Applied Skepticism: Example 1 – The Death Penalty

In my youth, from as far back as I was twelve years old, I was a supporter of the death penalty.  I supported it for murder and rape, and I didn’t believe that there should be so many chances for appeal.  I held this view well into my late twenties, and when asked why I supported the death penalty, I simply replied “Ted Bundy”.

Ted Bundy was one of the most infamous serial killers of the last thirty years.  His combination of wit, charm, and intelligence made him an almost celebrity serial killer with groupies.  He was also a clear example of a psychopath.  There was no redeeming him, so I figured killing him was the best solution.

My change of heart came down over the following issues:

  1. Accuracy of guilty verdicts
  2. Cost to society in terms of dollars
  3. Deterrent power of the death penalty
  4. Fairness in application

Let me address these point by point

  1. With the Innocence Project, the advances in DNA testing, and many studies on the fallibility of human memory, there are far more false positives than we ever knew.  Back in the 1980’s when I formed my original opinions, DNA testing was science fiction and a person’s word was considered reliable. 
  2. The costs of trials is now more than the cost of keeping a prisoner alive.  With possible labor tacked onto that, it doesn’t make economic sense to kill people.
  3. There have been no studies that I’m aware of that show the death penalty deters crime.  
  4. The more and more you read, the more you see how unbalanced the application of the death penalty is across different economic classes, races, and genders.  This information was not as readily available when I formed my original opinions in comparison how quickly you can find it on the internet.

These four points once taken away leave me with no argument to support the death penalty.  At this point it’s a judgement call, but with all the new information I had, my judgement changed.  I changed from a pro-death penalty citizen to an anti-death penalty citizen.   

Skepticism and critical thinking played a part in how I evaluated the evidence.  Skepticism couldn’t tell me the death penalty was the wrong thing, but it could eliminate all my arguments for the death penalty.  This is one example of applied skepticism that falls outside the wrongly stereotypical view of skeptics that it’s all about aliens and Sasquatch.  In this case, skepticism gave me the tools to change my mind on a very important social justice issue.

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