Many Still Believe That Saddam Hussein Was Behind 9/11, and Now We Have Some Idea Why
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That view is more nuanced than the one held by many health care reform proponents — that citizens are only ill-informed because Rush Limbaugh makes them so. (For the record, the authors say justifying false beliefs extends equally to liberals, who they hypothesize would behave similarly given a different set of issues.)
The alternate explanation raises queasy questions for the rest of society.
"I think we'd all like to believe that when people come across disconfirming evidence, what they tend to do is to update their opinions," said Andrew Perrin, an associate professor at UNC and another author of the study.
That some people might not do that even in the face of accurate information, the authors suggest in their article, presents "a serious challenge to democratic theory and practice."
"The implications for how democracy works are quite profound, there's no question in my mind about that," Perrin said. "What it means is that we have to think about the emotional states in which citizens find themselves that then lead them to reason and deliberate in particular ways."
Evidence suggests people are more likely to pay attention to facts within certain emotional states and social situations. Some may never change their minds. For others, policy-makers could better identify those states, for example minimizing the fear that often clouds a person's ability to assess facts and that has characterized the current health care debate.
Hoffman's advice for crafting such an environment: "The congressional town hall meetings, that is a sort of test case in how not to do it."
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Christian Science Monitor.