Sunday, August 21, 2011

Value Over Replacement Prosecutor

Bill James has read hundreds of crime books and he synthesizes a comprehensive volume's worth of stories in his book, "Popular Crime." It's a familiar formula for him, digesting a bunch of old information and offering a new perspective. James has obviously proven he's a smart guy that deserves to be listened to. Here he offers a new perspective on the media, the criminal justice system, and some of the centuries most famous crimes. The Jon Benet Ramsey saga is a case in point, and James' chapter on this was one of the most interesting in the book. I always considered the parents to have been culpable without paying the story too much attention. I felt that if I ignored our silly media, then they'd stop bothering with this nonsense. But James convinced me I was mistaken to ignore this story. And after his arguments and review of the facts, it appears that there is no conceivable way the parents killed their daughter.

The Ramsey saga deals with levels of human nature that I find truly fascinating. The police's certainty of the parents' involvement in the face of so little supporting evidence (and a great deal of contradicting evidence. By the way, did the Ramsey's not have an alarm system? That was never properly addressed by James and I'm surprised rich people like that wouldn't have their basement windows wired.) is a characteristic that has always intrigued me. The police arrived at their belief and then spend the rest of the investigation searching for facts that support it. It's what has infuriated me about people throughout my life. It's political or religious dogma by another name. James' quote (in another chapter dealing with the failure of cops to understand serial killers until the 1980s) that, "The capacity of mankind to misunderstand the world is without limit. The external world is billions of times more complicated than the human mind. We are desperate to understand the world; we struggle from the moment of birth to understand the world - but it beyond our capacity. We thus sign on to simplifications of the world that give us the illusion of understanding," is exactly what I tried to get at with my last post. We're arriving at beliefs and then going forth in this uncertain world. We do what we can to justify those beliefs, contradictory evidence be damned.

James also spends a good part of the book arguing for a more rational justice system. One of his attempts to create such a system is to standardize what it takes to cross the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt." He assigns numerical values to evidence and requires that evidence go beyond a specific total number, so that we can prevent wrongful convictions. An admirable call to reason, but one that will probably go unheeded because of the difficulty in arriving at such values. Perhaps books like this, though, will create some rough guidelines or make us more thoughtful on some minimums before we should take away life or liberty. Or perhaps it'll just inspire prosecutors like me to convict less innocent people. (Here's hoping.) And while I'm taking everything he wrote to be factually correct (probably a mistake) he does speak of convictions that are based on evidence that should've been considered legally insufficient, but judges allowed juries to make unsupported decisions anyways, such as Rabbi Neulander, and Randall Dale Adams.

James also hits many more interesting topics that and I'll just hit a few briefly. He raises the issue (in passing) of America's long history of a higher crime rate than Europe, a phenomenon that I've been contemplating ever since I got to the ridiculously safe and unmean streets of Germany. (And again, how can the Ramsey's have not had an alarm system? If there was a take home point from this book it was get a guard dog, a semi-automatic weapon, booby-trap your yard with land mines, and never leave your house under any circumstances.) Based on the ballistic and witness evidence, James also suggests that the fatal shot that killed John F. Kennedy was an accidental discharge from one of his secret service agents. It's a scandalous theory that I've never heard discussed before, and one I'd like to see him debate on television with a well-informed person of an opposing view. In fact, in a perfect world this book would be made into a movie where well-informed people could debate him and most of his contentions (in a more perfect world, I'd get executive producer credit). Anyways, it was a really sweet book. And man are there a lot of psychopaths out there.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seeking Certainty in an Uncertain World

That Scientific American subscription is proving a huge inspiration for this blog. There was an article last month on the biases that lead people to skew the truth. One of my favorite topics on this blog, one my brother told me to stop writing about because it's a truism not worth exploring, is the tribalism of American politics. Anyone who's been paying attention to the events of the last few weeks/decades/centuries knows that factionalism has been around almost as long as our republic. And as I like to point out from time to time, I knew this president's attempt to move past political factionalism would not succeed because tribalism is ingrained in human nature.

"The Believing Brain" sheds some light on the phenomenom. The article explains how people come to understand reality. Humans form their beliefs first and see reality second. One of the many biases that lead to these beliefs is the in-group bias of tribalism, where opponents are demonized and dismissed while friends are listened to and empathized with. (Which can explain how a political party can ignore their own significant contribution to the problems they blame another party for.)

In the same issue of SA there's an article on how unknowable reality just may be. In the "Bad Boy of Physics", Leonard Susskind explains that reality may be too complex for us ever to understand fully. He even says we should stop using the word reality, but rather focus on what is "reproducible,": knowable discreet events. He then goes on to say things that I cannot comprehend: that physics currently predicts this universe is 1000 times bigger in volume than the portion we can ever see? That there are most likely multiverses, meaning this large forever-completely-unobservable universe of ours might not be the only one?

And it all reminds me of why we use these biases to shape reality. Without them we'd have to admit our inability to understand ourselves and our places in this uni-or multiverse. It's a big, confusing, unknowable existence. We're just a small speck in a small corner of a place infinitely larger than we can ever comprehend. And for many politically active people in the US, certainty and meaning come from battling it out with the opposite members of a political party. It's a lot more empowering to see yourself in a battle of good v. evil then to come to terms with your own ignorance and insignificance. The world becomes us v. them because without that simplified division of reality, we would not know what to make of this thing we're doing.