is a very small probability. There is only a 0.0009% probability that, if the defendant were innocent, he would match the eye-witness description. Therefore, if the defendant were innocent, the chance of matching the description is too small to believe he is innocent. Therefore, he must be guilty. The fallacy is in a misunderstanding of conditional probability. A skilled prosecutor could easily persuade an uneducated jury with such an argument, arriving at a conviction based on rhetorical skills and a mathematical trick.

The jury must actually decide the following: What is the probability the defendant is innocent given that he matches the eye-witness description? Thats different from the question What is the probability the defendant matches the description given that he is innocent? A good lawyer could easily make the two sound the same. The jury must actually consider the conditional probability ( ). That is, what is the probability of innocence given that the defendant matches the description? In this case, =
9 10

= .90 = 90%. That is, assuming the defendant

matches the eye-witness evidence, there is still a 90% chance that he is innocent. That completely changes the argument. Reversing order in which we write the probability, our poor defendant has gone from looking almost certainly guilty to almost certainly innocent! The lesson is that we need to be careful with conditional probability and that being sloppy can have some really serious consequences. To see some real life examples where this has really happened read about the Sally Clark case in Britain (1998) , the OJ Simpson case (1995) and People vs. Collins (1968).