Welcome to the World of “Alternative Facts”

Don’t expect the idea of evidence-based policy to have much sway in this Adminstration

Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s key advisors, has come up with a new term for deliberate falsehoods: “alternative facts.”  It’s a concept that does not augur well for the next four years. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed: the hashtag #alternativefacts is spreading like wildfire.

Here’s how the alternative facts concept surfaced. Upset by press reports that the inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the press in to berate them, vehemently insisting that the crowd was the biggest in history. He also gave some figures about Metro use to justify his claim. Unfortunately, both claims were flatly false, as shown clearly be aerial photos and the actual metro figures. Conway defended these falsehoods, saying that they were merely “alternative facts,” rather than lies. (The transcript is here; if anything her evasiveness and hostility to being questioned is even more dismaying.) Her view brings to mind a pro-Trump pundit who opined that “[t]here’s no such thing, unfortunately anymore, of facts.”

Unlike statements about global temperatures, determining the facts here doesn’t turn on massive amounts of data and extensive analysis. It’s true that estimating crowd size accurately is difficult, as Conway said. But the photos make it obvious that the Mall was completely filled by Obama in 2008 and that there was a lot of empty space in the back two-thirds of the Mall in 2017. And counting the number of Metro rides on a given day isn’t exactly rocket science.

It’s really no wonder that scientists were frantically trying to save data before the new Administration took office, or that many economists are deeply worried about the future of government data-collecting efforts. Why worry about actual data when it’s so much cheaper, easier, and more comfortable to invent alternate data?  And, as Holly Doremus has written, there are serious reasons for concern about protections for scientific integrity in the new Administration.

It looks like we will now have to amend a famous saying by Mark Twain. Now there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and “alternative facts.”  It’s fortunate that in our system the government has to justify its actions in court.  Few government lawyers will be willing to make arguments that contradict the evidence in the record.  And even fewer judges will accept the defense that the government was relying, not on the actual facts, but on “alternative” ones.

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Reader Comments

7 Replies to “Welcome to the World of “Alternative Facts””

  1. Guest essay by Eric Worrall

    Now that Trump is President, What Will Replace the Dying Climate Crisis Narrative?

    “….The replacement scare has to be a comparatively new field, with vast knowledge gaps which can be filled with wild speculation disguised as expert opinion. It must plausibly threaten the lives and security of ordinary people – to attract research funding. The exaggerated risks must have the potential to engage public imagination. The new scare must be radically different from previous scares – otherwise people will see it as recycled CO2 hype (think the methane scare). And the new scare must have the support of popular culture – Hollywood must get on board, to help spread the fear….”

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/01/21/the-next-eco-scare-story/

  2. In a world where Trump and his Administration invents information to fit its own world view, even when those claims are clearly and consistently disproven by irrefutable facts (much like how climate deniers operate), our NGOs and academic institutions are more important than ever to keep a check on truth.

    With “Trump Watch” (https://www.nrdc.org/trump-watch), NRDC has taken one important step to make it easier to keep an eye on the lies coming from Trump, his Administration, and the Denier camps and shine a spotlight on the destructive activities harming our planet and the health of all Americans in favor of a select few businesses.

    With sites like Trump Watch and the thoughtful awareness and analysis of blogs like Legal Planet, I am optimistic we can continue to work together to fight for environmental progress over these next 4 years. Then we can really get back on track.

  3. I understood that alternate facts is a legal term to describe inconsistent sets of facts with plausible evidence to support both alternatives. Don’t lawyers introduce alternate sets of facts during nearly every trial? And because everyone agrees that estimating crowd size is extremely difficult (that’s why the National Park service got out of the business) then I believe Conway was simply introducing (much like a lawyer does) a different set of facts to support the administrations claims. I think if you are going to say she is lying, then you’d have to say that of every trial lawyer practicing law.

    1. You’re right that lawyers are allowed to plead alternative versions of the case when the facts are unclear. But there are ethical limits on that. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure says that in signing a complaint, a lawyer attests that “the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery.” You’re right that estimates of crowd size are difficult, which provides some leeway. But the claim that Trump had the biggest crowd in history is impossible to maintain given that amount of empty space near the Washington Monument compared to previous inaugurations. And the specific figures he gave about Metro ridership were also simply incorrect. Defending that as aggressive advocacy, rather than admitting to a mistake, is really saying that you can just make up your own facts to suit your needs.

      1. Thank you for your reply. First, I will say that arguing the crowd at the Trump inaugural was the largest ever was foolish and unnecessary even if true. But I think that the mockery of Conway and branding her a liar was unnecessary and driven by bias against Trump. She said they had been given other estimates by other sources and, since no estimate is truly a ‘fact’ (despite how they are presented) the administration argument was based on those alternate estimates or alternate ‘facts’. Again, I don’t defend the argument but mocking her for using the words ‘alternate facts’ (she does have a law degree so I assume she understands the term) was also unnecessary.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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