In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. secretary of defence, mused about what we know and don’t know. He suggested there are the “known unknowns” — for example, we know we don’t know how life began — and the “unknown unknowns,” the things we don’t even know we are ignorant about.
But he forgot one important category — the ignored knowns, the things we know but prefer to ignore. This is what Al Gore called the inconvenient truth and is the realm of the science-denial industry. With the election of Donald Trump, who seems to make a habit of ignoring science, evidence and fact, we are entering an era of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” back in 2005:
“Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything … . Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ ”
Recently, I have taken to calling the application of deliberate ignorance in policymaking “ignore-ance.” While I briefly thought I had invented the term, a quick check on Google led me to a 1997 book by Elizabeth Ellsworth in which she defined “ignore-ance” as “an active dynamic of negation, an active refusal of information.”
And just last week, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as their word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This describes many of Trump’s assertions during the campaign — indeed, most of them, according to PolitiFact, “a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics.”
PolitiFact states that 15 per cent of Donald Trump’s claims are true or mostly true, 15 per cent are half true, and the remaining 70 per cent range from mostly false to false (34 per cent) and “pants on fire” false (17 per cent).
For comparison, 51 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s claims were found to be true or mostly true, while only 10 per cent were false and two per cent were “pants on fire” false. Barack Obama scored about the same, with 48 per cent true or mostly true, 12 per cent false and two per cent “pants on fire” false.
When someone who is both ignorant and determined to ignore evidence becomes the U.S. president, we have a problem not only in the U.S., but around the world. Trump’s over-the-top assertions of what is patently not true might seem bizarre, even humorous, but there is nothing funny about it. It’s not a cultural phenomenon to be observed and deplored, it’s a threat to democracy.
After all, we have been here before: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Who said that? Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief.
Prime examples of Trump’s combination of ignorance and ignore-ance include his declared intent to largely abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change. Crippling the EPA will not bode well for air and water quality, the control of toxic chemicals or many other aspects of environmental protection in the U.S. Worse, it might encourage other governments around the world to follow Trump’s lead.
Even more troubling is Trump’s denial of climate change, tweeting in 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” But climate change is not a hoax, although it may be an inconvenient truth for the fossil-fuel industry. If Trump succeeds in his expressed intent to withdraw from the Paris Accord, this will certainly cripple and might kill the agreement. Yet climate change has been identified by the World Health Organization and others as one of the major threats to health in the 21st century.
If Trump’s ignorance and ignore-ance set us back in areas such as environmental protection and climate change, it will have significant implications for the health of millions of people, not only for the poor and the vulnerable in low- and middle-income countries, but also in the U.S. and other high-income countries, in the decades ahead. Protecting our health means ensuring our governments do not follow Trump’s lead.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.