Brendan Nyhan | August 19, 2009
Topics: death panels , health care , misperception , myth , poll
Majorities in the poll believe the plans would give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants; would lead to a government takeover of the health system; and would use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions -- all claims that nonpartisan fact-checkers say are untrue about the legislation that has emerged so far from Congress.
Forty-five percent think the reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly.
That also is untrue: The provision in the House legislation that critics have seized on -- raising the specter of "death panels" or euthanasia -- would simply allow Medicare to pay doctors for end-of-life counseling, if the patient wishes.
While it's great to see major news organizations polling on misperceptions, the wording of the NBC poll questions means that we can't draw sharp conclusions about the extent to which the public has mistaken beliefs about the actual contents of the legislation before Congress.
Here is the relevant segment of the poll results with question wording:
The problem is that NBC asked respondents if various results were "likely to happen" under the proposed health care plan, a vague phrase that allows for implausible but increasingly popular fallback position that the provisions in question are not in the plan but will somehow result from it in practice. (See, for instance, Rudy Giuliani's defense of the "death panels" myth.) It would have been preferable to first ask respondents what provisions they thought were part of the legislation and then to ask if they think "death panels" and other doomsday scenarios would be the eventual result.