The objective Bayesian conceptualisation of proof and reference class problems

Sydney Law Review 33 (3):545-561 (2011)
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The objective Bayesian view of proof (or logical probability, or evidential support) is explained and defended: that the relation of evidence to hypothesis (in legal trials, science etc) is a strictly logical one, comparable to deductive logic. This view is distinguished from the thesis, which had some popularity in law in the 1980s, that legal evidence ought to be evaluated using numerical probabilities and formulas. While numbers are not always useful, a central role is played in uncertain reasoning by the ‘proportional syllogism’, or argument from frequencies, such as ‘nearly all aeroplane flights arrive safely, so my flight is very likely to arrive safely’. Such arguments raise the ‘problem of the reference class’, arising from the fact that an individual case may be a member of many different classes in which frequencies differ. For example, if 15 per cent of swans are black and 60 per cent of fauna in the zoo is black, what should I think about the likelihood of a swan in the zoo being black? The nature of the problem is explained, and legal cases where it arises are given. It is explained how recent work in data mining on the relevance of features for prediction provides a solution to the reference class problem.

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James Franklin
University of New South Wales


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