A Respectable and Surprising History of “Alternative Facts”
A “fact” is something than can be checked, backed up by evidence and verified as any dictionary will tell you. And this is certainly true of some facts — but not, I will argue, of others. In some cases, an “alternative fact” can prove to be respectable, even true.
Of course there is nothing respectable about the “alternative facts” of Trump and his supporters when they mischaracterize crowd size or inflate voter fraud. Or outside of Trump land, statements like: “Most of the time the sky is green.” Easy to debunk because, when checked, they are verifiably false. Such alternative facts may result from psychosis. They are also the routine product of autocrats everywhere. And Daniel Moynihan’s bon mot,” Everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts” applies unconditionally. So any obeisance to these kinds of alternative facts is not a trivial matter. It is dangerous to the polity.
But I would argue that there are some “facts” that over the course of time may become “alternative facts” and then become “facts” again. And no cons or prevarications are involved. What is involved is the lack of clarity that characterizes so many facts. Facts about complex phenomena can often have an ephemeral quality — -they are not hard and fast as the simple facts cited above.
This is because many facts are really more like “working theories.” And the best working theories leave room for ambiguity and alternative factual explanations. This is even true in precise or” hard” sciences. So Newton’s understanding of gravity seemed like the most unassailable fact in physics for centuries until an alternative fact — a better working theory, courtesy of Einstein’s discovery of the curvature of space, eventually replaced it after an interregnum when both the Newton fact and the Einstein alternative fact, vied for supremacy in the minds of Einstein’s contemporaries.
If facts(working theories) in the precise sciences are subject to revision based on new evidence, this is far truer in the social sciences and history, where establishing the fact of what happened — say why Rome declined — is subject to varied interpretation.. Even what to measure and what counts as evidence is subject to endless debate.
This confusion opens the way for radically alternative explanations for the same phenomena. Furthermore sometimes the established fact qua fact over time ends up as being seen as no more than a “period prejudice” (Such facts could be said to have expiration dates). But for a long time, the fact and the alternate fact will compete for dominance and people will die believing “their fact” was legitimate and had triumphed.
Here are some examples from the realm of medicine, politics and religion where the facts vied with alternative facts. These examples spare neither liberals nor conservative.
It was in 1987 that homosexuality definitively ceased to be a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is the professional handbook that classifies mental disorders. Before this time, the medical establishment including liberal psychoanalysts treated as a fact that this sexual orientation was deviant and needed to be overcome therapeutically. And many gay men spent years in therapy seeking a cure for their illness.
In the early 70’s an alternative fact (a new working theory) was promulgated by some heretical psychiatrists that homosexuality was not a disease but a normal expression of human sexuality for a certain percentage of the population that was born with this same sex orientation. This alternative fact (working theory) was dismissed by mainstream psychiatrists as an apostasy at first but gradually gained traction until today this alternate fact has become crowned as the fact.
Today, in the United States the alternative fact that homosexuality is an illness that should be cured therapeutically through some kind of “gay conversion therapy” is subscribed to mostly by fundamentalist Christian, Jews and Muslim. These groups are treated contemptuously by the same medical establishment that once shared their view that homosexuality was DSM certified pathology.
From the thirties to the sixties, many liberal intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic refused to accept the “fact” that Stalin was a brutal dictator who killed millions of his own people.
They made the case for the alternative fact that the Soviet Union was moving ineluctably towards becoming a worker’s paradise and that that the slaughter of innocents was “-the blatant fabrication or at least exaggeration of the propaganda machine of the capitalist west. The people Stalin was accused of killing were really “class enemies.”
It is easy to wonder today how they could have been so blind- and yet it was perfectly plausible then when competing ideologies (capitalist versus socialist) led to competing sets of facts to describe the same phenomena. Many very bright people went to their graves believing in the virtue of Soviet Communism in spite the decades of voluminous documentation of its atrocities. They remained convinced that “scientific socialism” would inevitably triumph over decadent Capitalism as Karl Marx had “proven.”
Here is a coda to this delusion from my own life: I was a protester against the Vietnam War in the sixties and seventies. And I was a proud owner of MAO’s little red book, filled with his “quotations,” a compendium of his “wisdom.” which I devoured. And in my alternative reality, he was a moral paragon compared to President Richard Nixon who slaughtering the Vietnamese, justified by something called the “domino theory. “
Like the apologists for Stalin, I was convinced that the anticommunist media were purveyors of propaganda about Mao. (fake news). Of course, it turned out that Nixon and the conservatives owned the moral high ground when they denounced Mao and “Red China.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mao was a butcher in Stalin’s league and made Nixon look benign by comparison.
Many fundamentalist Christians, wedded to creationism, cling to the alternate fact that the world is no more than 10,000 years old, as is written in the Bible. It may seem preposterous today that the fact (working theory of evolution) is still debated given the fossil record and the excellent documentation of geological time. Of course, when the Origin of Species was first published in 1859, the idea that species were not fixed but mutable was met with horror and disbelief by most people; the fact that all species had been created in their perfection by God over six days seemed far more plausible. To millions of fundamentalist Christians today it still does.
Is it any wonder that many of these people are climate change deniers? — after all if the world is only 10,000 years old how could climate change science, which compares the climate over hundreds of thousands of years be accurate? This alternate fact, if it gains enough followers, could lead to deadly consequences for all of us.
My conclusion is that we all must work towards humility when we evaluate the world around us — or not unconditionally believe the experts who explain it for us. With the kind of complex facts (working theories) I discussed above, there is much room for error and the shelf life of certain facts is not eternal.
According to astronomers, in the distant future, the Milky Way will not be what our descendants see above them in the night sky because of a working theory that it will merge with the Andromeda galaxy. Even the most unalterable facts about our universe sometimes turn out to be passing phenomena.