As 2019 draws to a close, it looks like the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is going to be impeached for holding up financial and military aid to one of our allies in exchange for “a favor.”
Trump wanted two things from Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine: one, a public announcement by Zelensky himself that Ukraine is opening an investigation into the son of Trump’s foremost political opponent and second, to investigate a conspiracy theory cooked up by Russian intelligence agencies and promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that it was Ukraine who interfered in the 2016 Presidential elections and not, as every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded, Russia.
“The server,” Trump said on the now infamous July 25th phone call, “they say Ukraine has it.” He wanted the new Ukrainian president to find the DNC server that got hacked into during the 2016 campaign.
The server is not in Ukraine. It is, in fact, in Washington, D.C., on display in the basement of the Democratic National Committee headquarters next to the infamous Watergate file cabinet that got broken into by members of Nixon’s re-election campaign in June of 1972. The FBI did not need the physical server to perform its forensic analysis but facts do not matter to conspiracy theorists.
“They say...” “Some people say….” “A lot of people are saying…” The President is fond of quoting these unnamed sources whenever he wants to talk about the latest right-wing conspiracy theory.
It can be appealing for some to think that there is some hidden knowledge that is being kept from us by powerful elites. It’s a nice way to scapegoat others for our perceived problems while boosting our own egos, allowing us to feel self-righteous.
Humans understand the world in either one of two ways: either they use superstition, mythology or religion to explain the observable universe or they use the scientific method perfected during the Enlightenment to test hypotheses and try to come up with universal, objective facts that exist outside any given place or time. As the saying goes, “There was a time when religion ruled the world; it was called the Dark Ages.”
Steven Pinker, in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now, points out how much progress the scientific approach has led to, helping humanity to eradicate diseases, reduce poverty, improve public health and increase economic development over the past couple hundred years. The late Swedish public health researcher Hans Rosling and associates put out a book in the same year called Factfulness that demonstrates how much most of us get wrong about the world. They show how things are not only improving, they are improving exponentially faster now than ever before. Developing countries are now achieving the same gains that took other countries decades longer in previous eras. For example, the child mortality rate in Saudi Arabia in 1960 was 242. Out of every one thousand babies born, 242 would die before their fifth birthday. Thirty-three years later, in 1995, it was just 35. It took Sweden 77 years to achieve that.
In the early 20th century many fields of study underwent a transformation from being ill-defined and open to subjective interpretations to being standardized and quantified. If you make progress measurable in a standardized way you can more easily compare across cultures and eras. My field, for example, “international relations,” did not exist before 1921; previously it was just called “diplomacy,” and it was considered more of an art than a field of study. This transformation led to the birth of the social sciences and the great progress described in Pinker’s and Rosling’s books.
A democracy depends on the majority of voters agreeing on certain basic facts about the world in which we live. If there is a huge gap between the state of the world as Trump and other conspiracy theorists view it and the state of the world as it actually is, governance becomes impossible. Time and resources spent chasing white rabbits cannot also be spent solving real world problems such as climate change.
Trump asking the president of another country to announce a sham investigation of his political rival is unethical, but it’s also dangerous that the leader of our country believes bogus conspiracy theories with no basis in reality. Devoting precious resources to these things rather than to real threats is against our country’s best interests.
Barb Howe has a graduate degree in political science from the University of Florida.