Being the authors of a widely cited academic study ordinarily would be a good thing. But not for Joseph Cesario and David Johnson, apparently. They’ve asked for that widely cited paper to be retracted — not because of any errors in it, mind you, but because of who’s citing it.
You probably would be less surprised if I told you the study was called “Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings.” Cesario and Johnson — from Michigan State University and the University of Maryland, respectively — were among the authors of a study that looked at whether there were any distinct patterns of racial bias in fatal police shootings.
Their conclusion, as reported by Retraction Watch, was that originally there was “no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings, and White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers.”
Well, whoops. That’s impolitic. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 and been a political football once conservatives started using it to hit back on anti-police rhetoric.
The authors already had issued a correction in April dealing with that sentence. Based on their calculations, they said “this sentence should read: ‘As the proportion of White officers in a fatal officer-involved shooting increased, a person fatally shot was not more likely to be of a racial minority.’ This is consistent with our framing of the results in the abstract and main text.”
Then came a new wave of attention when the study was cited in a controversial June Wall Street Journal Op-Ed written by Heather Mac Donald of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. Titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism,” Mac Donald argued that “[c]rime and suspect behavior, not race, determine most police actions.”
The paragraph that cited the study read thusly: “The latest in a series of studies undercutting the claim of systemic police bias was published in August 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the more frequently officers encounter violent suspects from any given racial group, the greater the chance that a member of that group will be fatally shot by a police officer. There is ‘no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police,’ they concluded.”
Earlier this week, Cesario and Johnson requested a retraction on the article. The reason wasn’t based on errors in their research, however. Instead, it was partially because they were unhappy with who was using it and partially because they felt people were extrapolating their data to all police shootings, not just fatal ones, or to “policing in general.”
“Our article estimated the role of officer characteristics in predicting the race of civilians fatally shot by police. A critique pointed out we had erroneously made statements about racial differences in the probability of being shot (1), and we issued a correction to rectify the statement (2),” the retraction read.
“Despite this correction, our work has continued to be cited as providing support for the idea that there are no racial biases in fatal shootings, or policing in general. To be clear, our work does not speak to these issues and should not be used to support such statements. We take full responsibility for not being careful enough with the inferences made in our original report, as this directly led to the misunderstanding of our research.”
“While our data and statistical approach were appropriate for investigating whether officer characteristics are related to the race of civilians fatally shot by police, they are inadequate to address racial disparities in the probability of being shot.”
It’s impossible to overstate the pusillanimity of retracting a paper where the data is sound because you think people are misusing that data or that it doesn’t cover a wide enough spectrum. As George Mason University Law School professor David Bernstein pointed out, this isn’t actually a reason for retraction:
It’s absurd to ask that a valid study be retracted b/c you think others are “misusing” it. A study says what it says, and so long as it wasn’t actually flawed it shouldn’t be retracted for political reasons except perhaps under truly extreme circumstances, which this isn’t. https://t.co/R14jS9x1e8
— David Bernstein (@ProfDBernstein) July 7, 2020
If you want to say the study is different than some writers and pundits seem to take it for, fine. At the National Review, Robert VerBruggen broke down the limitations of the paper’s conclusions.
“The main question we want to answer about this topic is this: If a black person and a white person behave the same way in the same situation, is the black person more likely to be shot by a cop? The biggest criticism of the study is that it doesn’t directly answer this question,” he wrote in a September 2019 piece.
The study, VerBruggen notes, deals only with interactions with people who are shot, meaning it doesn’t look at differences in behavior between those who were shot and those who weren’t.
“The study addresses this by statistically controlling for the demographics of homicide victims in each county where a shooting happened — and the correlation between officer and suspect race disappears,” he wrote. “In other words, someone shot by the police is more likely to be black if the area has a lot of black homicide, but not if the police officer involved happened to be white. This is inconsistent with the idea that white cops are killing black suspects out of anti-black racism.”
“One of the biggest limitations to this approach, however, is that black cops might disproportionately patrol black neighborhoods even within counties. If this is the case, black suspects and black officers might encounter each other more — above and beyond what’s accounted for in the statistical controls — which could cancel out the effects of white cops’ racism. To put it differently, black cops could shoot black suspects simply because they encounter a lot of black suspects, while white cops could shoot black suspects out of racism. And if these two phenomena occurred to roughly the same degree, the study would indicate that black and white cops are about equally likely to shoot black suspects.”
Still, VerBruggen doesn’t think either that or the political kerfuffle around the paper merits a retraction.
“I’m all for using precise language and correcting the record when you fail to, but retracting the entire study is a bad decision,” he wrote. “The lack of a correlation between officer and suspect race is noteworthy and deserves to be a part of the discussion.”
But it’s not because, well, nobody wants to talk about that conclusion. Now Cesario and Johnson have to talk about their retraction and convince everyone this wasn’t done because of the cultural gun being held to their heads. They also have to explain why their first statement invoked Mac Donald’s article as part of their reason for retraction — something that made their decision look very political, which they say it’s not.
“The [first statement] was an earlier version, and we slightly amended it because people were incorrectly concluding that we retracted due to either political pressure or the political views of those citing the paper,” Cesario told Retraction Watch. “Neither is correct, and so this version makes the reason more clear.”
In that amended statement, they still stand behind their data. In one paragraph, they acknowledge that they’re retracting it because they don’t think it’s being used correctly. In another, they say this had nothing to do with their “distaste” with those who were using it.
“Although our data and statistical approach were valid to estimate the question we actually tested (the race of civilians fatally shot by police), given continued misuse of the article we felt the right decision was to retract the article rather than publish further corrections. We take full responsibility for not being careful enough with the inferences made in our original article, as this directly led to the misunderstanding of our research,” the statement read.
“This was the sole reason for our decision to retract the article; this decision had nothing to do with political considerations, ‘mob’ pressure, threats to the authors, or distaste for the political views of people citing the work approvingly.”
Nothing in what they’ve said invalidates any of their research. It also doesn’t dispel the obvious notion that this absolutely had to do with the “mob” and the inconvenient, if incomplete, conclusion they reached.
For anyone looking at this from afar, I’d like to note that this is what conservatives deal with on a daily basis. Cesario and Johnson reached one impolitic conclusion and ended up retracting for reasons that look as if they arose from political pressure. If you’re in academia and you’ve reached more than a few of these taboo conclusions on your own, you won’t be in academia very long.
However, the truth matters. Yes, this study often is used in a way that isn’t wholly accurate. The authors still reached an important conclusion, however — one they’re apparently willing to abandon because it’s frowned upon by The People That Matter.
To say this is a dangerous portent for the future of academia is a grave understatement.
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