A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Fact Checking in an Evidence-Free Environment
In the wake of the Brexit referendum result in the UK, and the presidential election in the US, many in both countries are troubled by the perception that both of these developments resulted from calculated and systematic deceptions of the public. The disquiet that exists in the public mind now goes beyond what is fairly normal in regard to popular ideas about politicians and truth-telling: they have never been perceived to keep steady company. But now Oxford Dictionaries has named post-truth era as their word of the year for 2016, and Macquarie Dictionaries in Australia has chosen fake news. A new uncertainty besets people about the quality of information presented to them, and if there was any expectation that the prevalence of prevarication from authorities would stop when these two campaigns ended, that expectation has not survived.
Along with the uptick in uncertainty is a new readiness to call into question anything that is presented as being factual or authoritative. The media now boldly challenge politicians; people now boldly challenge politicians and the media. And politicians, often represented by their minions, continue to insist on a reality that is at odds with the perceptions of the public and the media, and with verifiable facts. Here is Kellyanne Conway, spokesperson for president Trump, in a signature moment (at 4:15) where she delivers the term "alternative facts" to characterize a false account that another Trump front, Sean Spicer, had presented about attendance at Trump's inauguration:
The moment of hesitation she experiences before uttering the term gives the impression that she was inventing it on the spot. If that were true, it would certainly be testament to the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. Ms. Conway gets credit for the current popularity of the term, but she did not invent it. A dive into the Google Books archive reveals that the phrase has popped up regularly in the history of printed English, in examples like these:
- There is no effort in this pleading to allege alternative facts. The facts are definitely averred, but the party of whom they are alleged to be true is alleged in the alternative.
- Certain facts necessary to be proved were stated, and the alternative facts referred to were the forcing and carrying of the water under the Vandalia trestle and into the natural water course.
- The attorney will then attempt to provide a variety of alternative facts, causes, or circumstances, which, the attorney will contend, led to the injury.
- The Court found the case at bar indistinguishable from Turner, holding that a "logical and consistent application of Turner demands that proof of alternative facts in conspiracy cases be treated the same as proof of alternative facts in other contexts."
Interestingly, historical—and until a few weeks ago, contemporary—use of the term "alternative facts" is almost exclusively in legal contexts. Also interestingly, Ms. Conway holds a law degree (Juris Doctor with honors from the George Washington University Law School). She also clerked for a Washington DC superior court judge and she is married to a litigation lawyer; so the emergence of the term in in Ms. Conway's thought stream was probably not so much invention as it was retrieval from a dormant memory bank. In law, alternative facts (if supported by evidence) have the possibility of displacing previously claimed facts—which would in turn be discredited, and cease to be facts.
Here is the semantic issue that underlies this media maelstrom: the attribute that makes a statement a fact is its truth value, and the essential truth value of a statement is binary: it is true, or it is not true. For a statement to be a fact, it must be true—at the very least, true at the time of utterance. For statements about events in the past, which is not subject to alteration, the truth value of a fact does not change. This relationship between facts and truth holds in all realms of which we have experience: in logic, in language, and in life. It is not something that you can alter at will. An "alternative fact" cannot exist mutually with another fact that it contradicts; an alternative fact can only be a piece of an alternative reality. Communication in language requires us to agree to a consensus reality; without this, words could not have consensus denotation, and they would become indeterminate in meaning: surely a very bad result for a communication system that depends on words. The ultimate implication our failure to assent to a consensus reality is solipsism, as anthropologist Peter Neil Peregrine argues eloquently in a recent piece on The Conversation, in which he examines recent pronouncements from Trump spokespersons.
The telling thing about Ms. Conway's alternative facts, in relation to earlier iterations of the term, is that formerly it has always been used in a context in which it is implicit or acknowledged that "alternative facts", if they exist, do so in a provisional way until proven true. The interpretation of a fact may change—that is, implications or ramifications of a fact may be manifold, nuanced, and subject to debate and multiple interpretations—but the fact itself is immutable. Without this quality, the relationship between language and reality as we know it comes into question and there can be no sense of certainty about anything.
The unsettling implication about Ms. Conway's cavalier deployment of "alternative facts" is that this perceived relationship between language and reality no longer matters. It is as if the burden of proof, in our post-truth era, appears now to be no burden at all. That is a very extraordinary thing for someone trained as a lawyer to imply!
At the root of public concern around the epidemic of falsehood and deception in public speakers is a simpler explanation, a common value that has been expressed in all ages, in all cultures, and can be regarded as universal and dependable. I always think back to the scene in Dickens' Great Expectations, where Pip, the protagonist, has narrated "alternative facts" about his visit to Miss Havisham's in order to create the impression of an experience far grander than it was. But before the day is over he has an attack of conscience, and he confesses his duplicity to Joe, his brother-in-law and a father figure to him. Joe responds:
"There's one thing you may be sure of, Pip," said Joe, after some rumination, "namely, that lies is lies. Hows'ever they come, they didn't ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don't you tell no more of 'em, Pip. That ain't the way to get out of being common, old chap."
Our instinctive discomfort at the notion that facts don't matter and that reality can be manipulated by the fabrication of false narratives about it is a healthy and natural one. Today it is probably a bit extreme to attribute all lies to the "father of lies" (that is, Satan), but it is not extreme to insist that when falsehoods are presented as truth, they must be vigorously and repeatedly challenged. The success of communication in language depends on this.