Humanists have been opposed to the death penalty for many decades and in most of the world public opinion has moved our way. Most opposition to the death penalty is moral - we think it's wrong. However, people also oppose this penalty because we seem, too often, to execute the wrong person. And here science, specifically forensic science, can make a contribution.
Today's Guardian reports that even in Texas support for the death penalty is declining. Juries are more reluctant to issue death sentences and some prosecutors are less willing to ask for them and Mark White, a former pro-death governor has called for change. According to the Guardian's Chris McGreal these changes are due a stream of cases in which convicted murderers, some on death row, have been shown to be innocent. Nationally there have been nearly 140 such cases.
In most of these cases the new evidence has come from DNA testing. The academic science of life has indeed brought life to some convicts. This science has changed minds that had proven immune to the appeals of compasion.
This is a point with broad application. Many important moral and political issues have been the subject of excited debate for years, even decades. Some, perhaps, appear settled. But for most people, and especially for humanists, the morality of a personal action or public policy depends on its consequences. Consequences are matters of fact and thus amenable to science.
Humanists4Science believes that all policy decisions should be based on the best available evidence. We also believe that if the evidence is rubbish the government has a duty to fund research that will produce better evidence. The story of the death penalty shows that this is not only intellectually sound but politically realistic - if very slow!