Math on Trial

How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom


By Leila Schneps

By Coralie Colmez

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$37.50 CAD



  1. Hardcover $29.99 $37.50 CAD
  2. ebook $17.99 $22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 12, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

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’t always enough to prove a person innocent.


  • Publishers Weekly
    “An entertaining tour of courtroom calculations gone wrong…. The cases they describe are independently interesting, and the mathematical overlay makes them doubly so…. As the problems are unraveled and the correct analyses explained, readers will enjoy a satisfying sense of discovery. Schneps and Colmez write with lucidity and an infectious enthusiasm, making this an engaging and unique blend of true crime and mathematics.”

    Kirkus Reviews
    “Fill[ed] with wonderful accounts of frauds and forgeries involving the likes of Charles Ponzi, Hetty Green and Alfred Dreyfus….the authors' analysis of the recent Amanda Knox case [is] particularly chilling…. [Math on Trial is] intrinsically fascinating in its depiction of the frailty of human judgments.”

    Steven Strogatz, Professor of Mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of x
    “Taut and gripping, Math on Trial just might establish a new genre, in which true crime story meets the best of popular science. Utterly absorbing from start to finish.”
  • BBC Focus (UK)
    “[Math on Trial] has all the marks of a good mystery: tense conflicts, diverse characters and shock conclusions….Numerical errors are not unique to the courtroom: similar issues crop up elsewhere in life, which makes this book's message all the more important. Gripping and insightful, it successfully highlights the dangers of carelessly sprinkling mathematics over real-world problems.”

    Washington Independent Review of Books
    “Schneps and Colmez's clever use of headline-grabbing case studies and digestible explanations of mathematical problems combine to argue for the careful use of numbers by advocates and lay juries alike. Their warnings remain relevant today as courtrooms face greater use of DNA evidence and other sophisticated forensic technologies.”

    MAA Reviews
    “The authors shine, and the dramatic presentation [of the court cases] will grip many readers…. [Math on Trial] stimulates both thought and interest….Engaging reading.”

On Sale
Mar 12, 2013
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Leila Schneps

About the Author

Leila Schneps studied mathematics at Harvard University and now holds a research position at the University of Paris, France. She has taught mathematics for more than thirty 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.

Learn more about this author