Lies, damned lies, and legal truths

Lies, damned lies, and legal truthsPortrait of George Canning

If there’s one thing which makes a statistician sick, it’s having people always quote “Lies, damned lies and statistics” at them, and looking expectantly (or sheepishly, or arrogantly) at you as they await wise or witty repartee. Sometimes they refer to Mark Twain, sometimes to Disraeli. Well, Disraeli is apocryphal; Twain was actually misquoting the famous British Prime Minister George Canning who about 1820 said “you can prove everything with statistics except the truth”. (Canning was probably the best PM Britain ever had, but his term was one of the Book Covershortest, since he died “young” from a cold caught while at a funeral in the rain). I have been looking for a long time for a counter “bon mot”. And I think I have found it.


In the Lucia de Berk case, a Dutch judge said at the appeal (and she was not corrected by the supremum court, even though this strange fact was pointed out to its learned members) “it has been scientifically indisputably proven that …". What this judge actually means is that, of half a dozen so-called scientific experts (one just needs “prof.dr” in front of your name and some professional activity which is vaguely related to the scientific field under issue; your “scientific” advice could have been based on a quick Google search the evening before) one could be found who said that it was their scientific opinion that … It is quite irrelevant that five possibly better qualified experts thought that it was not scientifically proven at all.

My legal friends say that this is perfectly correct because, of course, notions of legal truth and legal facts are not the same as scientific truth and scientific facts. And, sorry, clearly not the same as man-in-the-street’s truth and fact. I guess this is why it takes so long to study to be a judge or a lawyer, and why lawyers have such big salaries and judges have a job for life.

The judge’s written summing-up, perhaps the longest in Dutch legal history, available on internet but fortunately for Netherland’s international reputation only in Dutch, is stuffed full of similar stupidities, but one can only know that they are stupidities, if one has access to the documents submitted by all the experts and “experts” at the trial, and they are obviously not public. One thing which highly amuses me is that a law professor with a hobby in PC’s (he gives Excel and Word courses to fellow lawyers) was an official expert in statistics and was able to confirm the validity of another “expert’s” statistical computations, a guy who quit statistics two years into his PhD programme, thirty years ago, and is now also a law professor. Of course these guys are very decent fellows who are able to explain their findings to other legal minds very well indeed.

Be that as it may, from now on I want to promote the quotation “lies, damned lies, and legal facts”. It would evidently be a legal fact that this was said by a well known British prime minister, if I (a professor in statistics) say so in a Dutch court. However, I have been heard to say to my friends that I am really worried that this country is in danger of becoming a banana-republic (nonsense – we don’t have widespread corruption yet, do we? Anyway, it’s a monarchy!). This means that I am a Danger to the State and will probably never be allowed to give expert evidence in a Dutch court.

 Book Covercan tell you that it is now a scientific fact that “lies, damned lies, and legal truths” is a quotation by a well-known Anglo-Dutch scientist which correctly expresses the current state of the use of scientific evidence in Dutch law courts.

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