Evolution

The Gallup poll recently published a very interesting analysis of Americans' views on evolution.  (It did happen by the way.  The Earth is really not 10,000 years old.  And yes, you can be a Christian and believe in evolution– just not a close-minded one).  Anyway, the highlights:

The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the
theory of evolution is true and do not believe that humans evolved over
millions of years from less advanced forms of life…

Independents and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe
in the theory of evolution. But even among non-Republicans there
appears to be a significant minority who doubt that evolution
adequately explains where humans came from.

I find the most disconcerting part to be the number of Americans who have been misled by conservative Christian religious leaders into thinking that science and faith are incompatible.  To wit:

It is fascinating to note that some Americans simply justified their
objection to evolution by statements of general faith and belief.
Although the New Testament does not include many explicit references to
the origin of humans in the words of Jesus, 19% of Americans state that
they do not believe in evolution because they believe in Jesus Christ.
Other religious justifications focus on statements of belief in God,
general faith concerns, references to the Bible, and the statement that
“I'm a Christian.”

Here's my favorite part:

The data indicate some seeming confusion on the part of Americans on
this issue. About a quarter of Americans say they believe both in
evolution's explanation that humans evolved over millions of years and
in the creationist explanation that humans were created as is about
10,000 years ago.

Just in case it is not clear, those two concepts are not exactly compatible.  It is hard to underestimate the ignorance of the American public. 

Does the death penalty deter murder

I have to admit, I was rather taken aback when I read an AP article the other day that claimed that there is now solid scientific evidence that the death penalty deters murderers
I've been teaching my public policy classes for years that there's no
good evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent.  I would still be
against the death penalty even if it were proven to be a modest
deterrent, but it makes it a lot easier to make a case against capital
punishment if you can write off deterrent effects.  In all fairness,
here are the highlights of the article:

“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question
about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of
Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the
data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and
commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are
robust, they don't really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death
penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) ? what am
I going to do, hide them?”

Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001
that capital punishment has deterrent effects. They all explore the
same basic theory ? if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an
apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will
change their behavior (forego apples or shy from murder).

I
was actually going to look up the original research and try my own
conclusions, when a quick google search led me to a great shortcut, the
Freakonomics blog, from the authors of the terrifically entertaining bestseller
After reading Freakonomics, I am impressed enough by Steven Levitt's
intellect to go with his interpretation over whatever I would come up
with.  His conclusion:

There are recent studies of the death penalty ? most bad, but some
reasonable ? that find it has a deterrent effect on crime. Wolfers and John Donohue published an article in the Stanford Law Review two years ago that decimated most of the research on the subject.

Analyses of data stretching farther back in time, when there were
many more executions and thus more opportunities to test the
hypothesis, are far less charitable to death penalty advocates. On top
of that, as we wrote in Freakonomics, if you do
back-of-the-envelope calculations, it becomes clear that no rational
criminal should be deterred by the death penalty, since the punishment
is too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention. As
such, economists who argue that the death penalty works are put in the
uncomfortable position of having to argue that criminals are
irrationally overreacting when they are deterred by it.

Levitt's reasoning makes complete sense to me.  I don't think there's a lot of cost/benefit analysis going on in murders.  Nonetheless, I am newly open-minded on the subject.  Still, as long as the system keeps putting obviously innocent people on death row (I suspect as long as DA's and juries are human), I will be opposed to capital punishment

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