The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Facts and Alternative Facts
It was almost exactly one year ago that we were introduced to the strange notion of "alternative facts."
As you probably recall, Mr. Trump claimed that "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period -- both in person and around the globe." Photos, however, showed a much larger crowd at Mr. Obama's 2009 inauguration. Members of the White House staff backed the president's statement.
On Sunday morning, less than 48 hours into this new administration, spokesperson Kellyanne Conway was interviewed on Meet the Press. She voiced the line, "Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts." To which interviewer Chuck Todd replied, "Alternative facts are not facts, they're falsehoods."
Through this year, there have been ongoing issues about reality-denying assertions from the White House. Many of those are far more consequential than crowd sizes. Two that are deeply troubling to me are recurring statements about wide-spread voter fraud, and dismissals about the reality or the threat of climate change.
For the sake of civil discourse and responsible policy, it seems that some shared sense of the facts and of reality are essential. I'd like to say that we should demand the truth from all public officials. But when I look beyond some of the easy-to-disprove political statements, I find that boundary lines are harder to draw. Our experiences of the world are subjective. It can be hard to know who or what to trust.
Today, I offer some reflections and some suggestions on this complicate topic.
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Several years ago, I was a keynote speaker at a conference organized by the Wyoming Association of Churches. We met in the charming town of Lander. My drive to the meeting concluded with a 125 mile stretch working northwest from the town of Rawlins through what I'd have to describe as "empty" country.
As I pondered the topic of my talk, which dealt with our over-stressed planet, I realized that my urban experience of a crowded and polluted world didn't mesh at all with my audience's daily experience of a vacant and relatively pristine places. It dawned on me there are more people living within 10 miles of my home in Denver than there are in the entire state of Wyoming (and most of my neighbors seem to be on Denver's highways at rush hour every day).
We can look at statistics about human impacts on the planet and recognize information about pollution and resource depletion, but those facts -- which are self-evident to me -- will probably seem foreign and abstract to many citizens of the vast state of Wyoming.
Differing perceptions are very much in the public debate around issues of racial bias in policing. Surveys routinely show stark differences in how blacks and whites perceive police behaviors. People of color know the reality of traffic stops for "driving while black", but that's a foreign concept to most whites in the US. Statistics do show a real bias, but personal and community experience strongly influence how much those facts shape our opinions.
Two neuroscientists specialized in the study of misperception and illusion wrote in Scientific American shortly after Ms. Conways's odd statement. They noted that "Donald Trump's hypothesis about the size of the crowd was possibly reasonable from his vantage point at the dais." But Mr. Trump didn't say that the crowd appeared to be huge. He didn't refer to his subjective experience. He made a bold assertion of fact which was clearly not true.
Some of our political and social conflict could be dialed down if people spoke a bit more carefully. Being a bit conditional instead of absolute allows constructive conversation. "In my experience" or "from where I stand" or "I hear from many of my constituents" opens the possibility of discussing whether those experiences are in tune with other views of the situation.
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I've spoken with college professors about the challenge of grading papers, especially with essay questions. One of them pointed out to me that "there may be many right answers, but some answers are just plain wrong."
The two neuroscientists I mentioned above wrote about the scientific method. "Thus, a fundamental tenet of science is that, whereas no amount of data can verify a hypothesis, a single contradictory observation will refute it." With clear evidence, we can say that some theories are wrong.
When there are competing "facts", it both reasonable and necessary to demand evidence to back them up -- and to consider evidence that can refute one side or the other. Frequent repetition of a claim does not make it true.
Some reputable media sources provide an important service by fact-checking political or corporate claims. They might look at the evidence, and say that a statement is true or "mostly true" -- or they might give a rating of "three Pinochios" to an outlandish or unsubstantiated claim.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from The Cornwall Alliance -- a far-right organization that frequently disputes climate science. The January 2 email noted the scientific finding that 2017 was the third warmest year in the 39-year satellite record, but then quoted the blog of a climate scientist who concluded that "Thus, despite recent warmth, we are now entering the 20th year without beating the record warmth of 1998." (That statement apparently has been removed from Dr. Spencer's blog, and this email is not archived on the Alliance's website.) The email included a graph of global temperatures which does show the amazing spike in 1998, and which also shows the dramatic trend toward rising temps across the almost 40 year record.
It looks like the Cornwall Alliance wants to believe that there is not a warming trend (even though they didn't exactly say that). Looking at the evidence, though, allows us to check the validity of their statement.
In the current political realm, we haven't been given that opportunity. I find it troubling that Mr. Trump and many of the climate-denying officials within the administration don't try to make a case with reference to the evidence. Their claims of a climate "hoax" are hard to refute when there's no discussion of actual scientific findings.
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We're in a very strange world where alternative facts and blatant distortions are common. I don't know how we can make those problems go away, but there are two very basic steps that can minimize the impact of such statements.
We can recognize that our experiences of the world are subjective, and that some things can seem very real even when they don't hold up to other measures of truth. By naming the perspective and experience of those making disputed claims, we're better able to evaluate what has been said, and to look for some common ground.
We can certainly demand that people -- and corporations, and government agencies -- provide evidence to back up their claims. The ability to fact-check controversial assertions is a necessary element of life within community.
It may be that subjective factors or different data sets lead to diverging conclusions. But if we're not provided information on those two factors, then it seems fair to echo Chuck Todd: "Alternative facts are not facts, they're falsehoods."
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