At a time when “fake news” is a catch phrase and the internet offers an overload of content, Priti Shah is adamant about dissecting information with critical thinking skills.
The professor of Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience and Educational Psychology says she is living her dream and always wanted to be a college professor. She currently has a number of larger, grant-funded projects that involve helping people become better thinkers and learners. Teaching others to evaluate evidence is a key part of her work.
One research project funded by the Department of Education focuses on scientific reasoning and getting middle school and high school kids to evaluate evidence in the media better. It’s a joint effort with Psychology Professors, Colleen Seifert, Rich Gonzalez and School of Information Associate Professor Eytan Adar. “So let’s say they read an article claiming “Blueberries Make You Live Longer,” how do you determine whether that’s true, whether you should change your behavior, and what are the skills that you can use to evaluate that information. In particular we teach kids how to focus on evaluating scientific information,” explains Shah.
She says, “People are good at being critical when they don’t believe something, but really bad at applying those same skills to situations that they don’t want to change their mind about. We’re really interested in getting people to consider flaws in evidence and to know how to identify them.”
Along those lines, in a donor funded project with Stephanie Preston, they’re studying adults to understand how people pay attention to evidence in the world and whether they give more weight to authority. “First, we developed an evidence/authority scale to see if we can identify some people who are more likely to believe in evidence or authority figures. We’re trying to see to what extent we can get people to be more attentive to evidence and think of whether the source is trustworthy or untrustworthy and if the evidence supports the claim they are making,” Shah points out.
She acknowledges, “In today’s Information Age, lots of “facts” are available at the touch of a button. More difficult is assessing the accuracy of these “facts.” People don’t always trust research and science, in part because of the political and cultural climate, but also because people sometimes think scientists oversell or overinterpret the implications of their claims.”
Shah feels her research is important because evaluating evidence affects our lives more than we realize. "Every day, people make decisions for which there is relevant evidence: should they assent to giving their children the MMR vaccine, get an annual mammogram, vote for someone who supports regulations to address climate change, or teach their children to read using phonics? How do they evaluate this evidence? How can they better judge what is true and what is fake news, who is trustworthy, what is high or low quality evidence, and whether the inferential leap from evidence to decision is appropriate? How well they can make these decisions affects not only their own lives, but also all of our lives," Shah points out.
She is so passionate about evaluating evidence, she created a website, educationalscience.org as a site for teachers to learn more about it. The site will be up and running soon. “The idea behind the website is to talk about policies that are supposedly evidence based and to evaluate the evidence to see if it makes sense.”
Shah’s other research focuses on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids and she’s also working with John Jonides and Patricia Reuter-Lorenz in a study with senior citizens and cognitive training. Collaborating with students and colleagues is a highlight for her and she feels lucky to be part of the Department of Psychology community. She also serves as the Director of the Accelerated Master’s Degree Program and Honor’s Program within the department.
She says, “I love interacting with undergrads. My freshman seminar is my favorite class to teach. I love freshman who are enthusiastic and excited about learning and are experiencing this wonderland at the university. I also really love the graduate students. Being in a place where there’s lots of smart, interesting, thoughtful and caring people makes me feel fortunate every day. I keep learning from other people here and people care about our mission.”
Her advice to psychology students doing research is two-fold. “Follow what intrigues you: you should feel like you’re answering questions that are interesting to you. Second, you should also think very critically about what the implications of your research will be. It is the scientist’s responsibility to be thoughtful about making claims about policy and practice based on their research. Going too far beyond the evidence, without providing appropriate caveats and context, is problematic,” she says.