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’.

The bad

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.”

The good

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.

The bad

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.”

The good

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’.

The ugly

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

Image: Pixabay

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