Actually, the phrase “alternative facts” got a bad rap. Period. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a “fact” is:
1: a thing done: such asa obsolete : feat
3: the quality of being actual : actuality <a question of fact hinges on evidence>
4a : something that has actual existence <space exploration is now a fact>
b : an actual occurrence <prove the fact of damage>
5: a piece of information presented as having objective reality <These are the hard facts of the case.>
There are things that are susceptible to objective proof. such as whether there are five objects on a table or not. And then, there are things that are not susceptible to objective proof, such as whether there is a god.
Facts are things that actually exist and are objectively provable. What that means is that most of what we perceive to be facts aren’t facts at all. They’re just the things we believe to be true, despite having no objective basis to know whether they are or not. And that’s generally good, because no one has the time or opportunity to verify every bit of information he accepts as true, so we take a lot for granted. And even if we did have the time and opportunity, there are many things that are just not objectively verifiable anyway.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What– You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains–
CHUCK TODD: Wait a minute– Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.
In this instance, of course, Kellyanne Conway was defending the indefensible, an effort by White House press secretary Sean Spicer to claim something that was objectively false, as noted by neutral observers and the media.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,”
–Sean Spicer, Internet Troll
See what he did there? And naturally, the internet paid him back. In spades. But is this an assertion of fact? Duh, you say. He did claim it to be the “largest,” right? So of course it is, and yet it isn’t exactly.
First, it’s an extrapolation of incomplete data. There is no one who sits there, diligently counting heads from inauguration to inauguration, to determine an accurate number of how many people showed up. It would be impractical and a total waste of time.
Instead, there are estimates of the number of people present (whether they “witnessed” anything is yet another question) based upon metrics, such as National Park Service estimates of the number of people who can occupy a given space, the differential in the number of D.C. Metro riders, that sort of thing. Estimates of crowds can vary. Sometimes, they vary wildly.
No, none of this applies here. Sean Spicer, for reasons that are speculative but deeply disturbing, decided to use his first opportunity to establish credibility with the White House press corp. to destroy his credibility. Not that the press’ facts are above reproach, but when the presumption of regularity is destroyed, the belief that government data is presumed reliable until found otherwise, we’re left with nothing to believe.
But is Chuck Todd correct, that “alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods”?* Under the circumstances presented, perhaps, but this isn’t necessarily true. We have become inured to the distinction between facts and conclusions. We have come to believe things to be objective facts when they are merely allegations of fact. We have come to accept beliefs, most notably when they confirm our bias, about which we have no personal knowledge as factual.
Am I a white male? For those of you who have never met me, you don’t know. Sure, there are pictures, but they aren’t necessary true. But you can presume certain things because they are objectively reasonable. They may, nonetheless, be false. Most importantly, it’s not important enough to you to make the effort to figure it out. And that, as much as the falsity of Spicer’s assertion, is what makes this factual dispute absurd.
While there may not be “alternative facts” in an existential sense, as the definition of the word “fact” makes it the thing that actually is rather than the thing we believe actually is, or the conclusion to be drawn from the thing that actually is, or a host of other things, the phrase has been vilified wrongly. We are all up to our eyeballs in “alternate facts” all the time.
In defamation law, there is a distinction between statements of fact and opinion, the former being actionable and the latter not. Sometimes the determination is easy. Other time, not so much. This shouldn’t be the case if we relied solely on the definition of “fact,” since a fact either is or isn’t. But proving facts can be inherently flawed. How so? That’s why we have trials, and still finders of fact get it wrong.**
Does this make Sean Spicer any less of an incredible shill? Does this make Kellyanne Conway’s retort to Chuck Todd any more palatable. Of course not. But before you condemn the phrase “alternative facts” as a concept, understand that we all enjoy the benefit of alternative facts all the time, and that a great many of the things we believe to be facts aren’t facts at all, but just the things we believe to be facts. Others believe in different facts.
What we believe to be factual, of course, is true and what anyone else believes to be factual is “alternative.” And we may all be wrong. In many instances, there may be no “fact” at all, but merely an interpretation of data, of events or circumstances, that leads us to reach a conclusion about it. My conclusion is that Sean Spicer blew his cred over crap, and that it must be really hard to be Kellyanne Conway’s husband. Then again, I could be wrong.
*Curiously, Todd used the word “falsehoods” rather than the more common word, “lies.” The distinction is that one is untrue, while the other is knowingly untrue.
**Of the professional purveyers of alternative facts, none are more dependent on it than criminal defense lawyers, whose job at trial is to take the evidence presented and ask the jury to interpret the data differently than the prosecution. For this, we thank Kellyanne Conway.