I expected Donald Trump’s presidency to be… eventful, and in his short time in office, this has proven true. I was pretty swamped with things the past couple of weeks, but it was impossible not to notice the social media meltdowns over Trump’s executive orders and policy decisions concerning the wall, the refugee crisis, and global warming. My Facebook feed exploded this past week with all sorts of hashtags, drawings, pictures, and articles which shouted particular positions especially on the so called “Muslim ban.” Trying to find nuanced and sober analysis within that sea of nonsense was close to impossible.
In this jolly environment, accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts” are getting thrown around to go along with personal attacks that the opposing side is full of idiots and/or immoral monsters. Basically, if someone cites or links an article that disputes one’s position, a quick way to dismiss that article or point is to mock it as “fake news” or an “alternative fact.” It is this rhetoric that I want to address right now more than specific issues because such memes threaten to make an already toxic political environment even worse. Essentially, while we should of course not want news out there that says straight up falsehoods, this kind of rhetoric fails to realize that evidence selection is a very important part of any discussion, and it is the foolish, the immature, and the close-minded who refuse to consider facts that may not fit their preferred narrative.
The origin of “alternative facts” vs. the meme
In many ways, the phrase “alternative facts” deserves the mockery that it has been given because it truly was a curious thing to say by Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s campaign manager and now one of his senior advisers. Basically, White house press secretary Sean Spicer excoriated the media for its biased coverage (some of which was actually fair), but then he oddly tried to claim that the inauguration crowd size and viewership was the largest in history. There aren’t official numbers on this, but the claim was bizarre, unnecessary, and on face value, simply false. Conway was asked why Spicer said this by MSNBC, and she said he merely gave an “alternative fact.” What she should have said was, “Perhaps he exaggerated, but it’s not that important,” because it, well, isn’t: There is no relevance to policy there. Instead, her silly excuse allowed MSNBC to harp on this point, and a meme was born.
Obviously, if “alternative fact” means a “fact” that is false (so it’s not really a fact), insignificant, or irrelevant, then such a thing should be criticized and avoided. However, as this meme has gained steam over the past couple of weeks, the phrase is used to simply ignore information that one would prefer not to consider. After all, if an “alternative fact” is actually false or irrelevant, some accompanying analysis or argument may be needed to show this. Unfortunately, this is rarely done.
I’ll use an anecdotal example first. I know someone who, while with her coworkers, made the point that the old Disney film Fantasia used to have blatantly racist scenes that have been edited in any modern version (they were having a conversation on Disney movies). Her boss absolutely refused to believe this and mocked her for this piece of information, calling it “an alternative fact.” Even when she showed everyone the readily available Youtube clip that shows both the old and edited versions, he tried to wave it away by claiming that someone just made up that video. Unfortunately for this guy, this fact about Fantasia is indisputably true and fairly well-known among Disney enthusiasts; it wouldn’t take very much time on the internet to figure this out. However, because he just could not fathom that this would be right and had to dig in to save his pride, he simply continued to label it an “alternative fact.” Granted, whether or not Fantasia, a film made in 1940, used to have racist scenes is not terribly important, but this illustrates how people are already using this rhetoric to shut down consideration of information that they don’t want to think about.
A more significant example comes from the rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump’s executive order regarding refugees. There may be much to criticize about the EO itself as well as its application in specific cases, but there are also plenty of “alternative” facts about it that are actually true and relevant but also under-reported by much of the mainstream media and Trump’s critics, enabling them to rely on exaggerations, misleading emotional appeals, and even falsehoods. Consider some of these facts (also, read the full text of his EO here):
-It is not a blanket Muslim ban. I’m not sure how that can be any clearer. It targets specific countries as high terror risks. Those countries happen to all be Islamic, but that is hardly Trump’s fault. The hashtag is silly.
-The EO actually does not list out the seven countries that are affected, and how the Trump administration chose them comes from a list created under the Obama administration. There is no evidence that it had to do with Trump’s business interests, as has been consistently argued by many, though if you want to criticize him for creating this appearance of a conflict of interest in the first place, you may have a point. And really, the amount of poor logic here is evident; if a country is unstable or dangerous, then of course it is less likely that businesses will want to have any interest there. The fact that Trump’s business is not in any of these countries considered high terror risks is hardly surprising and necessitates no conclusions.
-What Trump is doing will reduce refugee admittance numbers back towards what was fairly normal before a large bump during Obama’s last year. Rhetoric that Trump is somehow introducing some new wave of xenophobia that will reduce refugee numbers to unheard of lows is just not true.
-This is not even a permanent “ban.” It’s a suspension that, for most countries, lasts a set amount of time, though for Syria it is indefinite because if its unique instability. There are also exceptions to his EO.
-There has always been a sort of “religious test” in identifying a refugee, and that’s when it can be shown that someone is persecuted precisely because of their religion (so… not really a religious test). In some countries, that might be Muslims or a certain branch of Muslims. In these countries, that will often be people like Christians, Jews, and Yazidis. That doesn’t mean that Muslims aren’t suffering in this countries; of course all sorts of people will be suffering in unstable and war-torn countries, but that in itself does not mean one is a persecuted refugee.
-Many people (including, ironically, some non-Christians) try to say that Old Testament commands virtually unlimited admittance of refugees, but this, as I discussed about a year go, is not in accordance with the actual texts regarding the foreigner.
Unfortunately, when these corrections are given, not everyone is particularly willing to listen, and some will accuse you of simply giving “alternative facts,” in this case meaning talking points which are just made up by the Trump administration or by xenophobes. If there is anyone guilty of “alternative facts” and “fake news” that are simply not true or misleading, it is ironically the many liberals who refuse to change course here. Again, this does not necessarily mean that Trump’s EO is good or that it has been consistently applied well (certainly, it is concerning to hear about green card holders being detained at airports), but any honest and fruitful discussion of it is made difficult, if not impossible, by this rhetoric.
Evidence gathering, under-determination, and making conclusions
Many people have this view of evidence and “facts” that they are obvious and that they smack you in the face with meaning and irresistibly lead you to a perfectly objective conclusion. Much of this fantasy, unfortunately, is perpetuated by arrogant science popularizers such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Nye. In reality, neither professional science nor life typically works like this.
As I mentioned before when I listed the seminars I attended at ETS, science is often beset with the problem of under-determination, meaning that the available evidence rarely determines a clear, unambiguous conclusion. What drives scientists to certain conclusions can be a host of philosophical presuppositions and value decisions, such as the simplicity of an explanation, the scope of the explanation, and its consistency with other preferred theories, among others. In addition, what actually counts as evidence is often debated, and how facts are interpreted, how relevant they are, and how facts should be prioritized is an open discussion (ideally, at least; scientists are manifestly not immune to improper bias and selfishness).
Likewise, in other areas, the “facts” themselves are not always obvious in their truth value, their relevance, and their priority. They need to be interpreted, and what facts count needs to be decided. There is nothing wrong or alarming about this, but it does make clear that the consideration of “alternative facts” is very important for honest inquiry. Intentionally avoiding them runs the risk of locking yourself into your own preferred narrative. Again, “alternative facts” can be false, uncertain, or irrelevant, but this requires evaluation and does not mean that you close yourself off to information that is not comfortable.
Here is an example of evaluating an “alternative fact”: Pro-lifers often label Planned Parenthood as the largest abortion provider in the nation, which is indeed a fact. Planned Parenthood has repeatedly tried to lessen the blow of this fact by stating another fact, that only 3% of what they do is abortions. This is an “alternative fact” and it is true, but as I have pointed out before, when you see how they come up with this statistic, the “truth” of it loses any persuasive force and it can be quickly dismissed as misleading and irrelevant. This is a clear instance of a worthless “alternative fact,” but its value was determined by argument, not emotional assertion. In fairness, there are “alternative facts” that conservatives give too that, on closer inspection, don’t amount to much or are highly uncertain, such as the statistic that 94% of pregnant women who go to PP receive abortions, which is a hard thing to prove.
There is indeed a lot of “alternative facts” out there that is truly “fake news” and misleading. However, they are not simply what you don’t like to hear or what your opponents say. This attitude or rhetoric just locks people into their tribes, and if my social media feed is any indication, it isn’t terribly helpful in getting people to actually talk rationally, soberly, and with nuance.