AT the White House signing ceremony for health care legislation on Tuesday, President Obama declared, “In a few moments, when I sign this bill, all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform.” For Democrats nervous about political fallout from the bill in the November midterm elections, it’s reassuring to imagine that the myths about the legislation — that it provides free coverage to illegal immigrants, uses taxpayer money to subsidize abortions and mandates end-of-life counseling for the elderly — will be dispelled by its passage.
But public knowledge of the plan’s contents may not improve as quickly as Democrats hope. While some of the more outlandish rumors may dissipate, it is likely that misperceptions will linger for years, hindering substantive debate over the merits of the country’s new health care system. The reasons are rooted in human psychology.
Studies have shown that people tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions, accepting claims that are consistent with their point of view and rejecting those that are not. As a result, information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs is often disregarded, especially if those beliefs are strongly held.
“While it has 363,000 words, only about 234,000 have an impact on substantive law. Presumably, those who regularly read legislation develop the ability to tell the wheat from the chaff, and so an experienced legislator would pretty quickly figure out the relevant 234,000 words….
While 234,000 words are no mere bagatelle, they don’t present an impossible barrier to reading, either, Mr. Katz and colleagues [the crew who first crunched these numbers] suggest. They compared the bill’s substantive words with the length of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, devoured by fans worldwide, and found the total comparable to the longest book in the series: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which weighed in at 257,000 words. “
The blogs, radio programs, and talk shows of ideologues are the only place left for citizens seeking a quick update on affairs of state. Duplicitous pundits stand as the gate keepers between the citizenry and the laws designed to govern them.