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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics Funding

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Earlier this year, I debated the death penalty with Timothy Ford at Seattle University. As usual, I cited the new generation of deterrence studies, including the Dezhbakhsh, Rubin, and Shepherd study at Emory University and the Mocan and Gittings study at University of Colorado, among others. Mr. Ford responded with an allegation I had never heard before. He stated that studies I was relying on had been funded by right-wing organizations with a pro-death-penalty agenda.

Never having heard this claim before, I did not immediately have the facts to refute it. I do now.  The claim is false.

The claim sounded suspicious right out of the gate, for several reasons. First, there simply aren't big pots of pro-death-penalty funding available, as my spartanly funded organization is keenly aware. A scholar who actually wanted to sell his academic soul for funding could easily find much more lucrative areas. Second, in the course of the same debate Mr. Ford had demonstrated a loose association with the truth, making a patently false charge regarding my brief in Medellin v. Dretke, 544 U.S. 660 (2005). (Fortunately, I did have the facts at my fingertips on that one and promptly nailed him on it.) Third, these kinds of studies don't require a lot of funding. The most expensive part of research typically involves gathering the data, but these studies use government data downloadable from public databases.

To check out the deterrence study funding allegation, I went straight to the sources. I emailed a co-author of each of the main studies finding a deterrent effect to ask if Mr. Ford's allegations were true. Here are their responses:

Paul Rubin: "No one funded our research.  It was standard unfunded work."

Naci Mocan: "There was no funding received from any source to conduct our study."

Dale Cloninger: "I have not received outside funding for any of my research endeavors dealing with criminal activity or executions. My research, with one exception, has been conducted within the scope of my university duties. The single exception was funded by the US Dept of Labor in 1967 and dealt with the labor force practices of the retired. Frequently I have supplemented the university's support out of my own pocket. I don't think the U. Houston-Clear Lake has ever been classified as a 'right wing organization'. "

Paul Zimmerman: "I received absolutely no funding whatsoever from any source in conducting my research."

So there it is. Unless these gentlemen are lying -- and I have no reason to doubt them -- Mr. Ford's allegation is false. Did Mr. Ford deliberately lie or merely act with reckless disregard of the truth? I don't know. It doesn't matter much.  To imply that a scholar's work was biased by his funding source is a serious charge against his professional integrity. It is not a charge to be made without strong evidence to back it up.

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It would be most entertaining to the C&C blog audience if Mr. Ford would grace us with a response to Mr. Scheidegger's commentary. The gauntlet has been thrown!

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