The Interrogator’s Fallacy
by Ian Stewart
Scientific American, September 1996
Mathematics is invading the courtroom. Juries are routinely
instructed to convict the accused of a crime provided they are sure “beyond a reasonable
doubt” of guilt. This instruction is qualitative—it depends on
what a juror considers to be reasonable. A future civilization might attempt
to quantify guilt by replacing the jury with a court computer that weighs
the evidence and calculates a probability of guilt. But today we do not have
court computers, so juries are forced to grapple with probability theory.
One reason is the increasing use of DNA evidence. The science of DNA profiling
is relatively new, so the interpretation of DNA evidence relies on assessing
probabilities. Similar problems could have arisen when conventional fingerprinting
was first introduced, but lawyers were presumably less sophisticated in those
days; at any rate, fingerprint evidence is no longer contested on probabilistic
Robert A. J. Matthews, has pointed out that a far more traditional source
of evidence in court cases ought to be analyzed using probability theory—namely,
confessions. To Tomás de Torquemada, the first Spanish grand inquisitor,
a confession was complete proof of guilt—even if the confession was
extracted under duress, as it generally was. One of Matthews’s most
surprising conclusions, which he calls the “interrogator’s fallacy,” is
that there are circumstances under which a confession adds weight to the
view that the accused is innocent rather than guilty.
Matthews’s ideas offer a reason for distrusting confessions in trials
of terrorists—who are fortified against interrogation—unless
corroborated by other evidence. Modern legal practice is quite skeptical
about confessions known to have been obtained under duress. In the U.K. a
series of high-profile terrorism convictions, hinging on confessional evidence,
have been overturned because of doubts that the confessions were genuine.
The main mathematical idea required to explain Matthews’s conclusion
is that of conditional probability. Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Smith tell you they
have two children, one of whom is a girl. What is the probability that the
other is a girl?
The reflex response is that the other child is either a boy or a girl,
with a probability of 1/2 for either. There are, however, four possible
gender distributions: BB, BG, GB and GG, where B and G denote “boy” and “girl,” respectively,
and the letters are arranged in order of birth. Each combination is equally
likely and so has a probability of 1/4. In exactly three cases, BG, GB and
GG, the family includes a girl; in just one of this group, GG, the other
child is also a girl. So the probability of two girls, given that there is
at least one girl, is actually 1/3.
Suppose that instead the Smiths tell you that their eldest child is a girl.
What is the probability that the youngest is a girl, too? This time the possible
gender distributions are GB and GG, and the youngest is a girl only for GG.
So the probability becomes 1/2.
Probabilities of this type are said to be conditional, the probability
of some event occurring given that some other event has definitely occurred.
As the Smiths’ children show, the use of conditional probabilities
involves specifying a context—which can have a strong effect on the
To see how subtle such issues are, suppose that one day you see the Smiths
in their garden. One child is clearly a girl; the other is partially hidden
by the family dog, so its gender is uncertain. What is the probability that
the Smiths have two girls?
You could argue that the question is just like the first scenario above,
giving a probability of 1/3. Or you could argue that the information presented
to you is “the child not playing with the dog is a girl.” Like
the second scenario, this statement distinguishes one child from the other,
so the answer is 1/2. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who know that the child playing
with the dog is William, would say that the probability of two girls is 0.
So who is right?
The answer depends on a choice of context. Have you sampled randomly from
situations in which there are many different families in which either child
plays with the dog? Or from families in which only one child ever plays with
the dog? Or are you looking only at a specific family, in which case probabilities
are the wrong model altogether?
The interpretation of statistical data requires an understanding of the
mathematics of probability and the context in which it is being applied.
Throughout the ages lawyers have shamelessly abused jurors’ lack of
mathematical sophistication. One example in DNA profiling—now well
understood by the courts—is the “prosecutor’s fallacy.” DNA
profiling was invented in 1985 by Alec J. Jeffreys of the University of Leicester
and draws on a so-called variable number of tandem repeat (VNTR) regions
in the human genome. In each such region a particular DNA sequence is repeated
many times. VNTR sequences are widely believed to identify individuals uniquely.
For use in courts, scientists use standard techniques from molecular biology
to look for matches between several different VNTR regions in two samples
of DNA—one related to the crime, the other taken from the suspect.
Sufficiently many matches should provide overwhelming statistical evidence
that both samples came from the same person.
The prosecutor’s fallacy refers to a confusion of two different probabilities.
The “match probability” answers the question “What is the
probability that an individual’s DNA will match the crime sample, given
that he or she is innocent?” But the question that should concern the
court is “What is the probability that the suspect is innocent, given
a DNA match?” The two queries can have wildly different answers.
The source of the difference is, again, context. In the first case, the individual
is conceptually being placed in a large population chosen for scientific
convenience. In the second case, he or she is being placed in a less well
defined but more relevant population—those people who might reasonably
have committed the crime.
The use of conditional probabilities in such circumstances is governed by
a theorem credited to the Englishman Thomas Bayes. Let A and C be
events, with probabilities P(A) and P(C),
respectively. Write P(A|C) for the probability
that A happens, given that C has definitely occurred. Let A&C denote
the event “both A and C have happened.” Then
Bayes’s theorem tells us that P(A|C) = P(A&C)
For example, in the case of the Smith children (first scenario), we have
C = at least one child is a girl
A = the other child is a girl
P(C) = 3/4
P(A&C) = 1/4
because A&C is also the event “both children
are girls,” or GG. Then Bayes’s theorem says the probability
that the other child is a girl, given that one of them is a girl, is (1/4)/(3/4)
= 1/3, the value we arrived at earlier. Similarly, with the second scenario,
Bayes’s theorem gives the answer 1/2, also as before.
For the application to confessional evidence, Matthews designates
A = the accused is guilty
C = he or she has confessed
Derivation of Matthews’s Formula
By Bayes’s theorem we have because
either A or A' must happen, but
= P(A&C)/P(C) not
both. Finally, P(A')= 1 – P(A).
and similarly Putting
all this together, we get
= P(C&A)/P(A). P(A|C)= P(A)/[P(A)+ But C&A = A&C, so we can
combine the P(C|A')P(A')/P(C|A)].
two equations to get If
we replace P(A) by p and
= P(C|A)P(A)/P(C). P(C|A')/P(C|A)
= P(C|A)P(A) + P(C|A')P(A') P(A|C)
= p/[p + r(1 – p)].
is normal in Bayesian reasoning, he takes P(A) to be the “prior
probability” that the accused is guilty—that is, the probability
of guilt as assessed from evidence obtained before the confession. Let A' denote
the negation of event A, namely, “the accused is innocent.”
Then Matthews derives the formula P(A|C) = p/[p + r(1 – p)],
where to keep the algebra simple we write p = P(A)
and r = P(C|A')/P(C|A),
which we call the confession ratio. Here P(C|A')
is the probability of an innocent person confessing, and P(C|A)
is that of a guilty person confessing. Therefore, the confession ratio is
less than 1 if an innocent person is less likely to confess than a guilty
If the confession is to increase the probability of guilt, then we want P(A|C)
to be larger than P(A), which equals p. Thus,
we need p/[p + r (1 – p)] > p, which
some simple algebra boils down to r < 1. That is, the existence
of a confession increases the probability of guilt if and only if an innocent
person is less likely to confess than a guilty one.
The implication is that sometimes the existence of a confession may reduce
the probability of guilt. In fact, this will occur whenever an innocent person
is more likely to confess than a guilty one. Such a situation might arise
in terrorist cases. Psychological profiles indicate that individuals who
are more suggestible, or more compliant, are more likely to confess under
interrogation. These descriptions seldom apply to a hardened terrorist, who
will be trained to resist interrogation techniques. It is plausible that
this is what happened when securing the convictions that have now been reversed
in U.K. courts.
Bayesian analysis also demonstrates some other counterintuitive features
of evidence. For example, suppose that initial evidence of guilt (X)
is followed by supplementary evidence of guilt (Y). A jury will
almost always assume that the probability of guilt has now gone up. But probabilities
of guilt do not just accumulate in this manner. In fact, the new evidence
increases the probability of guilt only if the probability of the new evidence
given the old evidence and the accused being guilty exceeds the probability
of the new evidence given the old evidence and the accused being innocent.
When the prosecution case depends on a confession, two quite different things
may happen. In the first, take X to be the confession and Y the
evidence found as a result of the confession—for example, discovery
of the body where the accused said it would be. Because an innocent person
is unlikely to provide such information, Bayesian considerations show that
the probability of guilt is increased. So corroborative evidence that depends
on the confession being genuine increases the likelihood of guilt.
On the other hand, X might be the discovery of the body and Y a
subsequent confession. In this case, the evidence provided by the body does
not depend on the confession and so cannot corroborate it. Nevertheless,
there is no “body-finder’s fallacy” like the interrogator’s
fallacy, because it is hard to argue that an innocent person is more likely
to confess than a guilty one just because they know that a body has been
Of course, it would be silly to suggest that every potential juror should
take (and pass) a course in Bayesian inference, but it seems entirely feasible
that a judge could direct them on some simple principles. Moreover, the same
ideas apply to DNA profiling but in circumstances that are much more intuitive
for jurors. A quick review of the interrogator’s fallacy could be an
excellent way to discourage lawyers from making fallacious claims about DNA