Of course there are “alternative facts”

Note that linked blog entries are translated by Google Translate.

In a previous post, I wrote about new meanings of old words, and also briefly about smear labels that people use about other debaters. The labels are intended to short-circuit the thoughts of other participants or listeners, so that they readily ignore the factual issue at hand, and instead concentrate on the person. If you take a step back, you will notice that there are now whole concepts that are intended to disqualify entire groups from participation in the societal debate.

Here I deal with two concepts that I’m having more and more issues with. The concepts are alternative facts and fact resistance. The words are most often used in a derogatory manner, and not infrequently with a superior and self-satisfied grin, as if the people using these words themselves would be totally free of preconceived notions or confirmation bias (the very human tendency to selectively pay attention to information that supports your own hypotheses about the world). It is important to note that those who use these words no longer limit themselves to obvious cases such as people who believe that the Earth is flat, but also about people who happen to have political opinions or social perceptions that differ from their own.

Like all other labels, they have become a kind of internal jargon, where like-minded people smugly can nod in agreement, even though the words are in fact vert poorly defined and problematic. Below I list my biggest problems.

1.The concept of alternative facts is poorly defined but is now used mostly as if it was synonymous with fabrications and lies . From such a postulation follows congruently that the word fact should be synonymous with truth. But from a philosophical point of view, it is not entirely so. Indeed, individual facts must of course be truthful to be facts, but they rarely constitute the whole truth. There is always so much information, that is facts, surrounding for example an event or a phenomenon, that one can – really – selectively choose between a lot of different facts. Even simple cognitive differences between humans result in events being experienced in myriad ways. This is proven by wildly differing eyewitness descriptions of accidents. A person describing an accident in another way than we do, clearly has alternative facts from the same event. But they are definitely not fabrications or lies, and the concept of alternative facts should therefore not be used at all in that sense.

“What I told you was true – from a certain point of view.” 
Obi Wan Kenobi, Return of The Jedi

2. The concept of fact resistance is now used as if there are vast swaths of people who stubbornly and consciously believe in fabrications and falsehoods. But the vast majority of people with normal intelligence of course never want to be taken to the cleaners. It’s another thing that the world is, and always has been full of simply wrong informationscamsmisconceptionswishful thinking, memes and myths and weakly substantiated hypotheses, which all can be very attractive if you are not careful. This is not at all a new phenomenon – and you see examples in all social strata, in all walks of life, and more importantly, in all political camps.

3. Political discussion and debate has in all times largely consisted of exaggerationshalf-truthsscare propaganda, hindsight wisdom, selective presentation of factoids (small grains of facts) and anecdotal evidence. You just have to think about the question of which is better for pupils: large or small schools, to bring about reams of alternative facts, all of which are rhetorically just as valid (or really, invalid) in a debate.

If I say that I really enjoyed my time in a small school, it is actually a true statement; a fact. But is it really the truth about small schools? Someone else certainly has completely different experiences, alternative facts, about the same issue. That person’s story is just as true as mine, but it’s just as little the truth about small schools.

In addition, political decisions are often made on the basis of very narrow studies, investigations or reports that have a kind of scientific aura, but which in fact are very thinly researched, paid-for lobbyist work, intended to steer people’s thoughts or the debate in a certain direction. These reports and studies are at best only parts of the whole picture, and thus alternative facts to a very high degree. In addition, the media often make a big hoopla about these studies – but often do very bad background reporting, if they even bother to read the actual report. This means for instance that on Monday, chocolate can be the healthiest thing you can eat, but on Wednesday it could be your worst health hazard. The cognitive dissonance that this causes erodes many people’s belief in the scientific process, as they are made to believe that these paid-for reports are science.

4. Although many people nowadays seem to think it, social debate and political decisions after 1948 and before Trump, Brexit et al. have never been a scientific process in which decision-makers take in comprehensive and objective information, and then rationally make the only sensible decision. Social debate and political decisions are always ideologically flavoured, regardless of political denomination. Therefore, in the normal range of political movements – that is, among those who want to maintain the parliamentarian principle, the rule of law and legal order – no one can claim to be the only true interpreter of which individual facts we should consider to be the truth .

5. Media has never been some sort of scientific process for distilling forth the truth, and no current mass medium is a forum where only pure, reliable, unpartial, neutral and balanced information is presented to the citizens. On the contrary, media nowadays – in the pursuit of clicks and eyeballs – increasingly are becoming opinion rags, albeit with some of them still having bits of the old veneer of neutral and impartial journalistic principles hanging on. In choosing what to write about, or in what way to tell a story, the journalists’ own political or societal opinions often shine through like a beacon. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I just say that media consumers should be attentive to this development. For example, our local public broadcaster Svenska YLE’s morning news one morning stated that an expert has said that nuclear power is a totally unnecessary form of energy during the transition to a society free from fossil fuels. For the average listener, it might have sounded like a scientific fact (an expert said that, for God’s sake), when in actual fact it was a political statement that neither was true or untrue. Another ”expert” could just as well have told of many, many reasons – alternative facts – why nuclear power would be indispensable during a transitional period. Especially public service companies such as YLE should be very careful about this kind of lopsided news reporting.

I myself try to avoid generalizations and stereotyping comments in various debates, and I also try very hard to be aware of my own preconceived notions. Sometimes I succeed better, sometimes not so good. In previous posts, I have written about how social media hardly facilitates this kind of self-control, but rather fuels thrashing generalizations and the smear labeling of debate opponents and groups. It must be something with the combination of technology / zeitgeist that leads to this. There is certainly reason to return to this subject.

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