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Fighting health-care myths isn’t healthy

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Kai Ryssdal: The president’s going media-crazy as he campaigns for his health-reform proposal. He’s going to be on five Sunday talk shows this weekend. Letterman Monday night. And he’s not just talking up his plans. He’s trying to beat back some of the lies that are out there, too. Commentator Farhad Manjoo says he ought to just leave well enough alone.

FARHAD MANJOO: I’ve got some simple advice for President Obama as his push for health-care reform enters a new phase: Shut up about the death panels already. Don’t keep fighting this rumor. You’ve lost that battle. The more time you spend trying to undo this tall tale, the worse off you’ll be.

The same goes for the now-rising myth that reform will result in free health care for illegal immigrants, or that a public plan will “ration” care for everyone. Not to mention any of the more outlandish claims sure to come up in the debate, like the one GOP Chairman Steele floated recently, that the government wants veterans to “commit suicide” so that it won’t have to pay for their care.

Responding to lies seems only natural. But there are two problems with trying to correct misinformation. First, once people buy into a set of facts, they’re unlikely to change their minds, even if presented with evidence to the contrary. Studies in psychology have shown that when people are presented with an unassailable correction of misinformation, they tend to believe the myths even more fervently.

The other problem is that you risk spreading the myths beyond the groups of people who already believe them. The White House has put out a series of fact-checking videos online. But guess who’s going to send them around? People who already support health-care legislation. And who are they going to send the clips to? Their friends. Other people who already support health-care legislation. The upshot: A whole lot of people who didn’t know about the rumors are now getting schooled in them. As several studies have shown, if we hear something often enough, even if it’s in the context of a refutation, we’re likely to think it’s true.

So what should Obama do? He should talk directly to his opponents, like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, and answer all their questions. He can address the rumors if asked about them, but he shouldn’t make that the main thrust of his argument. Rather, he should aim merely to get his opponents to listen to him. If he can at least come off as a human being, he might be able to convince them that he’s not out to kill granny.

RYSSDAL: Farhad Manjoo writes on technology for Slate. His most recent book is called “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post Fact Society.”

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