I have been teaching a class at the University of Utah for the past eight years: Public Policy Research, a class focusing on research design. We read a couple dozen papers on topics ranging from K-12 education and higher ed to energy and the environment. These are qualitative studies, quantitative studies, and mixed methods approaches. We study cost/benefit and content analysis, meta-analyses, and more.
As a parallel track to research design, we talk about researchers and a variety of research-related concepts. We talk about Caroline Hoxby’s research that seeks to improve on getting lower-income, high-performing students into stellar postsecondary programs. Every year, Raj Chetty has made the researchers list, with his work on social capital and mobility, discussing some of his cool work in Seattle and Charlotte. Speaking of North Carolina, GRA Gruenburg Award recipient Ran Coble has always made the list as well given the breadth of his impactful research supporting North Carolinians – particularly on matters related to voting.
In terms of concepts, we discuss media bias. Students place the media they consume on a matrix from far left to far right and from fact to opinion. This is part of a larger discussion of cognitive biases, which are helpful and hurtful to all of us. They help us determine what we should remember, they help us act quickly when needed, they can help us understand something even if we do not have enough information, and they can help us function in the face of too much information.
The danger lies in the fact that we discard specifics to form generalities. We focus on what is right in front of us, even if something more important lies just out of sight. We think about the past and the future in terms of our current mindset. And we are drawn to details that confirm our beliefs. These are just a few examples of the 188 known confirmation biases.
As researchers we go through life with many of these biases in place. As a nonpartisan researcher, GRA members are seeking to explain issues or policies without bias. We do not always succeed, but we strive to do so.
The reason I teach about bias and why we should all study them is to be aware of them. We need to work hard to recognize the bias in our work. We need to understand whether we are focusing on a policy solution because it is the first one we came up with, or because it is the one we know the most about, or because it is the best one for the time and place. This will make us all better researchers. And perhaps better people.
Why do I teach this class? And why do I work at the Utah Foundation?
I believe that my life’s work is to help people better understand the issues that affect them. In the process, I gain a better understanding of these issues too. As a result, we can all make more informed decisions when voting, we can have better conversations with our families, and we can more clearly understand how our work fits into the policy landscape.
There is a self-centered reason for my work as well. I personally want people to be well-informed so that they can shake off the shackles of their cognitive biases. I want them to be a bit more free of their ideological blinders so that we may have open, interesting conversations. I want us all to be a bit more like Caroline Hoxby, Raj Chetty, and Ran Coble.
Let’s figure out how to get there together. Join the GRA to improve your research and the research of organizations around the nation.
- Shawn Teigen, President