Don’t execute people, especially those with holes in their head

In 1972, Cecil Clayton, then 31, was sawing a log in a lumberyard when a wood splinter ricocheted from his blade and struck his left temple. He recovered after nine days in the hospital, but he lost about 20% of his prefrontal lobe. After his recovery, according to his brother, Cecil, “broke up with his wife, began drinking alcohol and became impatient, unable to work and more prone to violent outbursts.” Then, twenty-four years later in 1996, Clayton shot and killed sheriff deputy Christopher Casetter.

Cecil Clayton's MRI (brain scan) result revealing a substantial hole in his prefrontal lobe.

Cecil Clayton’s MRI (brain scan) result revealing a substantial hole in his prefrontal lobe.

If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class, Clayton’s accident and subsequent pattern of behavior might seem familiar to you. You may remember that in 1848, the young railroad company foreman Phineas Gage suffered a similar injury. He was drilling a hole in some rock and he used an iron rod to pack the hole with gunpowder, which then exploded, sending the rod through his cheekbone and out the top of his head. Gage got up from his injury still walking and talking, but, legend has it, he soon became a temperamental and violent drunk.

Computer generated depiction of where the iron rod penetrated and left Phineas Gage's skull.

Computer generated depiction of where the iron rod penetrated and left Phineas Gage’s skull.

However, people close to Gage report he still warmly entertained his nieces and became fond of animals; others report he was physically and mentally fit enough to drive a 60-mile stage couch in another country. Though, “he was no longer Gage,” following his accident, whether he became unstable and violent isn’t factual.

Clayton’s behavior, however, is better documented and has more clearly taken a turn for the worse. For example, he scored a 71 (± 4 to 5 points) on his most recent IQ test*. Moreover, since his accident,

He has the reading ability of a nine-year-old, has visual and auditory hallucinations in which he is convinced that he is accompanied by a man and a woman wherever he goes, is incapable of simple tasks such as ordering food from the prison commissary, and is under the delusion that he will never be executed because God will intervene and free him so that he can return to his preaching and gospel singing. – Ed Pilkington, The Guardian

Clayton, 74, is surely mentally disabled, yet the same year he killed Casetter, he was sentenced to death in Missouri. Recently, on Saturday, March 14th, he was denied a mental competency hearing, the only chance for him to establish his disability and save his life. Yet even his lawyers were succesful in attaining such a hearing, it may not nullify his death sentence. Though the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the 8th amendment excludes the execution of the “intellectualy disabled”—one psychologist noted Clayton, “is not simply incompetent legally, he would be unable to care for himself or manage basic self care, were he not in a structured environment that takes care of him … he still does not comprehend, appreciate nor understand its approaching date for him”— each state is allowed to use its own definition of intellectually disabled. Clayton’s fate may very well boil down to Missouri’s statute that requires intellectual disability be established by the time the inmate turns 18. That is, it wouldn’t matter if Clayton had lost half his brain and most mental capacities imaginable by age 19; his tragic mental state would be irrelevant to his execution ruling. So, barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court or the governor of Missouri, Clayton will die today by lethal injection.

Cecil Clayton is reasonably a dangerous man. However, given the state of his mind, it’s cruel to execute him. Not only that, it’s unlikely that doing so would serve a deterrent purpose. Moreover, the absurdity of furnishing any good reason to execute a man with a hole in his brain should call into question the very idea of executing anyone. Indeed, former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who in 1976 voted to reinstate the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, famously renounced his position on the death penalty, stating, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Yet, on we tinker.

Sources not in text:

*Full Scale scores beyond 130 place an individual in the superior or “gifted” range. Scores between 120-129 are classed as “very high.” Scores between 110-119 are “bright normal.” Classifications of other scores are as follows: 90-109, average; 85-89, low average; 70-84, borderline mental functioning, 50-69, mild mental retardation; 35-49, moderate retardation; 20-34, severe retardation; below 20 to 25, profound retardation (The Wechsler Intelligence Scales). However, Hall v. Flordia ruled it unconstitutional to set an IQ requirement for determining intellectual disability.

Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not.

Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.

Justin P. McBrayer, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts

Employers not handing out an opportunity or an award; they’re solving a practical problem

…when packaging your resume, think about it from the viewpoint of the company hiring you. This is not an opportunity they hope to grant to a deserving individual. It’s not an award for which they need to locate the most promising candidate. It’s a practical problem they’re looking to solve: They have work that needs to be done, questions to be asked, research to be conducted, and not enough people to do it. Their goal is to find someone who can do the work, cause few problems, need little training, be a friendly companion during long nights in the lab, and occasionally have a flash of brilliance. Think about how you can fill their need, not the other way around. Communicate that in your resume—and your cover letter, if you persist in the delusion that people read those.

Regrettable Resumes, Part 2

…they want to see what you have made with your own little fingies

You have to make stuff. The tools of journalism are in your hands and no one is going to give a damn about what is on your resume, they want to see what you have made with your own little fingies. Can you use Final Cut Pro? Have you created an Instagram that is about something besides a picture of your cat every time she rolls over? Is HTML 5 a foreign language to you? Is your social media presence dominated by a picture of your beer bong, or is it an RSS of interesting stuff that you add insight to? People who are doing hires will have great visibility into what you can actually do, what you care about and how you can express on any number of platforms.

David Carr, http://bit.ly/1zd17vs

Making the natural seem strange

It takes … a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, ‘Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!’

William James, The Principles of Psychology

Playing Dumb on Climate Change

Even as scientists consciously rejected religion as a basis of natural knowledge, they held on to certain cultural presumptions about what kind of person had access to reliable knowledge. One of these presumptions involved the value of ascetic practices. Nowadays scientists do not live monastic lives, but they do practice a form of self-denial, denying themselves the right to believe anything that has not passed very high intellectual hurdles.

Naomi Oreskes, Playing Dumb on Climate Change

Inter-subjectively testable

Only when certain events recur in accordance with rules or regularities, as in the case of repeatable experiments, can our observations be tested—in principle—by anyone. … Only by such repetition can we convince ourselves that we are not dealing with a mere isolated ‘coincidence’, but with events which, on account of their regularity and reproducibility, are in principle inter-subjectively testable.

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery