The dangers of inappropriate mathematics

It’s not always appropriate to use numbers. They can give a false sense of tidiness to messy situations.

numbers make it legit!

The law gives us a prime example here. Numerical constructs are used to make the legal system seem more legitimate and fair than it really is.  “We must draw a line somewhere!” is a common argument which makes absolutely no sense. A line is a partition, discretely dividing a space into two regions. You’re either on the right side of the line, or you’re on the wrong side.  There is no “wiggle” room.  The term ‘draw a line’ is used to indicate a simple, impartial decision-making system. A “line” looks fair to us. A really squiggly line, not so much:


If the barrier between ‘socially acceptable behavior’ and ‘socially destructive behavior’ is really amenable to a line, then ‘drawing a line’ as a legal metaphor might be reasonable.  However, even a simple case  where the set of ‘acceptable’ behaviors is circular, and unacceptable behaviors is a anything far from that, drawing a ‘fair line’ is impossible.   Reality, of course, is far, far messier – and everyone readily admits that. So we end up drawing a bunch of little lines. Maybe each of these lines makes sense when you look at them individually, but the end result is a gargantuan legal system that is far too complex for any one person to understand all of it – declaring some people innocent on technicalities, and other people guilty for doing something no reasonable person would find problematic.

So why do we insisting on drawing lines?  “Because otherwise, the law would just be up to the whims of the people involved” – how is that not presently the case? Isn’t that “personal discretion” the point of juries and judges, anyhow? Talking of drawing lines allows us to convince ourselves the system is neat and tidy, when it is, in fact, a mess.  The notion of the law determining a discrete, clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is a comforting fiction. Use of the phrase ‘draw a line’ gives the appearance of fairness and impartiality to a process that is still subject to the arbitrary whims of the populace.   A mature response is to ambiguity is to accept that the justice process will be arbitrary, that outcomes will depend upon the people involved, and thus work to make sure everyone is educated and intelligent. An immature response is to talk about “drawing lines” and “weighing evidence”-  terminology stolen from disciplines such as mathematics and physics where there are solid answers, and the whims of the powerful mean little.

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