Alternative Facts: Did Orwell Make This Stuff Up?

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then? ~ George Orwell, 1984.

In an earlier post I wrote how Donald Trump—an amygdala with a twitter account—had tweeted: “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Later Trump repeated this false claim in a meeting with congressional leaders, and Mike Pence has defended Trump’s false claim by saying: “He’s entitled to express his opinion on that.”

Then, in the first official White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer blasted the press and contradicted all available evidence by claiming that the crowd was the “largest audience to ever witness and inauguration, period.” Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recently defended Spicer on “Meet the Press,” saying that Spicer didn’t perpetrate falsehoods but “gave alternative facts …”

These are just two recent examples of Trump’s mendacity. As of November 4th, 2016, The Toronto Star had already collected a database of almost 500 Trump lies. That Trump and his minions lie with impunity is hardly news. But as a retired philosophy professor who devoted his life to a search for truth, I’d like to briefly remind readers why the defenses offered by Pence and Conway are so ridiculous, and why the truth is so important.

Let’s begin by asking:  Do you have a right to your own opinion? For example, suppose that you claim that you don’t believe in evolution since it’s just a theory. In response, I point out that when scientists use the word theory—as in atomic, gravitational, quantum, relativity, or evolutionary—it means what normal people mean by “true beyond any reasonable doubt.” I then explain that multiple branches of science converge on evolution—zoology, botany, genetics, molecular biology, geology, chemistry, anthropology, fossil evidence, etc. I also provide evidence that no legitimate biologist denies evolution, and that evolution is confirmed in laboratories around the world every single day. Now suppose your respond, “well I disagree and I have a right to my opinion.” Is that relevant? No it isn’t! I wasn’t claiming that you didn’t have a right to an opinion, I was showing you that your opinion is wrong.

The key here is understanding what you mean by a right. If you are referring to a political or legal right to believe anything you want, no matter how groundless, then you are correct that free speech allows you to ignorantly profess: “the earth is flat,” or “climate change in a hoax created by the Chinese,” or “the moon is made of cheese,” or whatever other nonsense you believe in. But you do not have a right to believe anything if you mean an epistemic right—one concerned with knowledge and truth. In that sense you are entitled to believe something only if you have good evidence, sound arguments, and so on. Ignoring this distinction, many people believe that their opinions are sacred and others must handle them with care. Then, when confronted with counterarguments, they don’t consider that they might be wrong, instead they take offense. But if someone is really interested in what’s true, they won’t take the presentation of counter evidence as an injury.

Of course many persons aren’t interested in what’s true; they just like believing certain things. If pressed about their opinions, they find it annoying and say: “I have a right to my opinions.” There are many reasons for this. Their false beliefs may be part of their group identity; they may find it painful to change their minds; they may be ignorant of other opinions; they may profit from holding their opinion; etc. But if someone continues to defend themselves against counter-evidence with “I have a right to my opinion,” you can be assured of one thing—they aren’t interested in whether their opinion is true or not. So no Trump doesn’t have an epistemic right to his opinions because generally he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As for “alternative facts” this idea defends a discredited theory that philosophers call epistemological relativism. The basic idea is that there are no universal truths about the world, just different ways of interpreting it. The theory dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said: “man is the measure of all things.” Today we capture this idea with clichés like: “What you believe is true for you and what I believe is true for me” or ” truth is in the eye of the beholder,” or “it’s all relative.” While it is easy to say such things, it is also easy to see that they are wrong.

Do you really think there are alternative facts? Your math teacher says that 2 + 2 = 4, but you like 6 so your alternative truth is 6. Really? Physicists say that the earth is spherical, but your alternative fact that the earth is flat. Just as good? Engineers have their way of constructing bridges but your alternative fact is that duct tape works just as well. Want to cross that bridge? Your doctor tells you to eat healthy, exercise, maintain an ideal weight, and engage in stress reduction activities, but your alternative facts are that eating poorly, living a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, and smoking to relieve stress is just an alternative fact. No, you don’t really believe any of this. If you think about it for even a moment, you’ll realize that the truth is independent of your opinions; you’ll realize that there are true statements and false ones. And alternative facts are just falsehoods.

As a professional philosopher who devoted his life to a search for truth, the spectacle of constant lying and bullshitting truly pains me. Here is a great quote from fellow professor Michael Brenner who tells us what we might do in response:

“THE TRUTH BE TOLD….”

THAT ADMONITION HAS FAINT RESONANCE WITHIN OUR  PUBLIC DISCOURSE TODAY.  CANDOR, VERACITY AND CONVICTION ARE RARELY DELIVERED NOR ARE THEY EXPECTED.  ARTIFICE AND CONTRIVANCE RULE OUR THOUGHTS. TERMS OF REFERENCE ARE CONVENIENTLY OBSCURED, FACTS ARE NOTED OR MISSTATED AT WHIM.  VIRTUAL REALITY SO ECLIPSES ACTUAL REALITY AS TO MAKE THE VERY NOTION OF TRUTH INFINITELY ELASTIC.  AS A CONSEQUENCE, WE COLLECTIVELY HAVE BECOME LITERALLY MINDLESS.

CEASELESS IMAGE-MONGERING, LAXNESS AMONG THE POPULACE THAT IS ITS TARGET, AND A PANDERING FOURTH ESTATE TOGETHER HAVE DEGRADED THE WAY WE THINK AND BEHAVE IN THE PUBLIC REALM.  OUR ULTRA-PERMISSIVE CULTURE GIVES LICENSE TO PUBLIC FIGURES TO SAY JUST ABOUT ANYTHING WITHOUT BEING HELD TO ACCOUNT – BY ETHICAL, POLITICAL, OR AESTHETIC STANDARDS.  ALL DEMOCRACIES GENERATE ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF TRASH. THAT IS ESPECIALLY SO IN AMERICA.  THE KEY TO A HEALTHY DEMOCRATIC POLICY IS TO PROVIDE SHOVELLING CAPACITY TO MATCH.  WE NO LONGER DO.  THEREFORE, IT BECOMES EVERY CARING CITIZEN’S RESPONSIBILITY TO GRAB A SHOVEL …

5 thoughts on “Alternative Facts: Did Orwell Make This Stuff Up?

  1. Fight the power brother! We just have to keep getting lucky and avoid a nuclear war…science and technology coupled with capitalism should get us to the promised land of immortality and omnipotence. So tell me…do you feel lucky? Do you…punk?

  2. It doesn’t matter does it? He can create a new, alternative reality with a tweet. An alternative reality shared by millions of his followers. This becomes a reality that we, the rest of the fact-fearing world, have to deal with. Their insanity propagates and suffuses all that we try to do politically, economically, scientifically, militarily etc. etc. etc.

    Whether they have an “epistemic right” to their opinion is not in doubt. Surely they do not…and yet, it lies.

    History is indeed written by the victors and terrible crimes covered up, known only in whispers of dark corners until they too disappear in the deluge of lies…like tears in the rain.

  3. Some of our problem arises from the vagueness of the term “right”. As you point out, there is a big difference between a political right and an epistemic right. Indeed, I fear that the word now suffers from semantic bloat.

    On the bright side, the evasion it permits can have diplomatic value. For example, when Mr. Pence says that Mr. Trump is entitled to his opinion, that’s a diplomatic way of saying that Mr. Pence knows full well that Mr. Trump is lying.

    Your comment on the truly Orwellian phrase “alternative fact” suggests the perfect riposte: “Yes, and two plus two equals six is an alternative fact, too, but most people just call it false.” Or perhaps another riposte is “Yes, but we don’t live in an alternative universe. We live in THIS universe.”

  4. We can only hope that David Brooks is right that the new administration is too inept to implement their policies.

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