The Delusion of Alternative Facts

The Delusion of Alternative Facts

by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, Scientific American

How science can guide the search for “actual” truth in our post-truth era

This past weekend marked the swearing-in of Donald Trump as US president, and the moment in which the phrase ‘alternative facts’ joined ‘post-truth’ (the Oxford Dictionary’s most recent word of the year) and ‘fake news’ in our growing lexicon of Orwellian doublespeak. The occasion was the first clash of President Trump with the press, which had a bizarrely petty focus: the size of the crowds at his inauguration on Friday. 

President Trump’s first speech at the CIA, on Saturday, attacked reporters and television networks for “lying” about the inauguration crowds and showing “an empty field” at the National Mall. “I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people,” Trump said. Later, press secretary Sean Spicer went on to defend Trump’s statement while chastising the media. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” The proclamation was remarkable for its stark contradiction with verifiable data: birds-eye photographs showing considerably larger crowds at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration in 2009. On Sunday, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway added fuel to the fire by insisting that Spicer had been truthful. “Sean Spicer gave ‘alternative facts,’” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary later weighed in on Twitter, reminding Conway that “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” But, if Donald Trump’s electoral campaign and incipient presidency are any indication, the debate of what constitutes objective versus subjective reality is likely to endure.

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