January 24, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich
Alternative facts: The good, the bad and the ugly
On 22 January “Senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press … and spoke to host Chuck Todd about a briefing the new press secretary, Sean Spicer, had held earlier in the weekend. Spicer claimed Donald Trump’s inauguration had attracted record numbers of spectators. Conway denied the statements were lies, instead branding them ‘alternative facts’” (see Guardian). This remark provoked a veritable avalanche of discussion on social media and beyond. In the following I’ll basically re-quote some thought-provoking quotes which I picked up from the flotsam and jetsam that washed up on my Twitter stream and that made me think about the use and abuse of ‘alternative facts’.
In these discussions one quote has come up again and again. It is taken from the 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. The story takes place in a ‘superstate’ that is under the control of a privileged elite called the Inner Party, which persecutes individualism and independent thinking as ‘thoughtcrime’ (see Wikipedia). The quote that circulated on the internet reads as follows – and I here use a version that is longer than 140 characters: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre.”
This made me think. I know that the political spinning of alternative facts is bad and pernicious. However, I wondered whether in some sense alternative facts can also be good and instructive. 1984 is a novel filled with ‘alternative facts’ after all, in the sense of openly fictional facts. Many seminal novels, be they traditional or science fiction ones, are based on exploring alternative worlds and provide us with alternative facts through which we can see the factual world that is emerging and floundering around us. It is important to cherish these alternative worlds and alternative facts, to read 1984 again and again, so that we don’t become blind to what’s happening in the real world where ‘alternative facts’ are use not to make us think but to prevent us from thinking, not to imagine different worlds but to prevent us from doing so. Such novels and their alternative worlds are also cautionary tales, warning us that such alternative fictional worlds and fictional facts can also become real worlds and real facts – and sometimes have done so in the past – unless we prevent this from happening.
Alternative facts in the spin and post-truth sense have a long tradition in politics, where most recently in the UK they were distributed by the bus-load in the context of Brexit. They also have well-established uses in the context of debates about climate change and, most importantly, in the context of ‘alternative medicine’, where ‘alternative facts’ (for example about vaccination) are widely accepted – and dangerous. While I was musing about this, I stumbled upon a question posed on Yahoo answers, following the media-reporting about Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’. The question was: “Does ‘alternative facts’ have the same meaning as ‘alternative medicine’?” The answer provided by a user of Yahoo answers was: “Basically, YES. It just means that the [sic] are different choices that can be made, but not all of the ‘solutions’ are going to work in all cases.” There was however an important ‘Update’ underneath the question saying “Update: ‘alternative medicine’ is not medicine.”
Just as alternative medicine is not medicine, so alternative facts, in the current sense, are not facts. Facts can’t be ‘chosen’. What can be chosen, however, is how we deal with facts, how we value them and how we use them – and here we come back to alternative worlds and alternative facts in the good sense and also to the immense importance of science, literature, art, history and philosophy. These human and humane endeavours provide us with ways of exploring real and imagined worlds, of discussing past and future worlds, of acquiring knowledge and disputing knowledge, of establishing, testing and challenging evidence through agreed procedures, processes and shared practices. It is important that we keep these traditions of critical and creative thinking, of creating and discussing ‘facts’, alive in what one might call an increasingly ‘demon-haunted world’.
Carl Sagan, American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator, issued a warning in his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, that echoes Orwell’s from 1949. The quote from 1984 above and the quote from The Demon-Haunted World below have now gone viral, which is a good thing. Sagan wrote: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness… The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”.
One more quote appeared frequently in my twitter-stream when I was writing this post, but not quite as frequently as the 1984 one; this was a passage from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish American political theorist: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
It’s worth re-reading these seminal texts – and of course disseminating and quoting them on social media! And perhaps, things are already changing a bit in response… or not.
PS, 26 January, 2017. There is now a Wikipedia entry on ‘alternative facts‘
Hmmm – I saw an interview and Conway was talking about “alternative facts”, as in the facts that the media don’t choose to talk about? (knowing how they twist things -additional facts would have been better – or just “news you guys are not reporting”.)
I have seen photos of Obama inauguration, and Trumps.. both picture are facts.. however I have also seen other pictures of Trumps inauguration, where the crowd appears a lot bigger, than the other photo, (via CNN) that the media were using.. so we need additional facts.. ie at what time were those pictures taken….
KellyAnne’s point was that the media choose the news agenda.. ie which facts they choose to report, and which facts they don’t. And she listed a whole bunch of ‘alternative facts’ ie facts about other topics that the media were not reporting.. not, a differenet ‘fact’ about the same topic. (ie calling black white, nonsense)
Much like the Gove “had enough of experts (his full quote – he said the ones that got things consistently wrong (twice)) – I expect this ‘alternative facts’ quote will be used to smear Kellyanne/Republicans for a longtime to come.
So ‘alternative facts’ is perhaps just an example itself of ‘post truth’
Yes, I’d think so
All these pictures are facts..
Perhaps this is KellyAnnes alternative fact..
ie a picture taken when the crowd was bigger..
which begs the question, at what time was the first picture taken.
This explains the methods used: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/01/how-will-we-know-trumps-inaugural-crowd-size/513938/
This might help too, especially the last paragraph: http://www.factcheck.org/2017/01/the-facts-on-crowd-size/
to be clear -I’m sure Obama’s 2009 physical crowd was bigger (a Democrat town after all)
I’m also pretty sure the photo being bandied around of Trumps crowd, misrepresented the crowd (taken earlier in the day?)- ie other photos show it to be bigger, than what is being presented as Trump’s crowd..
CNN at time of his speech..
vs PBS photo.
I did read that viewing figures for the Trump’s inauguration were very high, so an ‘alternative fact’
the media ‘spin’ seems to be look how unpopular Trump is, showing a picture (which seems to be taken earlier in the day). An alternative fact might be look how popular the inauguration is, counting the viewing figures on TV..
the 2nd highest 30 odd years. Trump’s viewing figures beats Bush, Reagan….
and of course Obama’s were the 1st highest viewing figures…
all facts.. Interpretations of facts are the devil in the detail/mix/presentation
Headline – Trump fails to match Obama’s viewing figures.
Headline: Trump 2nd highest viewing figures in 30 years..
Both are ‘correct’
oops wrong CNN photo link
My first question was why was this even reported? Why was the US media so intent on comparing Obama to Trump turnout and pushing the false meme that Trump did not have a large and diverse viewership on his inauguration?
Facts are often “selectively” chosen to promote a predetermined POV for the purpose of persuasion. Was the US media promoting “selective” facts that supported their editorial POV and intended to persuade readers? That answer will be based on everyone’s personal knowledge level, individual filters and powers of reasoning.
For me I ask if using personal attendance was a fair assessment in the evaluation of Trump’s “viewership”. When I looked up 2008 voting results I found that 93% of the DC population voted for Obama in 2008. So given this added fact not mentioned/considered by the media, is using only personal attendance meaningful in any mathematical way? For me the answer is no.
To me the real story is why did the media consider only the facts that supported the meme they wanted to push? Is it a case of incompetence in being able to set up a fair comparison between Obama and Trump or was it intended to mislead the public by “selectively” choosing facts that would fit a predetermined outcome? I don’t know the answer but the mathematics, 31 million TV viewers + CNN’s 16 million on line viewers = 47 million viewers, gives Trump a huge amount of viewers to start with in any valid comparison to the viewership of Obama’s inauguration.
I suppose in an alternative world, Kellyannne Conway could have said something like this: “All the evidence we have at the moment points to the fact that the crowd on the ground was xx big. This evidence consists of xyz. If you want to check this out Chuck, you can come over to the White House and I’ll talk you through it in detail.” Or something like that.
Some scattered thoughts on this broad topic:
1. Steve Rayner covered this whole area very adequately (and succinctly) with his article on “uncomfortable knowledge” See here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03085147.2011.637335 (sorry it’s paywalled but abstract is sufficient here)
2. The inauguration photo comparison rapidly became a social media meme. I do not know whether the photos were taken at comparable times, or how much it really tells us about numbers. Sundance (above) is correct that DC’s voteshare would give Obama inauguration figures an in-built advantage, so the comparison maybe doesn’t tell us that much (a better comparison might be between Trump and GW Bush (haven’t seen that)). This is a good example of the kind of uncomfortable knowledge (for those opposing Trump) Rayner talks about.
That is, one person’s uncomfortable knowledge is another’s alternative facts.
3. Notwithstanding the results of photo comparisons, there is a *very good reason* why this meme took hold: Trump is a historically unpopular President on entering office http://www.politico.com/blogs/donald-trump-administration/2017/01/poll-trumps-transition-is-historically-unpopular-233583 (particularly in comparison with Obama 2008). Now this may change, although to do so Trump will have to reverse the trend for decreasing popularity of sitting presidents (the ‘cost of governing’). These poll numbers are linked to the historic scale of Trump’s loss in the popular vote.
4. Given the social science (polling) evidence regarding Trump’s unpopularity, one might wonder why there has been a focus on crowd numbers. I suggest that this is because ‘seeing is believing’, witnessing with one’s own eyes is always likely to have a privileged position for humans over more abstract evidence (similar to climate change, in fact).
5. That the social media meme (viral, but unverified) spread to the mainstream media indicates (IMO) a problematic feedback loop between the two (although mainstream media outlets may have done additional reporting, verification etc). Typical of this is media websites (Telegraph, Guardian, BBC, Mail) embedding tweets in their reports. Why are they doing this?
6. Finally, I wonder why there has been such an outcry over ‘alternative facts’. One obvious reason would be partisan bias; Democrats using this as a further argument against Trump (particularly as Democrats have increasingly aligned themselves with scientific reason over the last decade and a half). However, there may be another: is the government – and particularly, the Whitehouse – regarded as a source of truth in US society? Whitehouse press briefings are a mechanism for delivering these truths. So while ‘alternative facts’ are nothing new, the notion that the curtain is being pulled back on the way we construct our knowledge may come as an affront to many.
7. Finally, I think “alternative facts” will have a lot of mileage for social scientists. As with ‘known unknowns’ many years ago, I predict “alternative facts” will move in next to no time from a source of derision to a pithy public explainer of epistemology.
the story about the Martin Luther King bust being removed form the Oval office rapidly spread across the internet, the reporter that tweeted it, then did try to correct it and apologise..
what nobody is asking, of the reporter, NOR the reporter asking himself is.
If as he thought it had been removed.. did he not think to ask somebody.. (before he spread the ‘news’)
Has the Martin Luther King bust been removed…
Answer: no, it is just over there, someone is standing in front of it.. oh, thanks..
why did the reporter NOT have that conversation.
Definite attack Trump mentality, and I don’t even think they are aware of it themselves. As a reporter, not to ask, before leaping onto twitter.
Didn’t see that story. There is a problem about different norms on social media (i.e. no verification culture) and the cross-fertilisation between social and mainstream media (see above)
There was this WaPo one about the Vermont hack that they had to reverse on https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/russian-government-hackers-do-not-appear-to-have-targeted-vermont-utility-say-people-close-to-investigation/2017/01/02/70c25956-d12c-11e6-945a-76f69a399dd5_story.html
Don’t you think your looking into this a bit too hard
In what way?
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