The Facts: Timing Matters

February 6, 2012

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported on some research that would make anyone who is trying to inform public policy lose sleep.  The story described just how impervious to the facts people often are in their assessments of data relevant to public policy.

Case in point: immigration. The survey showed that people believe the percentage of U.S. residents born outside the country to be double what it actually is, and the percentage of illegal immigrants six or seven times higher than the real percentage.

Americans also vastly overestimate the amount of federal dollars spent on foreign aid, and at the same time, underestimate the amount of the federal budget that goes to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

The Wall Street Journal describes this lack of understanding of data about key public policy issues as “math illiteracy.” Sadly, that finding in and of itself isn’t very surprising: our public policy debate seems increasingly ill-informed, and rhetoric increases unmatched by facts. This problem has certainly been exacerbated by the decline in the number of objective news media outlets.

Indeed, civics seems to be an increasingly lost subject–with many surveys showing Americans evidencing considerable ignorance about a plethora of issues relevant to public life.

What was most concerning in the article, however, was the report on the studies showing how people (and not just Americans) stick to views formed based on false information even after they are given correct information. Indeed, it appears that even when given the facts of a situation, people somehow find a way to use those facts to justify the belief they initially developed based on a false understanding of the data.

Wow. That’s a tough conclusion for anyone working to illuminate data amidst the din of spin. And given that our goal at CHRT is do just that—to help policy makers and the public make better, more informed decisions about policy-related issues—we must pay close attention to these research findings.

So what does this information tell us? Should we just throw up our hands and give up? No, that’s not the right conclusion—it will always be important to provide access to objective, nonpartisan information for policy-makers and the public.

What this research does tell us is that the timing of this information is very important: in particular, we should do everything we can to provide accurate information before false information becomes embedded in public opinion.

The Affordable Care Act could be a case study for this particular issue. Today, the public holds so many false beliefs about the ACA that it is very hard to get factual information through all the confusion. Unfortunately, insufficient attention was paid to communications when health reform was a bill. Actually, long before it was a bill, at town hall meetings in the summer and fall of 2009 more than six months before the law was passed, false information spread the idea that the bill would include “death panels.” And, while that view has been have been decried and debunked, negative views of the ACA took hold and have an indelible place in American views of health care reform. It is no wonder that polling done since then shows Americans are as confused today about health reform as they were when the law was passed.

So this is a lesson we must learn well; a lesson in human behavior and foibles. Whether we like it or not, once formed, views are hard to change. It is crucial to help form public opinion based on objective information in the first place. But, if that battle is lost, then efforts at communications must be more than redoubled. New efforts must be intensive, ongoing, and credible to counter our tendency to stick with our beliefs despite new evidence.

That is the challenge for those of us who are doing this work. Giving up is not the answer—communicating more, better, and sooner, is.