Forbidden Research in Academia

Are there research questions that should never be asked? If so, where do we draw the line between what questions are allowed to be asked, and what questions are forbidden? Who among us can draw that line? And what are the consequences for those academics daring to ask the “wrong” questions?

Last year, Stephane M. Shepherd and Benjamin L Spivak, both from Swinburne University of Technology, published a “controversial” paper in the Journal of Criminology (Shepherd and Spivak, 2020). The authors drew from official crime statistics to demonstrate that Sudanese-born migrants in Victoria, Australia are arrested at much higher rates than other demographics. This fact, in itself, is not contested. The real controversy centers around why this is the case, with the prevailing narrative being that Sudanese-born migrants are subjected to racial profiling by police in Melbourne-a perfectly reasonable hypothesis.

The paper is a typical academic article: highly nuanced, carefully worded, and full of numerous qualifications to their findings. I found it to be characteristically balanced, as one might expect of a paper that has gone through peer review. In spite of the care with which they took to report their findings objectively, some of their conclusions were not exactly, well, politically correct. For example, they argued that “Sudanese-born young people are processed at a much lower rate for offences typically associated with [police] profiling (public order/drug offences) than they are for offences that rely less on police discretion (i.e. crimes against the person)” (pg. 362-363). Though they plead with the reader not to use these results to “promote unhelpful narratives” (pg. 365), these pleas fell on deaf ears. At least one academic publicly called the study “racist,” (and subsequently issued an apology).

Oh, and did I mention that Dr Shepherd is African-Australian?

I am (admittedly) no criminologist, but I am a statistician. The research methodology used in the manuscript appears to be robust. The authors were hypothesis testing, not trawling through data looking for any evidence to disconfirm the racial profiling narrative. The very nature of science means that we are not in control of our findings. Sometimes our hypotheses are confirmed, and other times they are disconfirmed. Many academics would have chosen to bury such politically incorrect findings, but not Shepherd and Spivak. Perhaps even more to the point, burying evidence will not help the Sudanese-born community in Melbourne. We need to fully understand a social problem before we can develop evidence-based interventions to address it, e.g., community programs and job training initiatives for at risk youths.

“The very nature of science means that we are not in control of our findings.”

No academics should be attacked because of findings over which they have no control. By the same token, no one paper should ever be considered the end of a debate. Rather than dragging these researchers’ names through the mud by flinging around accusations of racism and discrimination, why not submit a “Reply to Shepherd and Spivak” to the Journal of Criminology? By engaging in dialectics, we will emerge with a much clearer picture and a better understanding of how to solve important social problems. And isn’t that the aim of social science?

Shepherd, SM and Spivak, BL (2020) Estimating the extent and nature of offending by Sudanese-born individuals in Victoria. Journal of Criminology 53(3): 352-368.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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