Monday, January 23, 2017

Facts, Alternative Facts, and Definitions

One of the courses I often teach is an introduction to epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about knowledge and rational belief—how is it possible to know something, and why is it important, and what makes some beliefs more reasonable to have than others? I learned early on that one of the first things I have to do for my students is help them get very clear on the difference between, on the one hand, facts and truths, and, on the other, knowledge, belief, and support from the evidence. The former concern how things are in reality, whether or not we have any access to them; the latter concern how we thinkers try, and hopefully succeed, to put ourselves in touch with reality. Many students come into my course a bit fuzzy on this distinction, but getting it crystal clear is a prerequisite for thinking in a rigorous way about epistemology.

This has not been a good winter for the distinction. To cite just a couple of the many examples, when Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes was asked on the Diane Rehm Show whether it's OK for Trump to post made-up lies about who won the popular vote, she explained that "there's no such thing anymore unfortunately as facts". Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" as the 2016 Word of the Year. But early indications suggest 2017 will be no better for objective truth. Yesterday my social media feed was overrun with satire, disgust, and incredulity at Kellyanne Conway's description of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's blatantly false statements about the inaugration crowd size as expressions of "alternative facts".

I don't think Hughes really thinks, or even really meant, that there are no facts. I think she meant there are, within some restricted sphere of politically interesting claims, no facts that are generally accepted and can be assumed without contest. I don't think Conway really thinks there's a kind of fact other than the true kind. I think she was just spewing some garbage language in an attempt to obfuscate. (Note that later in her interview, she retreats from this metaphysical nonsense to an epistemic claim, saying that there's no way to know the size of a crowd. This is empirically (obviously) false, but it's at least not a denial of the idea of a fact.)

Critics of the Trump administration have of course been all over this. I see that already, one can buy "Alternative facts are lies" t-shirts. Some have observed that the concept is straight out of Orwell. I think they're right, and that that's terrifying. But that's not really my point here. I want to take this in a different direction.

The thing is, some of the anti-alternative-fact rhetoric is no less philosophically confused than this post-fact nonsense. Meriam-Webster tweeted:

When I first saw this tweet, I didn't know what the hell it was trying to do. But most of the interactions with it on twitter (38K retweets as I write) interpret it as criticizing Conway's invocation of 'alternative facts'.

And it's not just Trump critics who are reading the tweet that way.

But this is a terrible definition of facts, and one that does not obviously work against the Trump rhetoric. Look, suppose I tell a lie. I tell my students that the author of "Elusive Knowledge" was Barack Obama, writing under a pen name. And I tell them this in a v. serious tone of voice, and expect them to believe me. I'll announce that I plan to put that on the exam. This lie is a piece of information presented (by me) as having objective reality. So it counts as a fact.

Maybe you think a lie doesn't count as a 'piece of information'. Only truths can be information. OK, in that case, why is M-W talking about presenting as objective reality at all? Truths don't become facts when people present them. And indeed, there are lots of facts that haven't been presented as having objective reality, because nobody knows them.

On this definition, Conway's invocation of alternative facts makes perfect sense. If a fact is just an assertion, then the crowd-size experts have one assertion, and the Trump administration has an alternative assertion. Merriam-Webster has offered something more like a definition of a purported fact. But not all purported facts are facts, just like not all alleged murderers are murderers.

This dictionary seems comfortable with the notion of 'objective reality'. It does use that phrase in its definition. Once we have a grip on that notion, we should define 'fact' much more simply. A fact is a part of objective reality. A fact is something that is true, whether or not someone presents it as true, and whether or not anyone or everyone recognizes that it is true.

This is basic stuff. Literally first-day intro-to-epistemology-and-metaphysics material. Being clear on the idea of a fact is the first step to thinking about how we should go about trying to investigate what the facts are. Attacks on that clarity, whether by demagogic governments or by well-meaning resistance tweeters, make this crucial job that much harder.


  1. Does the same thing apply to "scientific facts"? Because I have heard people say that in science, there are two kinds of facts: things that have been observed that no reasonable person would doubt to occur again under the same circumstances, and explanations for things that people are so confident of that they no longer evaluate them as hypotheses. ( ) This always comes up when people want to know whether "evolution" is true. ( )

    1. Yes, I'd say the general framework definitely applies to scientific fact. We need to separate out two different kinds of questions: the status of a question as an objective one, about which there is a correct and incorrect answer—what this means is that the correct answer is a fact—and our epistemological position with respect to that answer—for example, whether we know it, or whether it's strongly supported by the evidence, or whether we really just have no idea.

      There's room for reasonable disagreement, I think, about just where to place of the idea that humans evolved from primitive organisms on this latter scale. Some people think we flat-out know that it's true; others think our evidence isn't strong enough for knowledge, but it does make it overwhelmingly likely. (There are other views too—some people think the evidence makes it UNlikely that humans evolved, for example—but I don't consider them intellectually respectable.)

      But I think that, whatever one's stance on this debate is, we should recognize that it is a factual debate. In other words, the correct answer to the question, did humans evolve from primitive organisms, is an objective fact. Either we did (and anyone who thinks otherwise is factually wrong) or we didn't (and anyone who thinks we DID is factually wrong). Even if you think no one knows which one the fact is, you should agree that there's a fact there.