Expressing uncertainty in criminology: Applying insights from scientific communication to evidence-based policing

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorChris Giacomantonio,Yael Litmanovitz,Craig Bennell,Daniel J Jones
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2024, Vol. 24(2) 470 –488
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221107325
Expressing uncertainty in
criminology: Applying insights
from scientific communication
to evidence-based policing
Chris Giacomantonio
Dalhousie University, Canada; Pier Labs, Canada
Yael Litmanovitz
Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Israel; Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Craig Bennell
Carleton University, Canada
Daniel J Jones
University of Huddersfield, UK
Scholars and practitioners who develop evidence-based crime policy debate on how best to
translate criminological knowledge into better criminal justice practices. These debates highlight
the counterpoised problems of over-selling the contribution of scientific evidence; or, alternately,
overemphasizing the limitations of science. This challenge attends any attempt to translate
research findings into practice; however, and problematically, in criminology this challenge is
rarely approached in a theoretically coherent fashion. This article therefore seeks to theorize
uncertainty in criminology by examining insights on communicating scientific uncertainty in other
fields, and applying these insights specifically to the field of Evidence-Based Policing (EBP). Taking
the position that all science is inherently uncertain, we examine the following four aspects of
the field: the particular uncertainties of criminology, variance in receptivity to research, the lack
of evidence regarding effective communication, and the boundaries of evidence. Building on this
Corresponding author:
Chris Giacomantonio, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University, Room
1128, Marion McCain Arts and Social Sciences Building, Halifax, NS B3H 4R2, Canada.
1107325CRJ0010.1177/17488958221107325Criminology & Criminal JusticeGiacomantonio et al.
Giacomantonio et al. 471
analysis, we set out the normative challenge of how researchers should characterize and balance
the implications and limits of scientific findings in the decision-making process. Looking ahead,
we argue for the need to invest in an empirical project for determining meaningful strategies to
express research evidence to decision-makers.
Communication, evidence-based policing, policing, scientific uncertainty, translational science
The purpose of this article is to draw insights from the wider field of science communica-
tion and apply these to the expression of criminological knowledge – and uncertainty
about that knowledge – in the spheres of policing and justice policy-making. There is
extensive debate in the wider scientific community on how to properly convey science
that is inherently uncertain within policy and political decision processes. This challenge
has led to attempts to find balance between over-selling the work that scientific evidence
can do on one hand (e.g. suggesting that social science can prove ‘what works’, and by
extension, what will work); or, on the other hand, overemphasizing the limitations of
science (e.g. focusing on gaps in knowledge over what is known), thus providing practi-
tioners and decision-makers with the justification they need to revert to professional
experience or political or personal preference rather than scientific evidence as the basis
for decision-making.
We argue that uncertainty as a concept is an important entry point for unpacking a
better form of science communication in criminology. We reflect on the field of Evidence-
Based Policing (EBP) as an opportunity to better develop an accessible theoretical
understanding of the nature of criminological evidence vis-à-vis the translation of evi-
dence into practice. EBP is, broadly speaking, an effort to use ‘the best available
[research] evidence to inform and challenge policies, practices and decisions’ (College
of Policing, 2021) in policing. EBP was developed based on principles from Evidence-
Based Medicine (Sherman, 1998) and has since expanded into several international asso-
ciations of researchers and affiliated police practitioners. The current field of EBP is
replete with (mostly) good-faith attempts by criminologists and other social scientists to
apply academic research to practical problems faced by police officers and leaders.
However, most working in the field of EBP recognize that there remains a ‘disconnect
between science and policing’ (Weisburd and Neyroud, 2011) and that new strategies are
required to overcome historic antipathies between evidence-led interventions and craft-
based practices, and between expert and experiential knowledge (Neyroud and Weisburd,
2014; Willis, 2013). Moreover, we know very little about how, and how well, different
kinds of messages about criminological evidence are digested by practitioners (see
Litmanovitz et al., in press; Lum and Koper, 2017: 267; Sherman, 2015).
This article is based on a review and synthesis of two main strands of literature. The
article first examines insights from recent reports and articles detailing the state-of-the-
art in science communication generally (see, for example, Fischhoff, 2012, 2019;
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017), or commentaries by
leading thinkers in scientific communication and knowledge translation in other fields

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