Reasonable Doubt: Uncertainty in Education, Science and Law

A.R. Gardner-Medwin, Dept. Physiology (NPP), UCL, London WC1E 6BT

Proc. British Academy (2011) 171, 465-483
Published by OUP as: "Evidence, Inference and Enquiry" (ed. Philip Dawid & William Twining), Ch. 17. Pdf of final ms available here. For a reprint, please email me (


The use of evidence to resolve uncertainties is key to many endeavours, most conspicuously science and law. Despite this, the logic of uncertainty is seldom taught explicitly, and often seems misunderstood. Traditional educational practice even fails to encourage students to identify uncertainty when they express knowledge, though mark schemes that reward the identification of reliable and uncertain responses have long been shown to encourage more insightful understanding. In our information-rich society the ability to identify uncertainty is often more important than the possession of knowledge itself.

In both science and law there are fundamentally different kinds of uncertainty at issue. There is uncertainty whether a particular hypothesis is correct, and there is uncertainty about observable data that may be generated if a particular hypothesis is correct. Both are expressed in terms of probabilities. Each has its own domain of application and its own logic, but the inter-relationship is complex and sometimes misunderstood. Hypothesis probabilities are always open to error through possible failure to take account of realistic alternatives, while the proper inferences that can be drawn from data probabilities (often in the context of significance testing) are quite limited and easily over-interpreted.

When considering these two kinds of probability in a court of law it is possible to interpret the phrase 'reasonable doubt' in different ways. It can be seen as addressing data uncertainty: whether such incriminating evidence might with reasonable probability arise to confront an innocent person. Or (the more conventional view) it can be seen as some sort of threshold level on the probability that the defendant is guilty (a hypothesis probability). Each typically involves elements of subjective judgement, but fewer issues and uncertainties arise when considering the data probability and it is argued that this is often the more critical and proper issue for a jury to address. This has particular repercussions for cases involving identification of a suspect through trawl of a DNA or other database.