You Be the Jury: Survey on a Current Event

As many of you prob­a­bly know, in an Ital­ian court early last week­end, two young stu­dents, Amanda Knox and Raf­faele Sol­lecito, were con­victed of kil­ling an­other young stu­dent, Mered­ith Kercher, in a hor­rific way in Novem­ber of 2007. (A third per­son, Rudy Guede, was con­victed ear­lier.)

If you aren’t fa­mil­iar with the case, don’t go read­ing about it just yet. Hang on for just a mo­ment.

If you are fa­mil­iar, that’s fine too. This post is ad­dressed to read­ers of all lev­els of ac­quain­tance with the story.

What ev­ery­one should know right away is that the ver­dict has been ex­tremely con­tro­ver­sial. Strong feel­ings have emerged, even in­volv­ing na­tional ten­sions (Knox is Amer­i­can, Sol­lecito Ital­ian, and Kercher Bri­tish, and the crime and trial took place in Italy). The cir­cum­stances of the crime in­volve sex. In short, the po­ten­tial for se­ri­ous ra­tio­nal­ity failures in com­ing to an opinion on a case like this is enor­mous.

Now, as it hap­pens, I my­self have an opinion. A rather strong one, in fact. Strong enough that I caught my­self think­ing that this case—given all the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing it—might serve as a de­cent lit­mus test in judg­ing the ra­tio­nal­ity skills of other peo­ple. Like re­li­gion, or evolu­tion—ex­cept less clichéd (and cached) and more down-and-dirty.

Of course, thoughts like that can be dan­ger­ous, as I quickly rec­og­nized. The dan­ger of in-group af­fec­tive spirals looms large. So be­fore writ­ing up that Less Wrong post adding my-opinion-on-the-guilt-or-in­no­cence-of-Amanda-Knox-and-Raf­faele-Sol­lecito to the List of Things Every Ra­tional Per­son Must Believe, I de­cided it might be use­ful to find out what con­clu­sion(s) other as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists would (or have) come to (with­out know­ing my opinion).

So that’s what this post is: a sur­vey/​ex­per­i­ment, with fairly spe­cific yet flex­ible in­struc­tions (which differ slightly de­pend­ing on how much you know about the case already).

For those whose fa­mil­iar­ity with the case is low:

I’m go­ing to give you two web­sites ad­vo­cat­ing a po­si­tion, one strongly in fa­vor of the ver­dict, the other strongly op­posed. Your job will be to browse around these sites to learn info about the case, as much as you need to in or­der to ar­rive at a judg­ment. The or­der, man­ner, and quan­tity of brows­ing will be left up to you—though I would of course like to know how much you read in your re­sponse.

1. Site ar­gu­ing defen­dants are guilty.

2. Site ar­gu­ing defen­dants are in­no­cent.

I’ve cho­sen these par­tic­u­lar sites be­cause they seemed to con­tain the best com­bi­na­tion of fierce­ness of ad­vo­cacy and quan­tity of in­for­ma­tion on their re­spec­tive sides that I could find.

If you find bet­ter sum­maries, or think that these choices re­flect a bias or be­tray my own opinion, by all means let me know. I’m speci­fi­cally avoid­ing refer­ring you to me­dia re­ports, how­ever, for a cou­ple of rea­sons. First, I’ve no­ticed that re­ports of­ten con­tain fac­tual in­ac­cu­ra­cies (nec­es­sar­ily, be­cause they con­tra­dict each other). Se­condly, jour­nal­ists don’t usu­ally have much of a stake, and I’d like to see how folks re­spond to pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cacy by peo­ple who care about the out­come, as in an ac­tual trial, rather than at­tempts at neu­tral sum­ma­riz­ing. Of course, it’s fine if you want to read me­dia re­ports linked to by the above sites.

(One po­ten­tial prob­lem is that the first site is or­ga­nized like a blog or fo­rum, and thus it is hard to find a quick sum­mary of the case there. [EDIT: Be sure to look at the cat­e­gory links on the right side of the page to find the ar­gu­ments.] If you think it nec­es­sary, re­fer to the ever-chang­ing Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cle, which at the mo­ment of writ­ing seems a bit more fa­vor­able to the pros­e­cu­tion. [EDIT: I’m no longer sure that’s true.] [EDIT: Now I think it’s true again, the ar­ti­cle hav­ing ap­par­ently changed some more. So there’s re­ally no tel­ling. Be warned.])

After you do this read­ing, I’d like to know:

1. Your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mate that Amanda Knox is guilty.
2. Your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mate that Raf­faele Sol­lecito is guilty.
3. Your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mate that Rudy Guede is guilty.
4. How much you think your opinion will turn out to co­in­cide with mine.

Feel free to elab­o­rate on your rea­son­ing to what­ever de­gree you like.

One re­quest: don’t look at oth­ers’ com­ments un­til you’ve done the ex­per­i­ment your­self!

For those whose fa­mil­iar­ity with the case is mod­er­ate or high:

I’d like to know, as of right now:

1. Your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mate that Amanda Knox is guilty.
2. Your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mate that Raf­faele Sol­lecito is guilty.
3. Your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mate that Rudy Guede is guilty.
4. How much you think your opinion will turn out to co­in­cide with mine.
5. From what sources you’ve got­ten the info you’ve used to ar­rive at these es­ti­mates.

Then, if pos­si­ble, do the ex­per­i­ment de­scribed above for those with lit­tle fa­mil­iar­ity, and re­port any shifts in your es­ti­mates.

Again, ev­ery­one should avoid look­ing at oth­ers’ re­sponses be­fore giv­ing their own feed­back. Also, don’t for­get to iden­tify your prior level of fa­mil­iar­ity!

If the level of par­ti­ci­pa­tion war­rants it, I’ll post my own thoughts (and re­ac­tion to the feed­back here) in a later post. (Edit: That post can be found here.)