To develop an understanding of anything, it is often in our best interest to develop an appreciation of it, first. That doesn’t mean that we have to like it or that we must spend countless hours dedicated to its purpose. All it means is that we recognize its importance or significance in the larger scheme of things. I have found scientific study to be no different and know that others, too, can achieve a similar appreciation.
A common order of questioning follows: "What does research have to do with me, my department, or with the real world that I live and work in, anyway?”
Let’s ponder this question for a moment. Consider that a primary objective of law enforcement is to solve crimes. We respond and decide if a crime has been committed (what occurred and when), who had done it, how they did it and why. We seek investigatory knowledge so that we can develop a case for prosecution.
Likewise, our experience in the field has taught us to endure human behaviors for which the above crime occurred and for which all strategies of policing, courts, and corrections are based upon. Our understanding of those human behaviors is also limited to the extent of our appreciation of them.
It is important to realize that all of us are both consumers and producers of research. The preceding paragraph outlined the context of BOTH: your investigation as a law enforcement officer (producer) and your appreciation and understanding of the criminal element (consumer). At the end of our day, we can literally break down the events and categorize the information as having been consumed or produced.
It is staggering to realize the time we spend living out our daily lives in search of knowledge in order to cope and function in it. How we "know what we know” is not based upon theories in an esoteric vacuum but from real-life trial and error experiments that we all conduct, daily, and often not realize it.
So how does research apply to me and you?
Oftentimes, our "real-world” conclusions are flawed due to various circumstances that cause our observations and our reasoning to be inaccurate. The scientific method provides a means of investigation to correct the inaccuracies of human inquiry. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to perform this task either. In fact, the scientific method is generally introduced to first graders in elementary school and reinforced each year, thereafter, growing in breadth and depth.
Unfortunately, as adults, we become apathetic to scientific inquiry and often slip into complacency when trying to make sense of the world around us. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to conclude that the chief or sheriff "hated me since I got here so it’s no wonder why I was transferred to another department”. Or consider traditional, magic thinking that continues to permeate many martial arts. It’s less work to hope that this saves your hind-end than good ol’ sweat, tears, and faith in physiology. For what it’s worth, the downfall of each example is that neither sought a means of investigation rooted in science in order to come to the "most probable truth”.
How we learn things about our world is rooted in two, general realities: agreement and experiential. That is, we learn from what others tell us as well as what we directly observe. These are both based in tradition and authority. Tradition provides for us the cultural teaching about the real world: "A hot stove will burn you. Be careful around it”. For most people, you don’t have to touch a hot stove to appreciate its hazard. You’ve been taught by other members of your culture to respect the threat. Traditional knowledge, however, often carries erroneous beliefs such as, "Women are not suited to be police officers. They are too weak and too emotional”.
Likewise, authority provides a secondhand "knowledge” by providing new information from the observations of others whom we respect. The accuracy of their explanations is for us to decide but we generally base it upon education, training, and experience. Like tradition, however, knowledge gained from authority figures (or experts) are not without inaccuracies.
By imposing order and rigor on our observations (or on the observations discerned by others), science and research seeks to reduce the probability of errors that occur in human inquiry. My next article will examine the scientific method and the relationship between theory and research in the real-world applications of police problems and solutions.