Theodore Sasson on How Scientific Knowledge Influences Political Discourse on Death Penalty

Theodore Sasson

In How Science Matters, Theodore Sasson studies speeches made in Massachusetts Legislative Assembly to highlight how and to what extent scientific knowledge influences political discourse on the death penalty. He argues that the larger consensus in the scientific community on the ineffectiveness of the death penalty has forced the proponents to reframe the debate in terms of just retribution.

In 1997, Massachusetts House of Representatives held a third debate in a decade on a Bill to establish the death penalty. Sasson analysed around 75 speeches made during this debate to understand how scientific knowledge on death penalty influenced legislative decision-making. He found out that just like the observations made in a similar study conducted on legislators in New York, the proponent legislators in Massachusetts also mobilised “common sense” arguments while the opponents relied upon scientific evidence. However, these commonsensical arguments were highly qualified:

“In many instances, the proponents’ common-sense arguments on behalf of the deterrence hypothesis were either equivocal or highly qualified, suggesting a concession to the scientific consensus. In the following extract, the speaker begins with a quasi-scientific argument and then immediately acknowledges its common-sense nature.”

Therefore, Sasson concluded that as a general rule, the proponents of the death penalty in the House preferred to avoid scientific evidence, even the scientific claims that supported their argument and rather chose to ground their arguments in “popular wisdom” and the “discourses of everyday life”.

However, Sasson points out that the observations made in the Massachusetts study differed from the New York study in one fundamental aspect: the reframing of the debate. The pro-death legislators in Massachusetts chose to drive the debate away from deterrence and towards what is referred to as “just punishment”. Sasson argues that this reframing of debate from “crime control” to “just punishment” was done by the proponents as the latter frame can’t be refuted by scientific evidence:

“Fear of contradiction is, however, precisely what seems to have discouraged
the death penalty supporters from mobilizing the dissident science in the course of their arguments… Thus, for many death penalty supporters, shifting the debate to the issue of retribution makes good rhetorical sense.”

These arguments on just retribution, Sasson highlights, were made with heightened emotional intensity. These well developed and passionate arguments involved themes that emphasised on law’s obligation
to the victims and their families, and the necessity of the death penalty to shore up a weakening moral order. According to Sasson, the conscious effort to drive debate away from the frame where scientific evidence is contradictory is exemplary of the influence exercised by the scientific discourse in death penalty debates:

“The influence of the scientific consensus on the death penalty debate is a consequence of the political influence of scientists rather than their technical capacity to render truth transparent and compelling. Given the rules and assumptions that constitute the legislative arena as a cultural system, scientists that can establish an official viewpoint (a task that no doubt requires considerable political effort in its own right are able to exercise some degree of political influence.”

Complement this with Michael Billig on A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology, and Mark Fishman on Crime Waves as Ideology.

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology