Can Science Be Driven by Values?

By , CPE Staff

By: David Martin, Data Science Director and Reece SistoEditorial Content Strategist

As an organization, our mission is grounded in science, but we are guided by abstract questions: What does a just society look like? What do members of a community owe one another? Questions of values, ethics, and morality are questions of belief, but they nonetheless guide our empirical research. We are dedicated to conducting rigorous science. This means all aspects of our work uses intentional methodologies to ensure legitimate outcomes.

We at the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) make no secret about our values: We believe in reducing the footprint of the U.S. police state and promoting public safety systems that focus on creating more equitable outcomes for Black communities. These goals are centered around beliefs, but they’re given greater urgency by scientific research. Science is also the tool that can change minds that are set in their ways and gives us credentials to walk into rooms and solve problems that have been generations in the making.

In communities across the country, police disproportionately use force on Black people anywhere from four to eleven times as often as they do on White people. As research by our Co-founder and CEO, Dr. Philip Atiba Solomon, illustrates, Black children are more likely to be perceived as older, less innocent, and more threatening than their White counterparts. This is further substantiated in the field at large: Black children are disproportionately subjected to police force, search, arrest and are more likely to be treated like adults within the criminal justice system. Our scientific work is motivated by the picture of a deeply unjust society that these findings reveal.

Critical readers may rightly ask if these values result in bias in our work. Scientists are often imagined as disinterested in the outcome of their work, and “disinterest” is often seen as necessary avoiding inflecting bias within one’s research. This is a common misconception, and a disservice to the accomplishments of countless scientists whose values have guided their work. Dr. Charles R. Drew made major advancements in the field of blood transfusion and was a principal advocate against racial segregation in blood banks. Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the first Black US surgeon general, published over 100 papers in her lifetime, making huge advancements in our knowledge on diabetes, youth sexual activity, and youth pregnancy; her advocacy for sex education in schools spun up a storm of controversy in her time. These heroes were not “disinterested” in the suffering of people with debilitating or then-incurable ailments but highly motivated by personal interest to alleviate them.

To want to alleviate suffering is therefore as much a scientific question as it is a political one, especially considering that, all too frequently, the health needs of those with the least power receive the least attention. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett not only contributed to the development of the COVID vaccine but promoted strategies for combating vaccine hesitancy amongst Black communities. And Dr. Sherman A. James was one of the first to illustrate how racism and discrimination have measurable—and disastrous—impacts on Black people’s health outcomes. His appointment as a distinguished professor emeritus at Duke University Sanford’s Public Policy School is a testament to the fact that good public policy and good public health are inextricably linked. In fact, political action is often necessary to scientific discovery: the advent of antiretroviral therapy to treat AIDS wasn’t championed until scientists and activists alike ferociously demanded more from our reticent government. When driven by a desire for a more just and equitable world, we can prioritize the scientific advancements that make such a world more possible. At CPE, public safety is a matter of public health: to relieve suffering is the goal, and science is the means. 

In CPE's work, our values point to the questions we should ask, and science provides the tools needed to answer them. We use values-based judgments to determine what a just world might look like. We might say, for example, that the benefits of public safety should be distributed equitably to all people in a given community and that the harms of policing should not be applied inequitably. Science enters the discussion when determining how to measure and assess whether this is the case. We draw on a deep well of existing scientific work that suggests this may not be true for many communities. There are lively scholarly debates about precisely what data should be collected, the tradeoffs of different methods of measuring the relevant concepts, and the specific statistical procedures appropriate to make a determination. This is the work of science: an ongoing conversation of many voices without a final verdict delivered with absolute certainty, but where evidence accumulates to make increasingly certain judgments about the world that we can use to guide our actions. CPE's scientists use the best available science as the basis for our work, which is motivated by unwavering commitments to equity and in pursuit of better public safety systems for all.

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