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If You Don’t Like What I’m Going to Say, Don’t Ask Me

There are few more teeth-grinding, soul sucking, head bangingly infuriating activities on the planet than participating or trying to participate in policy initiatives on public issues as an evidence-based researcher.


Because people aren’t super-interested in the research unless it conforms to their pre-existing beliefs and biases. When you tell them something that may contradict what they already know to be True (capital T true, not little t true), they start suggesting you look in alternate spaces for the evidence they believe MUST be ought there. Somewhere. If you only looked hard enough. Or, if you would remove your own science-y biases and accept #alternativefacts.

I have participated in two very different types of research assessment on policing-related public issues. I mentally checked out of the first one, because I knew it wasn’t going to produce much of value. The second time, I fought back against pressure to incorporate materials from public interest exercises that were not even close to the standards of social scientific research.

The pressure to ‘tweak’ research is intense these days because when people – be it a policy-maker, expert, layperson, politician, or other – do not like the results, there is a tendency to shop around until s/he get the results they do like or, failing that, begin to immediately look for loopholes. Tom Nichols (2017) has captured this phenomenon perfectly in his book The Death of Expertise.

Nichols writes of how expertise has become a highly contested area - one in which there are always "two sides"* in every public policy issue. It is also an area saturated with mindless talking points, people touted as experts that no one has ever heard of, and some Joe Monday-Morning-Quarterback -- all of whom are frequently accorded the respect of having their views treated with equal merit to an actual expert**. It is anti-elite, anti-intellectual and ... kind of a dumbing down of not only public policy but also public discourse. Yes, I am more aware than most that sometimes "experts" get things wrong. However, as Nichols says,

My point here is that it's not unique to Joe Monday-Morning-Quarterback. This desire to "get the results you already believe in" (also known in psychology as "confirmation bias") is a general phenomenon that perverts the ability to develop strong policy and practice in policing and criminal justice more generally. And, no, it's not okay when that happens because "your side" won the debate and you got the policy you wanted. Because when your sides loses the next round because of "politics" rather than rigorous evidence, you deserve that outcome too. See how that works?

The long and short of it is this: evidence based policing is great, BUT we remain stymied as long as we do not have evidence based policy. It's not enough to push for research, if no one ever uses it, or if it's only used to cherry-pick results that confirm your own biases. So, yeah, "Dear Policy-maker, if you don't want to know what the research actually says ... don't ask me."

* Inevitably portrayed as though they were equal in volume and weight (like the 90+% of climate experts who state we are experiencing climate change in no small part due to human causes versus the other 2-10% who don't agree).

Think about this for a second: your doctor tells you more than 90% of surgeons recommend Surgery A; 2-10% of surgeons recommend Surgery B. I'm pretty sure which choice a normal, rational person might opt for.

And before anyone rips me on the politics of climate change, I should advise: I know nothing about pipelines and actually hate trees. I see them as giant weeds. My idea of hiking is hitting the shops on Bloor Street, so do not confuse me with some Greta Thunberg-loving hippie. Regardless of my antipathy towards nature, I am a realist and I go where the evidence is, and numerous studies shows an astonishingly high degree of consensus on this issue among actual experts.

**Think about this the next time you read a social media post in which someone argues ad nauseam that a police-involved fatality could've been avoided if the officer had only "just winged" the crazed gunman. Any police officer knows exactly what I'm talking about here.


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