Coralie Colmez is an intellectual jack-of-all-trades. The daughter of an author, Coralie’s first book, Math on Trial explored the way statistics are (mis)used in court cases. A mathematician, Coralie spends her free time drawing females figures and playing in a band called Liquor Radio
CONVICTS caught up with Coralie in her beautiful Lower East Side apartment, where art created by both herself and her friends deck the walls. We got her word on the importance of mathematical expertise, the way current social justice movements are playing our internationally, and one very special violin.
Hey hey. To start, can you introduce yourself and tell us where we are?
Hi my name is Coralie Colmez and we’re in my apartment which is in the Lower East Side.
Tell us a bit about your book Math on Trial?
So I wrote this book with my mom and called it Math on Trial. We wrote it about six years ago, when I was a year out of university. We wrote it over five or six months. It was a really fun thing to do with my mom. It was very intense but it’s also great too.
What made you want to write a book in the first place?
I had a job for one year and was taking a break. My mom is a very high energy person — she’s written several books under a pen name — and she said ‘OK instead of just taking this time off, why don’t we write a book together?’
Why did you focus on court cases specifically?
We knew that we wanted to write a popular math book. Freakonomics and others had been big deals that we enjoyed reading, so we knew we wanted to do something like that. We decided to only concentrate on stories that have to do with trials and court cases as a theme for the book. Once we made that decision, it was actually very easy to find the stories. The research was very easy. We found stories very quickly. Doing the research actually was was my job. I was the one doing the research and it was really interesting, getting actual court transcripts is pretty fun.
Would you ever write another book in the same vein?
My mom really wants to do a sequel and she’s actually been very involved in that field. She ran a conference on forensic mathematics, which she finds really interesting. I want to do more writing but my dream is to write fiction so that’s what I’m trying to focus on.
Could you talk about the Sally Clark case?
So the Sally Clark case is the case we opened the book with. One of the reasons we did that is that the mathematics involved are very simple, but it’s also an incredibly strong illustration of mathematics going wrong in a tragic way. What happened with the Sally Clark case is that this lawyer, Sally, had two of her children die of crib death, which is where a baby dies very young and the cause of death is unknown. She was accused of having killed them and one of the main witnesses of the trial was this doctor — Sir Roy Meadow — who had written a lot of books about child abuse. He was a very prominent figure at the time and would take the stand and talk very knowledgeably. He used a mathematical calculation to illustrate why he thought Sally Clark was definitely guilty. This mathematical calculation was based on multiplying figures of different probability figures of up to two events in his case it was the event of the first child — the first child died of caught death and the second child died of caught death. But when you’re multiplying probabilities, you need to make sure that the events you’re considering are independent. The probability of two crib deaths happening in the same family is very likely not independent. There are very likely underlying conditions that doctors haven’t found, that applied to both children. So multiplying those two probabilities is just completely wrong and what happens when you do that is that you get a final probability figure that’s really really tiny, which makes the probability seem more unlikely than it should. Basically Meadow’s argument was that it was very unlikely that the two children died by chance. He convinced the jury that Sally must have killed them and Sally was sent to prison. The appeal didn’t work. It was only very slowly that Sally’s husband managed to get more people involved in the case, people who actually understood mathematics, and eventually get Sally released.
How do pop-culture depictions of this sort of thing affect the situation?
The fact that on TV shows, a DNA match is always 100% is really bad in terms of juries sitting on trials which have to deal with DNA matches. A DNA match is pretty much never 100%, so people’s opinions when they’re sitting on a jury are often too swayed by DNA evidence. If you have good DNA evidence — really good quality — then yes it is 100%, but in many cases it won’t be good quality. It will be damaged in some way.
On a bit of a lighter subject, can you tell us a little bit about the band you play in?
So my band I joined is named Liquor Radio.
So you play violin in Liquor Radio. What’s your history with the instrument?
I started learning the violin when I was four years old. It was only classical and in fact, I pretty much only listened to classical music growing up. One of the most exciting things about joining the band was learning how to improvise which I had never done before. At first I found it really scary, but it’s really amazing when it gets to the point where you’re relaxed and just jamming and you understand your place amongst the instruments.
Talk about your violin.
My violin is my oldest possession that I’ve brought with me all the way here. It actually has a great story, it was made by a friend of my grandfather’s who was a physicist just like my granddad was. This guy really loved music, towards the end of his career he decided to make violins using his knowledge of physics to get them to sound really beautiful. The violin I used to play was the first violin this guy ever made and the violin I have now was was the last one he ever made. He died quite recently. I got to play this in front of him and it was just really an amazing experience.
You’ve lived in France, the UK, and the United States. Are these social movements that we are seeing today around gender equality being received differently in other cultures?
There’s a complete difference between countries. The movements are happening in parallel which is really great but, for example, people in France people are very proud of their seductive image. That is something I am also very proud of, but I think some people take it to mean something that it doesn’t mean. You can be seductive in a feminist way. There was that whole noise with the French actresses signing the letter and saying that the #MeToo movement was going too far. I think that they had it completely wrong, to be honest. It’s interesting to see how the identities of different countries fit with all the movements that are happening. It will be different for each country because each country does have a different identity, but I’m very happy to see that it is happening in all the different countries that I think of as home.
Who is a woman-past or present-that you admire?
Actually, it’s funny. I was talking recently about how there’s a big backlash against Jennifer Lawrence at the moment. She’s been in so many films and people don’t like when someone gets overexposed, but it made me think that it’s hard to admire a person as a whole. If you dig deeper, you’ll always find something not to like about them. So I’m thinking more of a general trait in women that I really admire. I find the people who either came before me or are in different countries where things aren’t as easy incredibly impressive. Just as a particular example I’m reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot at the moment. The thought of having to use a man’s name in order to publish a book…is really amazing. I have no way of knowing how I would act if I was in a world that was the way it was back then.
Lastly, you’re also a bit of an artist. Can you talk a bit about that?
This was the first time I moved to an apartment that wasn’t furnished. It’s really weird finding yourself in a place that’s completely blank with no furniture, with nothing on the walls. I’ve always had loads of stuff on the walls wherever I’ve been. So I bought some paints and was like ‘I’m going to make something super colorful. It made me much happier as soon as I had done it.
Do you draw mostly women in your work?
I probably prefer drawing women. I mean I’ll draw whoever the model is but I do like drawing women. Sometimes, I try to challenge myself to draw men but I don’t enjoy it as much. I love drawing my friends. We have these sessions where we draw each other. It’s pretty fun.
Right on, thank you very much for the chat Coralie.