With the publishing of Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report, I felt it apropos to revisit the concept of “alternative facts”. Specifically, where exactly it fits in the realm of truthiness. What is it that makes a fact, a fact anyway? And can a fact have alternatives and still be a fact? This is worth spending at least a little time discussing, but first I should provide a meager background on the phrase.
The term “alternative facts” is the brainchild of Kellyanne Conway, Counsel to President Donald Trump, and his chief fixer. The phrase made its debut in 2017 in a Meet the Press interview with host Chuck Todd. Conway is recorded saying, “Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to [these claims], but the point remains that…”. The claims in question were media blowback over President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer’s earlier claim that Trump’s 2017 inauguration was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” The data he cited favoring Trump’s immense crowd-size was uncited and seems to be entirely fabricated. All evidence suggests that the crowd size was smaller than Obama’s second inauguration and only two-fifths the size of his first inauguration. When confronted by Todd, who asked why Spicer would produce such a “provable falsehood”, Conway defined Spicer’s position as an alternative fact as opposed to falsehood. Conway continues to defend the usage of the term, which she defines as “additional facts and alternative information”.
Aristotle was the first to discuss the logical law of the excluded middle, which states that between two mutually exclusive terms, there is no middle. For the case in hand, there is no middle term between true and untrue; we have no quasi-true. Alternative facts certainly seems like it is trying to open up some middle ground between true and false. But we should be careful here, because over time things may be true by turns or in complex situations, partially true and partially false. The law of the excluded middle applies only to fixed statements. Conway’s definition of additional facts and alternative information could be just fine if the statement in question is not fixed. For example, if we base our assessment of inauguration crowd size on the number of DC Metro riders, then it appears that Spicer was lying, but if other sources of data are used or taken into account then the statement is not fixed. The problem for Spicer and Conway is that they never specified what data they were using to make their claim. The DC Metro riders are cited because that is the source for Spicer’s claim that Obama had a crowd of 317,000 in 2013. But that same source would put Trump’s crowd at 193,000. So, it is likely then that Spicer was using alternative data, if he was using data at all, and Conway was being legitimate in her defense of him.
However, there is still a good deal of duplicity here. The first is Spicer’s and the second is Conway’s. Even if alternative data was being used to support Spicer’s crowd assessment of 420,000 it is duplicitous to compare crowd-size using different counting methods. Problems abound, but let’s focus solely on the problem where one estimate might be grossly less reliable than the other. Imagine if Spicer used DC Metro ridership for Obama and his best friend’s gut feeling for Trump. This would be an alternative source of data and a fact as far as Spicer’s friend really had a gut feeling that there were 420,000 people at Trump’s inauguration, but the unreliability of “gut feelings” in general make this claim highly dubious and by not revealing the source, a propagandistic manipulation of the highest order.
But it is Conway’s duplicity that should really concern us. And the word that ought to really concern us is “fact”, not “alternative”. The existence of alternative facts does not entail that we are in a post-truth era. Alternative facts, as Chuck Todd said of them at their birth, are not facts! In Conway’s terms, they are alternative theories of the interpretation of experience. Alternative interpretations have been around for millennia, and they make up a large part of what we consider to be the process of attaining truth. A “fact” on the other hand is something we all agree is true, in other words, there is a little dispute. And therein lies the problem with Conway’s phrase, for in order to be alternative it must not be a fact, and in order to be a fact it must not have a likely alternative.
It’s clear that Conway’s invention of the term is politically motivated and propagandistic. What she was trying to achieve is to give more substance to Spicer’s claim that saying alternative theory or alternative data, both of which would require further proof. To claim an alternative fact is to claim victory for a competing theory at the same moment it is being introduced. In fact, it is to claim victory merely by introducing an alternative theory. Such action is surely not reasonable, logical, interested in the truth, or honest. It is a win-at-all-costs, manipulative, lying form of sophistry. This is difficult to reconcile with Conway’s insistence that alternative facts are opposed to falsehoods, for it is the truth that is opposed to falsehoods and alternative theories are not necessarily true.
This sadly has become par for the course in the Trump administration. Instances of claiming victory while the situation is very much in doubt are rampant. Alternative facts are just one form of this premature celebration. Its as though Trump and those closest to him believe that acting confident is the same thing as being confident; that if you just pretend hard enough it will become true. But this is not the way the world works. Wishful-thinking is not science, down is not up, and there are no alternative facts.