The Dersh Paradox


Serious allegations of sexual misconduct have been raised against Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. The type of allegations that can ruin one’s life achievements. By some weird quirk of the legal system, Professor Dershowitz is unable to defend himself against these allegations in a court of law, as he lucidly explains. What caught my eye, however, was his defense:

You have documentary proof that you could not have been in the places and at the time Jane Doe #3 said she had sex with you*

Now, before I proceed, all the following has nothing to do with the specifics of the case, which I know nothing about. My prior is in his favor, but this is an argument based on sympathy and admiration, not knowledge. I am just interested in the theoretical point that this case raises.

Suppose—as a wild hypothetical, no subtext intended—that you were

  1. the world’s best litigator and a top criminal lawyer and
  2. intent on sexually abusing an underage woman

Well, the first step you would take is to create a very strong alibi, don’t you think? Therefore, a strong alibi is a double-edged sword here. The stronger the alibi he presents, the more likely is a rational observer to believe, based on a & b, that he has indeed committed the crime. Now, of course there are limits to this argument (e.g., if his alibi is that he was on live national television at the time), but putting the limit cases aside, this is one logical inference from him having a strong alibi. On the other hand, obviously, if he has a strong alibi, the less likely it is that he has committed the crime. Hence, the Dersh Paradox.

*Oddly, this paragraph is somewhat ambiguous, as it seems to be saying that Dershowitz claims a solid alibi, but then the use of the second person raises the possibility that he is just using that as a hypothetical. But I believe it is the former.

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