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Why Your Well-intentioned Intuitions are No Substitute for Research Evidence (and may be harmful)

As some of you may know, this year my research efforts have been focused on missing persons cases. As a result, I am occasionally asked for my thoughts on all sorts of different issues related to this topic. Of these, one sticks out: a very well-intentioned individual, who I will describe here as a ‘policy wonk of sorts’, asked me whether there was any research to support his idea of police working with local LGBTQ community groups to mobilize information about individuals missing from within their community through social media or other avenues. I am rarely gobsmacked, but this was an exception.

Immediate random thoughts:

‘How the hell would you know*?’

“I’ve heard of gaydar, but I’m not sure we’re there yet’

‘When did outing people on social media become a good idea? Did I miss a memo?’

The short answer to this query is: NO. No, I could not find one single study that suggested this was either a good idea or empirically supported and I am not going to be the first to run that experiment.

The question does, however, bring me up to the myriad of difficulties that come with working with a heterogeneous community that is placed together under one umbrella, but may be radically different in a lot of other important ways, such as gender, socioeconomic background, current financial status, social capital, life experience, etc., etc. To illustrate my point, take a look at a lot of the ‘best practice’ documents that have been produced in relation to policing in LGBTQ communities and/or with LGBTQ folks. Most individuals involved in the production of these ‘best practices’ (which are really just opinions informed by life or work experiences because, again, little to no research), come from working class, middle class or upper middle class backgrounds, who currently work in the non-profit or public sectors. The little we do know about missing persons, by the way, seems to show they tend to be disproportionately drawn from heavily marginalized groups.

Further, by trying to render people visible – wherein we put missing LGBTQ folks on blast through social media ostensibly to improve our changes of finding them** – can only run the risk of increasing vulnerability for some or many individuals. It also takes away the agency of those who have chosen not to disclose their identity to family, friends, co-workers and so on. Further, it places people within a community within which they may not otherwise chose to self-identify for other reasons. This may surprise some people, but not every individual who is gay, for example, self-identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. Again, agree or disagree, that should remain their choice.

Struggling with these thoughts, I did what I often do: I turned to the research literature. There, I found I’m not the only one who things we have a long way to go. In a recent paper, Angela Dywer (2019) in her work on developing ‘best practices’ for policing with LGBTQ people, wrestles with some of the issues. Here’s what she had to say:

I know people mean well, but every action brings the possibility of an unintended negative reaction (Huey’s 4th Law of Criminological Physics, also know as a ‘backfire effect’). I don’t think – and apparently Dwyer agrees with me – we’re at the stage where we can lightly or otherwise toss about non-studied, non-careful ‘recommendations’ and 'best practices'.

And this is where strong empirical evidence, or the lack thereof, can and should be used to trump intuition, no matter how kindly or well-intended.

*I'm adding this comment from Lorna Ferguson, who is often a thoughtful critic on earlier drafts of some of these blogs. I quote her because I could not say it better myself: " It's also not just about visibility, it's also about the utilization of their sexuality as a PHYSICAL identifier. It forces people to assume archetypes."

** For the record, I've extensively dug through the Canadian research literature and there is no body of evidence regarding rates at which LGBTQ adults are reported missing. Does one's sexual identity alone render one at increased risk? No way to know without ... you guessed it: speculation or research. I prefer research.


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