What Makes People Susceptible To Pseudo-Profound 'Baloney'?

Some people can more-often decipher between real motivational quotes and nonsense.

iStockphoto

Consider the following two statements:

“We are not an emergent property of a mechanical universe but the seasonal activity of a living cosmos.”

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

Which is more profound?

The first statement comes from Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed. The second statement was generated through a website that takes words from Chopra’s Twitter feed and arranges them more or less at random, preserving a grammatical sentence structure. But, frankly, they might both strike you as nonsense — or what a new paper, authored by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues and published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, calls “pseudo-profound bullsh*t.”

The paper reports four studies in which over 800 participants recruited on a college campus or through the web were asked to rate how profound they found a variety of statements, including those above. Participants also completed additional tests to find out what makes some people more susceptible to pseudo-profound nonsense than others.

So, what do these studies reveal about individual differences in receptivity to the pseudo-profound? Or, put differently, what makes someone a good nonsense detector?

In the most compelling study, participants rated statements of pseudo-profound nonsense as well as motivational quotes, which were arguably at least a little profound. For example, one of the motivational quotes was:

“A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence.”

Participants who were good at differentiating these two kinds of statements – that is, those who tended to rate the real motivational quotes as more profound than the pseudo-profound statements — were also more likely to be analytic and reflective thinkers, and to be skeptical of paranormal and superstitious claims, like “astrology is a way to accurately predict the future,” or “black cats can bring bad luck.” This makes sense — the ability to differentiate the profound from the pseudo-profound, and scientific from pseudo-scientific claims, requires critical evaluation, which itself depends on analytic thinking.

But the studies by Pennycook and colleagues have been covered by the media in ways that go well beyond the actual findings. For instance, the Daily Mail‘s headline reads: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.'” In response to an article in the Cornish Guardian, Chopra himself Tweeted, “Dear friends a ‘scientific’ study shows we ( I and you ) have lower intelligence.”

In fact, the studies didn’t measure whether people posted inspirational quotes on social media. And while they did include measures of intelligence, only a measure of “cognitive style” — the tendency to think more analytically versus heuristically — predicted people’s ability to differentiate meaningfully profound statements from the pseudo-profound foils. More canonical measures of intelligence — including measures of verbal and fluid intelligence — did not predict this ability to differentiate the profound from the pseudo-profound. Instead, two of the studies found that these measures of intelligence predicted an overall tendency to rate the provided pseudo-profound statements as profound, which could reflect a general tendency to find everything profound, or just to rate things highly, without reflecting any special receptivity to pseudo-profound nonsense.

Overblown headlines aside, these new findings do highlight the importance of developing good “baloney detection” skills (to use Carl Sagan’s phrase), and suggest some characteristics that make people better and worse baloney detectors. In particular, analytic thinking and some healthy skepticism could go a long way towards helping people detect and reject the pseudo-profound. But those who fall prey to it don’t necessarily have “lower intelligence.” Differentiating the profound from the pseudo-profound can require more than raw smarts — it can also require special expertise and some confidence in one’s own understanding.

For instance, what’s the “seasonal activity of a living cosmos”? It sounds like nonsense to me, but so do some claims from quantum mechanics. I’m willing to dismiss the former as “mere baloney” and not the latter because I make different attributions in each case. In the former case, I assume there’s a problem with the statement or its source: It’s nonsense. When it comes to quantum mechanics, though, I attribute my lack of understanding to personal ignorance — to insufficient expertise. Some people may be susceptible to the pseudo-profound because they assume the superficial signs of profundity — big, abstract words, vague claims — are a good reason to attribute any lack of understanding to personal ignorance — not to a problem with the source.

Consider two relevant examples from past research. In one study, participants judged scientific abstracts to be of higher quality when they contained totally irrelevant math. In other studies, people were more compelled by scientific explanations that contained neuroscientific jargon or irrelevant neuroscience than by those that left it out. In both cases, experts were not so fooled. These findings don’t necessarily imply that non-experts are stupid. They simply aren’t experts and, therefore, aren’t in a good position to evaluate whether the math or neuroscience is an important part of the story. They rely on superficial cues — it looks sciencey! — in the absence of the background knowledge required for deeper evaluation.

In the case of pseudo-profound nonsense, something similar could be at work. Some people may be wooed by fancy-sounding words about deep and abstract stuff, whether or not they amount to a coherent claim, because they rely on looking profound as a cue to being profound. They don’t have the know-how or motivation to engage in deeper evaluation. That’s a real failing, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere quirk of “lower intelligence.”

If you’re not convinced, consider one final statement:

“Bullsh*t is a consequential aspect of the human condition.”

Profound insight? Or pseudo-profound bullsh*t? In fact, this statement comes from the paper by Pennycook and colleagues — it’s the first sentence of the paper’s conclusion, where they try to make the case that bullsh*t is ubiquitous, and that the ability to detect it is important.

Knowing whether or not they’re onto something requires some intelligence — but also some basic knowledge of the scientific context for the claim. It wouldn’t be hard for outsiders to mistake a substantive claim for nonsense.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

Opposition Party Wins Big In Venezuela, Ousting Maduro's Socialists

Venezuelan opposition supporters celebrate the results of the legislative election in Caracas early Monday.

Venezuelan opposition supporters celebrate the results of the legislative election in Caracas early Monday. Luis Robayo /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Luis Robayo /AFP/Getty Images

Dealing a big blow to President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist leadership, Venezuelan voters handed a majority of congressional seats to a coalition of opposition parties.

NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports the opposition gains control of congress for the first time since Hugo Chávez ushered in victory for the leftist movement in 1999. She filed this report for our Newcast unit:

“The opposition coalition won a majority of 99 out of 167 seats, and they could get more. As the results were announced people took to the streets in celebration in the capital launching fireworks and honking their horns.

The socialists even lost in late president Hugo Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where his brother Adan is governor. In the capital, the opposition won by almost 20 percentage points.

“Venezuelans have been facing one of the highest inflation rates in the world along with scarcity of basic goods. Many are predicting that far from unifying the deeply polarized country, this will only deepen the divides. President Nicolas Maduro accepted the defeat, however, he said ‘A counter-revolution has triumphed, which has imposed its own way, its war.’ The leader of the opposition Henrique Capriles tweeted ‘Venezuela has won.'”

With three huge portraits of Simón Bolívar behind him, Maduro said that democracy had triumphed with this vote. But the leader also remained committed to the revolutionary ideals of his predecessor.

“We’ve lost a battle, but the fight to build socialism and a new society is just beginning,” Maduro said, according to the Venezuela’s El Universal.

The broader view of all of this is that this election marks a continued shift toward the right in Latin America. Just last month, Argentina voted in Mauricio Macri, an opposition figure who defeated the hand-chosen successor of current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

Rookie Linebacker Stephone Anthony Earns Spot In NFL Record Book

A new rule says if you block the kick for an extra point after a touchdown, you can try to run it all the way back the other way for 2 points. The New Orleans Saints linebacker was the first to do it.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

To Celebrate Playoff Bid, Clemson Coach Throws Huge Pizza Party

0:29

Download

Dabo Swinney promised to host a pizza party if his team got into the college football playoffs. They made it, and Swinney had tens of thousands of people over on Sunday — at the stadium.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

How A School's Attendance Number Hides Big Problems

Student is late to class

LA Johnson/NPR

Every morning, the familiar routine plays out in hundreds of thousands of classrooms: A teacher looks out over the desks, taking note of who’s in their seats and who isn’t.

On any given day, maybe there’s one or two empty chairs. One here, one there. And that all goes into the school’s daily attendance rate.

But here’s what that morning ritual doesn’t show: That empty desk? It might be the same one that was empty last week, or two weeks ago. The desk of a student who’s racked up five, 10, 20 absences this year.

It’s called chronic absence. The official definition: missing more than 10 percent of the school year — just two days a month.

And the real-life implication: a warning sign for a student on the brink of failing or dropping out.

Experts call chronic absence an “unseen force” hidden behind average daily attendance figures of 90 or 95 percent that schools hail as a sign of success.

“Daily attendance averages tell you how many students show up every day,” says Hedy Chang, who heads Attendance Works, a nonprofit education policy group. “But not how many are missing so much school that they are headed off track academically.”

Yet there’s a growing effort to pull that chronic absence figure out of the shadows. The U.S. Education Department has taken note: Next year, for the first time ever, it will release school-level data on how many U.S. students missed at least 15 days of school.

The Math Problem

To understand how deceptive attendance numbers can be, let’s take a look at Baltimore. This year, the elementary attendance rate in the Baltimore city public schools is 93 percent. Anything in the 90s is an A – so that’s good, right?

But, look more closely and you find that nearly 20 percent of students in grades one through five have missed more than 20 days of school. That’s more than 6,000 children.

“As a statistic, attendance can hide patterns,” says Mark Gaither, principal at Wolfe Street Academy, an elementary school in Baltimore. He would know. Ten years ago, his school was in bad shape: Test scores were terrible, and the state was threatening to take over.

But when he arrived, he focused on attendance: then in the low 90s. “Not abysmal,” he thought at the time.

But he soon discovered that day in, day out, it was the same students who were not showing up. And these kids, he says, “were missing 30 percent of their education.” Not surprisingly, these were the students struggling the most in basic things like learning to read.

“That was the performance gap,” Gaither says. “The devil is in the details — the devil is in the individual child. If we don’t get this kid to school, they’re going to fail.”

So he launched a kid-by-kid campaign — heavily focused on data — to raise attendance. And today, the school has just a handful of chronically absent kids … and much higher test scores.

Taking A Different Approach

A growing number of school districts are doing what Gaither did: using data to attack this problem head-on.

Patterson Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C., is a good example.

Every Thursday morning, Principal Victorie Thomas convenes a small group in the school’s conference room. Sitting around the oval table are several social workers, the attendance monitor and a city year volunteer. They all have a stack of paper: A kid-by-kid list of absences of the school year to date.

What they’re doing is searching for patterns, highlighting names of students who have missed three or more days. Then, they share from their different perspectives what they know about each student.

They start with the youngest kids. They talk about home visits, discuss what community resources may be available and make plans to call families and talk to teachers about what might be going on.

“We go child-by-child because that’s how important it is to us,” says Thomas. “One day can make a big difference.”

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

Anna Deavere Smith Wants Playgoers To Do What They Can To Counter Violence

Through powerful monologues, Anna Deavere Smith has tackled race riots, integration and health care. In Notes from the Field, she’s using her characters to explore the school-to-prison pipeline.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

Sen. Ron Johnson Weighs In On Obama's Terrorism Message

Steve Inskeep talks to Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin about President Obama’s speech Sunday night. Johnson is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

Is This Congressman's 'Oversight' An Effort To Hobble Climate Science?

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Kathryn Sullivan, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been tangling for months over the legitimacy of a climate study NOAA scientists published in Science.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Kathryn Sullivan, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been tangling for months over the legitimacy of a climate study NOAA scientists published in Science. Drew Angerer/AP; Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Drew Angerer/AP; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

About 600 scientists and engineers, including former employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have signed on to letters urging the head of that agency, Kathryn Sullivan, to push back against political interference in science.

For months, Sullivan has been tangling with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, as he investigates a climate change study done by NOAA scientists.

That study, published earlier this year in the journal Science, cast doubt on the what some have called a global warming hiatus — the idea that global warming has slowed in the last two decades.

Smith says his actions are a legitimate part of his oversight duties. But scientists call it harassment.

June 4: The journal Science publishes a report by NOAA scientists that suggests a much-ballyhooed “pause” in global warming does not actually exist.

June 16: NOAA scientist who worked on the study briefs staffers of the House Science Committee.

July 14: The committee’s chairman, Lamar Smith, R-Texas, writes to NOAA, demanding data, methods, and emails related to the study.

Sept. 10 and 25: Smith sends additional letters to NOAA asking for more information.

Oct. 13: Smith issues subpoena to NOAA administrator, requesting wide range of documents and communications.

Oct. 19: Two NOAA scientists involved in the research brief committee staffers in Washington, D.C., on the study.

Nov. 18: Smith writes to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who oversees NOAA, to demand compliance with the subpoena. He alleges that whistleblowers have told him the “study was rushed to publication, despite concerns and objections of a number of NOAA scientists.”

Nov. 20: NOAA director Kathryn Sullivan writes to Smith that, “I have not and will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me.”

Nov. 24: Leading scientific societies write a letter to Smith expressing their “grave concern” that his congressional inquiry amounts to political interference in the scientific process.

Dec. 1: Smith writes again to Pritzker, this time prioritizing the emails from NOAA’s non-scientist staff in his request for documents.

Dec. 7: Roughly 600 scientists send a letter to Sullivan, imploring the NOAA director to “stand firm” in resisting what they see as Smith’s continuing efforts to interfere with the scientific research process. In a separate letter, scientists who formerly worked at NOAA also urge Sullivan to “continue to resist any unwarranted congressional investigations that would contribute to stifling the scientific process and even intimidate NOAA scientists and their collaborators.”

“Please continue to resist this dangerous abuse of congressional oversight power,” the scientists and engineers write to Sullivan in a letter they sent to her Monday. “We urge you to continue to stand firm against these bullying tactics in order to protect NOAA scientists’ ability to pursue research and publish data and results regardless of how contentious the issue may be.”

In a separate letter, also dated Dec. 7, former NOAA scientists urge Sullivan “to continue to resist any unwarranted congressional investigations that would contribute to stifling the scientific process and even intimidate NOAA scientists and their collaborators.”

Jim Buizer, a climate change researcher now at the University of Arizona, used to work at NOAA and says he signed on to this letter after Smith issued a subpoena for, among other things, scientists’ emails.

“It hits us on a very personal level, but also on a professional one,” Buizer says. “It distracts people from the hard work that they’re doing. And it’s a distraction that doesn’t serve the American people very well.”

In the past, he says, people have gotten their hands on emails from climate scientists and taken them out of context to cast doubt on the scientists’ research.

“We don’t have anything to hide; it’s just that people don’t understand how we work,” says Buizer.

These letters are just the latest in a fierce battle of correspondence that’s been waged since the climate change study first appeared in June and came to Smith’s attention.

“I have a couple of concerns about this study,” the congressman tells NPR. “One, the timing is very suspicious, right before the climate meeting in Paris.Two, we have whistleblowers who have told us it was rushed, just to get it out for the Paris meeting, and some scientists felt like it had not been sufficiently vetted.”

Smith says his biggest concern was that the study did not include satellite data, which he calls the gold standard. “It didn’t seem to me to be a completely honest study,” he says.

Asked if the normal peer review process done at a major journal like Science wouldn’t have flagged any missing information or cherry picking of data, Smith says, “I don’t think that Science magazine had access to a whistleblower like we did, saying it had been rushed and had not been sufficiently peer-reviewed.”

“And, you know,” the congressman adds, “Science magazine may have its own bias. I don’t know, maybe they wanted to rush it out before the Paris summit as well.”

Jesse Smith, a senior editor at Science, tells NPR that the manuscript was submitted in December of 2014, and the review process was thorough and not rushed at all.

“The process actually took longer than it usually does,” the Science editor says, “because we subjected the paper to even more scrutiny than we subject most papers to.”

What’s more, the editor adds, satellite data is irrelevant to this study, which concerns sea surface temperatures from ships and buoys. “The paper wasn’t about satellite measurements of tropospheric temperatures,” he notes. “It was about sea surface temperature measurements, which are just one part of a larger picture.”

“The scientific process is modern civilization’s best means for arriving at reliable truth,” says Rush Holt, the executive publisher of Science and head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “And that process should be allowed to work without political meddling,” he says. The AAAS is one of eight major scientific associations that recently wrote to the congressman to express concern about the “chilling effect” this inquest could have on science.

Holt, a physicist who spent more than a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from New Jersey, seems especially peeved that Smith issued the subpoena.

“You don’t issue subpoenas to scientists for doing their conscientious work,” says Holt. “It’s certainly an abuse of subpoenas.”

Others agree that a congressional subpoena is a big hammer. “People normally think about that related to wrongdoing, to misconduct, to a criminal act, or to corruption,” says Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA fisheries scientist now at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I think what he’s doing is bullying. I think it’s intimidation tactics.”

Rosenberg notes that a rule change earlier this year means the chairman of the House science committee can now issue subpoenas more easily, without having to confer with the ranking minority member of the committee.

Currently that’s Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who tells NPR that what Lamar Smith is doing “appears to be about politics. I haven’t seen much science in it.”

In an October letter to the Texas congressman, Johnson notes that “in the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54-year history of the Committee.”

When asked about the accusation that he has used his power as chairman to harass scientists whose work he does not like, Smith says he has a responsibility to conduct oversight.

“And when I see government agencies using taxpayers’ dollars and not coming up with studies that I think are based upon good data and good evidence and good science,” Smith tells NPR, “then I think not only do the people have a right to know that, their representatives in Congress have a right to know that as well.”

“In this case, I just simply want the facts to come out,” Smith says. “And for reasons I don’t understand, NOAA is resisting giving us the information that we requested, which of course would naturally make people suspicious.”

NOAA spokesperson Cairin Clayton says Smith’s complaint that NOAA is resisting his requests for information is just not so. “We feel we’ve provided all the information that the committee needs to understand the issue,” says Clayton.

The scientists who did the study briefed committee staffers two times to answer questions about the study’s rationale and methodology, Clayton notes. Plus, she says, all of the data is publicly available on the agency’s website.

NOAA has a scientific integrity process that allows employees to make anonymous complaints if they feel there’s been an abuse of science or scientific misconduct. Clayton says no one has complained about this climate change study.

Right now, NOAA is working to respond to the latest letter from Lamar Smith. Although his previous requests included documents and communications to and from NOAA scientists, Smith has now prioritized getting emails and other documents relating to the study from non-scientist NOAA staffers. He’s asked to see the information no later than Dec.15.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.

Why Has The Death Penalty Grown Increasingly Rare?

A gurney in Huntsville, Texas, where death row inmates are strapped down to receive a lethal dose of drugs.

A gurney in Huntsville, Texas, where death row inmates are strapped down to receive a lethal dose of drugs. Pat Sullivan/AP hide caption

toggle caption Pat Sullivan/AP

The last execution scheduled for this year is set for Tuesday in Georgia. But capital punishment has gown rare in America to the point of near extinction.

Even though polls show that 60 percent of the public still supports the death penalty, and even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld it as constitutional, the number of executions this year so far is almost the same as the number of fatalities from lightning strikes — 27 executions versus 26 deaths by lightning.

It’s an ironic statistic. When the Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in 1972, it did so, in part, because, as Justice Potter Stewart put it, capital punishment was being imposed so randomly and “freakishly” that it was like being “struck by lightning.”

Four years later, the court would revive the death penalty, but with new limitations aimed at reserving it for the so-called worst of the worst.

Few could have imagined the trajectory the death penalty would follow in the years after. The number of executions soared in the 1990s — hitting a high of 98 in 1999 and ultimately totaling more than 1,400 — but tailed off dramatically after 2000. With just one more execution set for this year, the current 27 that have taken place are the smallest number in almost 25 years.

While the death penalty remains the law in 31 states, that figure is misleading.

In many of the 31, capital punishment has largely fallen into disuse. In four of them, the governor has put a moratorium on the death penalty, and in 17 there’s an executive or judicial hold on executions because of botched procedures or problems in obtaining drugs that courts and legislatures have approved for lethal injection.

In fact, in the past 11 months, only five states conducted executions — Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Florida and Virginia.

Those who deal with the death penalty regularly, whether opponents or supporters, acknowledge the downward trend. So why is this happening?

“From the 1970s to the ’90s, I think the nation essentially ceded all of its concerns about the death penalty’s reliability to the Supreme Court, which seemed to be fully on the case,” says death penalty researcher James Liebman, of Columbia Law School.

But, he observes, by the early 2000s, public perception began to change. “People began to realize that the Supreme Court couldn’t keep the death penalty reliable. Dozens of innocent people were released from death row, [causing] jurors, prosecutors and governors [to] put the brakes” on executions.

Indeed, some prominent defenders of the death penalty have changed their minds. Conservative Republican Mark Earley presided over the execution of 36 men as attorney general of Virginia from 1998 to 2001. Earley now opposes capital punishment.

“We’ve had so many exonerations over the last 10 to 15 years — over 150,” he says. “We can’t have a system where there’s a question about putting someone to death who may be innocent or who … clearly didn’t receive a fair trial.”

Earley says that “conceptually,” he can still make an argument for the death penalty for certain crimes, but he adds that having been involved in the criminal justice system throughout his life, his concern is “we get it wrong sometimes, and in the death penalty, we just can’t get it wrong.”

George Kendall, a defense lawyer who has litigated death cases for more than 40 years, said that the swing against the death penalty is not just because of the 156 death row inmates who have been exonerated or the advent of DNA evidence. It’s the nature of the cases that have disintegrated on further examination.

“We’re not talking about a universe of cases where there was maybe one detective working the case on Friday afternoons,” Kendall notes. “We’re talking about cases that were the largest priority in the office, and that’s what has really shaken people. That cases that really look as solid as they can be … fast-forward 20 years later, and some new technology comes around, and ‘My God, we made a horrible mistake.’ “

Many still think that the death penalty can be fairly and equitably imposed, among them, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He is committed to the death penalty as an important — if rare — punishment. He cites the Boston Marathon bombing as the kind of crime deserving the ultimate punishment.

“We are a nation of laws, and our Legislature authorizes the death penalty in certain prescribed cases that are very specific with aggravated circumstances,” he says. “I think the average citizen recognizes that there are some crimes that cross the boundaries of civilized society and that recourse is appropriate.”

Judge Alex Kozinski, of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over West Coast states, agrees. But, he observes, “there are so many contradictions in death penalty jurisprudence that it’s going to be very difficult to find a way back.”

The Supreme Court has “put in so many controls and conditions that it is very hard to administer it without a lot of expense, a lot of delay, and a lot of missteps,” he explains. And he predicts that the expense will be the death penalty’s downfall, that at some point, “the taxpayers are going to say, ‘This isn’t worth it.’ “

Indeed, that seems to have been the view of the conservative Legislature in Nebraska, which earlier this year voted to abolish the death penalty.

Then too, fewer juries are handing down death sentences, in part because fewer prosecutors are seeking them.

Only a few localities are still enthusiastic about capital punishment. “It’s down to counties,” says death penalty lawyer Kendall.

According to data compiled from the Death Penalty Information Center, 21 counties were responsible for all of the executions in the United States in 2015; that’s less than 1 percent of all counties in the United States. And of those 21, five were responsible for 40 percent of all executions this year.

Things have changed even in Texas, Kendall maintains. “There are only a handful of prosecutors that use the death penalty in Texas any longer. A great majority of the prosecutors in this country have never used the death penalty and are never going to … even in the South.”

And yet, the numbers of prisoners waiting on death row has continued to grow. Because of the long-term backlog, there are now some 3,000 men and women awaiting execution.

That’s just one of the internal contradictions and unintended consequences that mark the death penalty in the United States today.

For another, look at lethal injection, the execution method now used by every capital punishment state and the federal government. Oklahoma medical examiner Jay Chapman developed the method in 1977 as a more humane one than the electric chair, hanging, firing squad or gas chamber.

Chapman devised a three-drug lethal injection combination, and other states and the federal government quickly adopted it. The lethal cocktail sometimes proved unreliable, however, with botched executions taking place in several states, including Oklahoma in 2014.

By early 2015, Oklahoma was in the U.S. Supreme Court defending a newer version of its cocktail from a challenge brought by death penalty opponents. The state devised the new version because it was becoming impossible to get one of the drugs that had been used previously.

At oral argument, Justice Samuel Alito put the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of death penalty opponents, who he suggested were putting political pressure on drug companies.

“Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty?” he asked.

Oklahoma’s lawyer assured the court that the only new substitution drug in the state’s protocol worked just as well as the original drug, and the high court subsequently gave the state the green light to go ahead with the new drug combination in its planned execution of convicted killer Richard Glossip.

But two hours before Glossip was to be put to death, the governor discovered that there had been a substitution for a second drug, and this one was not part of the approved protocol. Moreover, state officials also learned that the same mistake had been made in an execution months earlier as well. Glossip, who had already eaten his last meal and stripped down to his boxer shorts, was returned to his cell, and the governor ordered a halt to all executions well into 2016.

The Oklahoma experience is emblematic of the difficulties states are having.

First, it is increasingly difficult to get lethal injection drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are refusing to sell their product for use in executions because, as Judge Kozinski explains, it is simply inconsistent with their mission. “Drug companies are in the business of healing, and they are not comfortable — either morally or just economically — being in the business of killing,” he says.

Kozinski, who most recently wrote the decision allowing lethal injections to go forward in California, views the attempt to make execution look more merciful as a fool’s errand.

“People are just not comfortable with the idea of what execution involves: taking somebody out and killing them,” he observes. “So if you can make it look like it’s just like a gentle sleep, I think the perception would be, ‘We’re not doing anything violent.’ But of course we are. We are killing a human being and this is as violent a thing as society can do.”

The difficulty in obtaining drugs, and getting trained medical personnel to participate in executions, has led states to adopt more and more secrecy about the drugs they are using, where they get them, and what procedures they use. Hutchinson, the Arkansas governor, says it’s essential to keep the source of the drugs confidential.

“The reason for that is the source of the drug would dry up because of pressure that mounts from anti-death-penalty advocates, boycotts, threats,” he says.

But that very secrecy leads to more challenges from death penalty opponents, and more delays, while at the same time, acceptable drugs exceed their expiration dates. And there are other problems.

“What’s happening is all these things are being done in secret and they’re being done poorly and they’re coming apart at the time of execution,” says Columbia’s professor Liebman.

Oklahoma’s experience is Exhibit A in Liebman’s argument.

The other internal contradiction in capital punishment is the trial and appeals process itself. In an effort to make death penalty cases more error-free, reserve it for only the worst of the worst, and make the system more uniform, the Supreme Court added more protections for the defendant and more appellate reviews.

But when that made the process longer and more complicated, there was a reaction in Congress, and in 1996 President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act with the specific aim of cutting death penalty delays.

But “it’s had just the opposite effect,” notes death penalty opponent Kendall.

At the time the law was passed, the average time from death sentence to execution was about 10 years, according to statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. Today it’s close to 17 years.

Death penalty supporters like Hutchinson see these delays as anathema — “cruel to the victims’ families,” hard on the defendant, and “not a good reflection on our system of justice in America.”

Death penalty opponents, however, see the delays as a form of providence. “Thank God it takes this long,” says Kendall, noting that many exonerations have taken “more than two decades before their evidence of innocence could be marshaled and presented and shown.”

He points to a particularly uncomfortable example, the case of Henry Lee McCollum, sentenced to death for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina.

In 1993, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited McCollum as a poster child for why the death penalty is justified. Compared with what McCollum had done to the girl, Scalia wrote, “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection!”

Last year, McCollum was exonerated and released from prison after 30 years. DNA from the crime scene that had never been tested was matched to a man in the same neighborhood who was serving a life sentence for a similar crime around the same time.

There is little doubt that what is driving the death penalty numbers down in America — both death sentences and executions — is the revelation in recent years that many of the people sentenced to die were innocent. Since 1973, an astonishing 156 death row inmates have been exonerated and released, many of them after decades in prison.

And it’s not just a matter of DNA from blood and bodily fluids. Other science used in past prosecutions has also come under fire. This year the FBI conducted a study of 3,000 cases in which FBI lab analysts or agents testified or submitted hair analysis reports prior to the year 2000. The bureau found that in 90 percent of the cases it examined, the analysts’ conclusions were erroneous.

Former Virginia Attorney General Earley observes that as the science keeps advancing, “in every generation we can become the victims of our own hubris, thinking we’ve arrived and we can’t make mistakes and the science we have today is the best science and the criminal justice we have is the best. Fifty years down the road we’re going to look back and see some gaping holes.”

Earley says that when he presided over 36 executions in Virginia, “I still felt fairly confident that we could always get it right, and I just don’t feel that way anymore.”

“You know, it’s one thing to sit in a Senate chamber as I did in the state Senate and vote for capital punishment bills,” he muses. “It’s another thing to be on what we call the death watch until midnight.”

“It’s a gruesome business,” he adds. “It’s business that even people who are involved with it — at the end of the day — they don’t like.”

In Arkansas, Hutchinson has set eight execution dates since taking office in early 2015. He says he has personally reviewed each case to make sure the verdict is justified. But because of ongoing court challenges, he has not yet had any of those midnight death watches.

“It’s not something you desire to do when you’re governor,” Hutchinson says, adding that “the criminal justice system is important for our state. It’s important to the nation, and it’s the job of the governor to carry out the sentence of the jury.”

Death penalty opponents seem to believe that the Supreme Court will, sometime in the next decade or so, strike down capital punishment as a violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But there is considerable disagreement among abolitionists as to whether it’s wise to push their agenda now.

“It’s no longer an ‘if.’ It’s a ‘when,’ ” says ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro.

But the future is not yet so clear. Justice Scalia, a staunch defender of the death penalty, has said it “wouldn’t surprise” him if the court were to abolish it. And In June, Justice Stephen Breyer called for a reconsideration of whether capital punishment is so rarely and irrationally imposed as to be unconstitutional. But only one other justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined him.

So, for now, there is no sign that a majority of the justices are prepared to abandon the death penalty entirely if states can overcome the inherent difficulties of imposing it fairly and properly.

This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.