The foundations of logical science, and of that part of law which concerns itself with logic rather than rhetoric, were laid by Aristotle, in 350 B.C.E.
His analysis of reasoning with demonstrable facts, as against appeals to "reason", came in a golden age of rhetoric. He noted that the tools of rhetoric had not been built from an analysis of how language is used, but had been built piecemeal. He, on the other hand, built his tools of logic from an observational foundation.
... on the subject of Rhetoric there exists much that has been said long ago, whereas on the subject of reasoning we had nothing else of an earlier date to speak of at all, but were kept at work for a long time in experimental researches.Aristotle seems to have concerned himself with how to argue by means of demonstrable facts at a time when arguments were being won purely on their surface appearances. He points out that appearances are all too commonly deceptive.
That some reasonings are genuine, while others seem to be so but are not, is evident. This happens with arguments, as also elsewhere, through a certain likeness between the genuine and the sham. ... things made of litharge and tin seem to be of silver, while those made of yellow metal look golden. In the same way both reasoning and refutation are sometimes genuine, sometimes not, though inexperience may make them appear so: for inexperienced people obtain only, as it were, a distant view of these things.
just as, in counting, those who are not clever in manipulating their counters are taken in by the experts, in the same way in arguments too those who are not well acquainted with the force of names misreason both in their own discussions and when they listen to others. For this reason, then, and for others to be mentioned later, there exists both reasoning and refutation that is apparent but not real.
Aristotle, On Sophistical Refutations, 350 B.C.E
Translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge
Sourced from The Internet Classics Archive
In his On Sophistical refutations, Aristotle speaks of "the aim of ensuring that in standing up to an argument we shall defend our thesis ... by means of views as generally held as possible." It seems clear to me that where science and common sense stand on the same firm ground, Aristotle would have been quick to reject any argument which depends for its acceptance on a physical impossibility. More so if the physical impossibility defies common sense.
Logic and lies
Suppose a witness in court gives evidence which, if true, must completely overturn what science and common sense have to say about the natural world. You might think that in the modern era, any court would be quick to reject a case founded on such a lie. Unfortunately, for so long as courts can use their own rules of procedure to prevent a logical analysis of the lie, the lie stands as a legal truth.
What this particular variant of legal truth means is that, even if thousands of scientists were to sign a petition stating that a convicted person's guilt is based on a physical impossibilty, for all legal purposes the person is still considered to be guilty. The conviction stands until it is quashed, but the appeals process in England is fundamentally flawed. Judges seem to be more concerned with procedural rules than with identifying miscarriages of justice.
The most famous case in which a person's conviction was founded on a physical impossibility is that of Adolf Beck. In brief: he was accused of a crime and was stated to be one John Smith who had previously been convicted of the same sort of offence. He was found guilty and was treated as a second offender. Being treated as a second offender by all authorities meant that his many assertions of innocence were not given any credence.
He served his - actually John Smith's - sentence and was released. He traveled abroad and on his return was arrested and tried, again as John Smith, for a similar offense. He was found guilty. Fortunately for Beck, Sir William Grantham, the judge at his second trial was something of a radical. Some years previously Sir William had persuaded a jury to acquit, using terms which amounted to an instruction. These days a judge in the criminal court may instruct a jury to acquit, but back in those days it was unheard of.
The case which caused a stir in the newspapers concerned a prison warden who had been accused by an inmate of beating another inmate to death. Sir William advised the jury in very strong terms that the accused was a man of exceedingly good character and that, in effect, a leopard does not change its spots. The jury acquited the prison warden. There were calls for the removal of the judge from office. Some years later the prisoner who had made the complaint confessed to a form of hoax. A new prisoner had been brought in presumably unconscious. He was, in fact, dead. The hoaxer had beaten the body to produce bruises and had then used the bruised dead prisoner as "evidence" against the warden.
To return to the Beck case: Sir William Grantham heard Beck plead that he was for the second time an innocent victim of mistaken identity. Sir William did not dismiss this out of hand as others had done, but deferred sentence so that he could make his own investigations. Beck was held in prison on remand - as John Smith. It was while the judge was investigating the matter that he was advised that there were two John Smiths in the same prison, each convicted of the same type of crime.
Thus it was that it was not through the normal workings of jurisprudence, but through its decidedly abnormal workings and the pure luck of a strange coincidence that Sir William became satisfied of Adolf Beck's innocence.
A subsequent official inquiry declared that Beck was innocent. Some time later when the real John Smith was in court yet again, he in turn found himself before a very fair-minded judge. The judge remarked that Beck was innocent and that Smith had been the cause of Beck's problems. But the judge said that because Smith did not intend to harm Beck, accordingly not a single day would be added to his sentence.
To the very best of my knowledge, having researched the matter very thoroughly, those two occasions constitute the only legal record of any person ever being declared to be innocent by the modern English legal system.
There are two physical impossibilities which pointed to Adolf Beck's entire innocence, had the legal system not blocked their presentation in evidence. The first was an alibi. At the time of the alleged offense Adolf Beck was in Argentina. Witnesses could place him there, witnesses of rank and repute. It appears from the records that the first court did not want to know about an alibi for Adolf Beck since it was John Smith who was on trial. There are also hints in the record that the first judge did not see any value in testimony coming from a foreigner.
Even easier to check was a simple medical matter: Smith was Jewish, Beck was not. As strange as it may appear to anyone with even just a grain of common sense, a medical examination of Beck was refused.
Had the judge not blocked the presentation of evidence, this then is what the jury would have been told by the defence: the accused was in London and Buenos Aires at one and the same time and was both circumcised and uncircumcised. I cannot conceive of any jury failing to fall about laughing if presented with such physical impossibility as "proof" of guilt.
Plus ça change
The Adolph Beck injustice led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1907. Despite the existence of that court the injustices continue. There have been many high-profile miscarriages of justice. The Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four come far too readily to mind. However, I want to introduce here a case of which I have personal knowledge where a person was convicted on evidence of physical impossibilities. I must declare an interest: the case concerns a personal friend. High profile cases tend to attract the attention of high profile lawyers. My friend, Babatunde Olagunju, having been sentenced to "only" six months back in 1994 was hard pressed to get any legal help at all, so I used my knowledge of law and logic to try to secure a quash of his conviction. We were blocked at every turn and he was denied proper access to justice. Here are some key facts from a case which I hope to deal with at length in a future science and law article. In what follows, words in quotes or blockquotes are from the official transcript.
A police officer, P.C. Mark Collier, stated in court that Mr. Olagunju was driving in excess of the 30mph speed limit, which was the reason he was first followed and then stopped. The evidence given in court was that the car was first noticed in Commercial Street, East London and was stopped in Braham Street. I have measured the distance on a map and have driven the route as it was then, noting the odometer reading. The distance is a maximum of 0.9 miles taking in the entirety of both roads. That measurement is most favorable to the prosecution. However, the route is indirect due to the operation of a one-way traffic flow. There are at least two sets of traffic lights. The evidence of P.C. Mark Collier suggests some lesser distance than 0.9mph because the police car was already travelling on Commercial Street when my friend's car was spotted:
MR. CHAIZE: What happened on Tuesday 28th December of last year? Were you on duty in a police car?later:
A. I was your Honour. I was in company with P.C. 154 H.B. Welch. We were travelling south along Commercial Street, E1, directly behind a Volkswagen Passat car.
Q. All right. Now when I suggest you were behind his car driving for about three minutes, you then flashed your car indicating that he should stop. Is that right?
A. I wasn't driving your Honour.
A. I can't exactly remember how the other officer stopped the car.
Q. Exactly. You see you were not driving, it was W.P.C. Welch who was driving but you were the one keeping the observation, you were the one spotting people in cars, was it not? That was right is it not?
A. The car was travelling in excess of the speed limit in our opinion. That's why it was stopped.
Now we get to the laws of physics. A car travels an absolute maximum distance of 0.9 miles in 3 minutes. Even a police officer should be able to figure out that there are 20 lots of 3 minutes in an hour, so 20 lots of 0.9 gives an absolute maximum possible average speed of 18 miles per hour.
What other physical impossibilities can we find in the case? The taking of notes by police officers is a perfectly ordinary occurence, but the time and place when such notes were written down may be a key piece of evidence. In this case it was evidence of a physical impossibility. The police officer claimed that the notes were made -
at about 05:40
Q. Mr. Collier, I want to ask you about an incident on 28th December last year. Do you wish to refer to any notes?in the police car
A. Yes please your Honour. They were made approximately forty minutes after the time of the incident while it was still fresh in my mind.
A. Yes, notes at the scene would have been made your Honour yes.at 05:48
Q. No I am asking you the question did you make those notes contemporaneously or did you compile them afterwards?
A. They would have been made with Mr. Olagunju sitting in the car at the scene your Honour.
Q. Does your note say that?
A. No, I know they were your Honour.
Q. Two separate lots of notes. Right. First lot forty minutes after, I think you saw a vehicle did you?
A. Yes. The original arrest was at 5.00. The notes were made at 5.48.
Mr. Olagunju was taken to Bethnal Green police station and booked in by the custody sergeant. The time was recorded as 05:10. This brings us to the physical impossibility: if the notes were taken on the scene then they were taken before the drive to the police station, i.e. before 05:10. On the other hand, if they were written at or about 05:40 then Mr. Olagunju could not have been sitting in a police car in a police cell.
There are other physical impossibilities in my friend's case which I hope to place on public display. For now, I will end by asking why it is that after 2,360 years or so of learning how to discover truth, a criminal court judge is still unable to spot a bare-faced liar standing near him in the witness box.