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Why talk of non-existent Obamacare death panels won’t die

Nearly three years after the Affordable Care Act passed, the law's non-existent "death panels" are still alive and well. Search Google News and you'll find more than 8,000 recent news articles, with headlines like "More evidence of "death panels" in Obamacare" and "Democrats crank up death panel talk."

The health care law does have a board that recommends ways to cut Medicare spending. It does not have any board, as former GOP vice presidential candidate  Sarah Palin suggested, that would decide whether certain Americans are "worthy of health care."

Dartmouth's Brendan Nyhan has new research that looks at why the death panels won't die. He finds that providing readers with a corrective information to dispel an Obamacare myth can actually strengthen belief in death panels.

Nyhan had 948 survey participants read an article from 2009 about Palin's statement on death panels. Some had favorable opinions of the former governor of Alaska; others did not. The respondents ran the gamut in their knowledge of current politics.

All read a story about Palin's 2009 statement, which brought death panels into the mainstream debate. Some had this correction appended to the end of the story:

Nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong. The bill in the House of Representatives would require Medicare to pay for voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions, but there is no panel in any of the health care bills in Congress that judges a person’s “level of productivity in society” to determine whether they are “worthy” of health care.

For Palin supporters and opponents alike, low-information voters' belief in the death panels decreased after reading this correction.

But something different happened among high information voters. Those with cold feelings towards Palin acted like the low information voters, with their belief in death panels dropping.

For high information Palin supporters though, the correction backfired: They appeared more likely to believe in death panels after reading the appended information, and have less favorable opinions of the Affordable Care Act.

You can see this captured in the below graph, which shows the predicted probability of belief in death panels, for low information and high information voters:

"The correction reduced misperceptions among knowledgeable Palin opponents, but strengthened misperceptions among knowledgeable supporters," Nyhan and his co-authors write in the journal Medical Care.

This suggests one big difficulty in dispelling myths about the health care law: Sometimes, providing accurate information will only propel false beliefs.