Beyond Reasonable Doubt

What does it mean for a defendent to be found guilty “

beyond reasonable doubt

“? The courts aren’t telling. Not in the UK, not in the US, not in any of the other countries where it’s the basic standard of criminal justice. The US Supreme Court thinks that “Attempts to explain the term “reasonable doubt” do not usually result in making it any clearer to the minds of the jury“. So the most you get is state-level definitions, such as that of California:

It is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to possible doubt. It is that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.

The courts, in particular, are vehemently opposed to any attempt to put a numerical probability to

beyond reasonable doubt

. It requires more than a 50% likelihood of guilt, and less than 100%. But between those, it’s anybody’s guess.

So what happens when you ask people? Teach them some basic probability, give them a definition of “beyond reasonable doubt”? It’s been tried. A fifth of people interpret it as 90%, with slightly lower numbers choosing 95% or 99%. But fully 27% think 80% certainty, or less, would be enough to convict.

Another experiment asked half of a group to act as jurors, declaring defendents guilty or not. The other half put a numerical figure on how likely they were to be guilty. Matching up the decisions of the two groups should show what probability corresponds to “beyond reasonable doubt”. Here it seems a guilty verdict requires

0.70 – 0.74

probability of guilt.

Pensioners aren’t poor

Baked into my head somewhere is the idea that pensioners mostly live in grinding poverty, barring a very few who are resting on 40 years of civil service pension or the like.

I was wrong. The rate of poverty among the elderly is lower than among children or adults.

Le Guin on genre, again

Ursula Le Guin, aside from being a great writer, has the knack of being on the right side in any debate going. Currently, she’s doing sterling work defending genre fiction against put-downs. That is, not so much trying to break out of the ghetto, as taking pride in it.

It really got going in a tussle with Margaret Atwood over the definitions of Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, and Literary Fiction. Atwood, official Great Treasure of Canadian Literature, has built a career on writing SF that is presented as literary fiction. Le Guin has accepted her position in the genre ghetto, and won critical acceptance in spite of that.

Now, along comes a New Yorker article, beating on genre with a series of backhanded compliments:

Commercial and genre writers aim at delivering less rarefied pleasures. And part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better. For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good.

…Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail. It’s plot we want and plenty of it. Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story.

In wades Le Guin, beautifully calling Mr. New Yorker on his apparent belief that Great Fiction just isn’t fun:

Anybody who reads a lot is, if you like, an addict. The people who put their initials on the fly-leaf of a library copy of a mystery so that they won’t keep checking the same book out over and over are story addicts. So is the ten-year-old with his nose in The Hobbit, oblivious to dinnertime or cataclysm. So is the old woman rereading War and Peace for the eighth time. So is the scholar who studies the Odyssey for forty years.