I Wish This Was A Bigger Issue In The Skeptic Community

I Wish This Was A Bigger Issue In The Skeptic Community November 12, 2019

Last week, I posted a tweet with the following message: 

I often wonder why the skeptic community isn’t interested in wrongful convictions. It’s the one issue where skepticism can directly result in saving innocent lives.

It was tweeted, of course, concerning the story of Rodney Reed, a man who is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on November 20th, but who is quite likely very innocent. 

The response was… well, it was unexpected in two ways. 

First, so many of you retweeted it, and I thank you for that. I want the skeptic community to take charge of this fight because we are in a unique position to do so. We already understand the unreliability of eyewitness testimony because we do not accept it as evidence of god, woo, the supernatural or any of the word salad Chef Deepak Chopra likes to toss. We already know how to scrutinize unsubstantiated claims. We already know how to question everything. We already know what constitutes evidence. All it takes for a skeptic to understand the weakness of a criminal case is a mere glance at the contents.

The second reason why your response to my tweet was unexpected is that a few of you responded with the suggestion that skeptics are concerned with wrongful convictions and that I am mistaken. This is the response I wanted to talk to you about today because it appears to me to be false. 

For five years, I have gone on and on and on about wrongful convictions. I’ve spoken about them on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube. I’ve written series‘ of blog posts about them that I poured myself into over and over. I’ve recommended books and asked you to retweet the calls for needed actions. To some of you, I talk about it so much that I am completely insufferable. Petitions and letters to your reps, rallies and requests for donations – all of them are being shared on all my spaces. 

I have, all platforms considered, over 100,000 of you out there. When I post a funny meme about Jesus only sacrificing a weekend, I can get upward of 2000-3000 shares, likes and RTs. Super fun, and I am grateful every day for the opportunity to connect with so many beautiful people. On the very same day, though, I’ll call to put your name on a petition to save an innocent man in prison, I’ll get maybe two likes. My heart breaks.

When I post blog posts on the topic, there are, maybe, a handful of shares and a handful of likes. Perhaps a couple of you comment your support. The same week, I’ll post another questionnaire for atheists and it’ll go entirely viral and my inbox will explode with notifications.

You are the skeptic community, and, let’s be real, you don’t give a flying hamburger about wrongful convictions. At least, not so much that your actions show your concern. After each response I got on Twitter claiming that the skeptic community does care about this issue, I asked to be introduced to my fellow skeptics who are taking action and trying to raise awareness about wrongful convictions. I can’t express to you how excited I would be to find others like me. 

I want to be proven wrong. 

PLEASE PROVE ME WRONG. 

The thing is, you can’t prove me wrong because this is not a topic our community is concerned with to the point of action. I read the blogs, I watch the Youtubers and none of you are talking about it. Not much, anyway. If I had to guess why I could come up with several reasons: 

  1. Like me, you don’t care until it affects your life in some way. There was a time when I didn’t care about this issue either. But then, a friend of mine went to prison and everything changed. 
  2. You don’t see how this connects to the skeptic community. As I said earlier, however, we are in a unique position to take up this cause, being as it is skepticism that can fix it. It is our way of thinking and looking at claims that can prevent future wrongful convictions. Skepticism centres around valuing doubt and doubt is what is needed so desperately in these cases. 
  3. You don’t think it’s as big a problem as I am making it out to be, but studies consistently find that between 3% and 5% of all men and women sent to prison after being convicted are innocent of the crime in question. On average, 600,000 people go to prison (not jail) in the USA per year. If we’re conservative, that means 18,000 people are sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit per year. Many of these cases include exculpatory evidence that is not being tested or presented at trial. The kicker: some of these people get sent to death row. 
  4. You feel like the fight is futile and I feel you. I really do. I’ve been yelling about this at the top of my lungs since the turn of the millennium and nothing has changed. The thing is, though, this issue needs more people to care for change to happen. The reason so many cases of wrongful convictions slip by without us noticing is precisely because we are not looking. If everyone who thought the fight was futile just gave it a shot, we might actually affect real and lasting change. 

Skeptics, do you wanna know who is taking up this fight? You wanna know who is on the front lines, fighting for the innocent relentlessly? You wanna know who has our asses sorely beat in this department?

Catholics. 

That’s right kids. The Catholics are beating us at being skeptics. Well, with regards to this one issue, anyway.

A New Orleans nun is leading the charge here, in fact, leaving the rest of us in her wake. Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote Dead Man Walking and founded the Moratorium Campaign and Witness to Innocence, both organizations devoted to rescuing innocents from death row. She has been unstoppable in her outcry against innocents on death row. 

Sister Helen, a good Catholic nun, is one of my heroes. Of course, it doesn’t matter to me what religion you adhere to. The more people there are from all walks of life taking up this fight, the better. 

Here are the reasons why you should care, especially as a skeptic: 

  1. Wrongful convictions are, most often, the result of bad eyewitness testimony. You know, the same source for the belief in god, ghosts and psychics. We’re really, really exceptionally good at dismantling eyewitness testimony. As skeptics, most of us can destroy an argument from personal experience and that is the exact same thing that is sending innocent people to prison. It’s our superpower and we can use it for even more good than freeing people from dogma!
  2. Wrongful convictions don’t just happen to people who go looking for trouble. You’re not safe from being wrongfully convicted. It has happened to good, contributing members of society, to teenagers, children, devoted parents, beloved authors, atheists, Christians, Muslims and every flavour of human under the sun. It happens to people of colour disproportionately, but it happens to white people, too. 
  3. Sending the wrong man to prison often means the real offender remains free. Free to commit another crime. Free to make more victims, to upend more families and cause more terror in the hearts of decent people just trying to get through the day. You’re not safe from potentially being a victim of crime as a result of this. 
  4. Wrongful convictions drain the system of resources that could be used to catch real perpetrators, to offer more victim’s services and to ensure that our law enforcement receives proper training and their mental health cared for so they can perform their jobs better. This is what “tough on crime” really looks like. 
  5. When a person is sent to death row and put to death despite claims of innocence, your tax dollars are going to the cold-blooded, state-sanctioned murder of another human being. This makes you complicit in the very crime the death penalty is meant to deter. Make no mistake, Cameron Todd Willingham was slaughtered with the taxes of hard-working Texans. He was killed in your name. 

I come to you as a skeptic, reaching out to other skeptics, asking for you to use your skepticism to help raise awareness for an issue that people are dying for. You are in a unique position to take charge of this fight as the brilliant critical thinker you are. 

So, how do you help? Here are a list of ways: 

  1. Add your name to and share the petition to stop Rodney Reed’s cold-blooded murder: Sign here
  2. Read my series on wrongful convictions and share it: Reasonable Doubt
  3. Donate to the Innocence Project: Donate
  4. Donate to any one of these not-for-profit organizations helping to free the innocent: Innocence Network
  5. Stay-tuned for my write-up about the Rodney Reed case tomorrow and share the living hell out of it. 

One way or another, I’m going to get you to care to the point you take action. I will. I’m one determined Canadian jerk and I will. 

Hire me. Click here. 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Julanar

    Signed and shared.

  • Jim Jones
  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…One way or another, I’m going to get you to care to the point you take action….”

    I don’t think you can “get” people to care, but I think it was wise to outline specific actions people could take. Signed, donated, shared.

    I encourage anyone to read the research from the Innocence Project, as well as its success stories. If we believe in the justice system, and we support our police, that doesn’t mean we don’t want them both to be better.

  • Robert Baden

    Also look at the various Bail Projects. These help prevent innocent people accused of crimes from taking plea bargains to escape the consequences of sitting in jail while awaiting trial.

  • Lucy

    Signed.

  • abb3w

    I often wonder why the skeptic community isn’t interested in wrongful convictions.

    I have a model that might explain the anomaly you perceive.

    First, you might skim through this textbook. The gist is that what’s generally called “religion” appears to involve some mix of six component “ways” that get expressed. The author gives examples of these “ways” in a variety of religious traditions. You might next skim through the research by Christopher Silver on atheist typology. He similarly counts six types. One of these types (termed the Non-Theist) seems a pure “zero”, not mapping to any of the first six. Another type (Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic) appear to encompass two of the ways (Intellectual Inquiry, and less obviously Shamanic Mediation). The other four types appear to have one-to-one counterpart ways. While the notion frequently seems to be deemed offensive, it appears “atheism” may be modeled as a body of religious tradition(s).

    If you’ve managed to accept this, this model may be applied. The habit of “actions” are the domain of “Way of Right Action”. The inaction you observe may result in part from many of the online atheists leaning more to “Way of Intellectual Inquiry”. Another separate part may be that your arguments don’t resonate well with the “Activist” atheists/agnostics inclined to “way of right action”.

    I’ve no idea how you might advantageously deal with either part, but recognizing such obstacles might facilitate reducing them.

    I’ll note, the local skeptics group did have the founder of a state group that’s focused on wrongful convictions come give a talk on the work. However, the local skeptics group seems more intellectual than action oriented on pretty much everything.