Over the past few weeks, supporters and opponents of the Trump administration have fought over the constitutionality of his immigration order, the appointment of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, and the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Whether we agree or disagree with these decisions, we should not let our politics overshadow the most worrisome result of the Trump administration: the presentation and circulation of “alternative facts.” Kellyanne Conway, the Counselor to the President, coined the term when she asserted that aerial photographs, public transportation records, and statistical estimates could not disprove the claim from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that more Americans attended the Trump inauguration than that of any other president. The possibility of “alternative facts” has become one of the primary defenses of the Trump administration, and many Americans who support President Trump believe the media has misrepresented facts with the explicit objective of undermining his actions. Those who have sided with Conway present two related arguments: 1) We cannot completely remove subjective biases from our perceptions of reality, so all facts contain some bias. 2) If facts cannot escape bias, then one set of “facts” cannot have any more validity than another set of “facts.” Therefore, what we consider the truth and the truth itself are more or less the same, and we can counter any fact with an “alternative fact” backed with any amount of evidence, research, or subjective belief.
Facts are not opinions. While we must acknowledge that facts cannot achieve complete objectivity because we can only perceive the world using our senses, this does not mean that we should consider facts and “alternative facts” equally valid. I recently came across an article from Scientific American titled “The Delusion of Alternative Facts” where two psychologists who study optical illusions clearly explain why “alternative facts” do not meet the standards of the facts they challenge and replace. First, we may not be able to prove that what we know is true, but we can prove that what we know is false. If we see two photographs of the same location side-by-side and see one event has more people than the other, then we cannot simply dismiss the available evidence and say we do not know which event had higher attendance. If we statistically determine that the annual homicide rate of the city of Philadelphia has fallen from 391 to 277 victims since 2007, then we cannot responsibly claim the murder rate for the city has increased. We can only disprove facts with more facts, not with speculations, and “alternative facts” change the framework for our evaluations from the comparison of different sets of evidence to how much we believe certain facts are true. No matter how much smokers believed cigarettes did not cause cancer during the early-mid 1900s, we now know otherwise because of the vast accumulation of evidence from laboratory experiments, statistical correlations, etc. We cannot change this reality even if we wish or assume that cigarettes do nothing except help us relax, and we now face the same wishful thinking while we convince the public of the health risks of secondhand smoke.
Evidence and belief fall into two separate categories, and we cannot measure what is or is not true based upon what we do or do not believe. We can (and often do) deny facts that contradict our worldview and accept falsehoods consistent with our personal biases, and “alternative facts” let us simply believe whatever reality we choose. If Congress confirms Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, then her vocal support for voucher programs and her connections with opponents of climate-change science and evolution may cause the same problem. Families whose students attend voucher-funded parochial schools can withdraw from the facts of the scientific community while curriculum reforms approve pseudoscience and heavily-edited history courses for public schools. At the same time, federal officials, media outlets, and scientists have become increasingly divided over the content and even the reality of the gag order that President Trump has supposedly placed upon federal agencies including the National Park Service, the USDA, and the EPA. While the head of the EPA transition team has dismissed the accusation that Trump has silenced government researchers and assert that President Obama announced a similar media-control policy when he took office, scientists and staffers from the agencies have clarified that the Obama-era rule only applied for policy statements, not empirical research and publications. If we replace facts with “alternative facts,” then how will we accurately determine what our country needs and how our previous efforts have actually fared?
The problem of “alternative facts” matters equally for the right and the left, and we must not let what we think we know become our whole reality. We cannot move forward unless we can meaningfully evaluate the arguments and evidence around us, and all of us have a moral obligation to respect the theories, results, and verifiable conclusions that comprise our current, contingent knowledge of the political and natural worlds. Facts may change over time, but they can only change when they face sufficient contradictory evidence. Science and society can always replace facts with facts, but if we consciously replace facts with “alternative facts,” then we must accept the fate of a country where the public good becomes nothing but a question of political grandstanding and public opinion.