During the Cold War an American and a Soviet race car held a race on a neutral speedway. After learning the American car had crossed the finish line first, Soviet newspapers reported “The Soviet car came in second, but the American car finished next to last.” Since there were only two cars in the race, technically the Soviet news description was true. The race is just an anecdote, but it illustrates how millions of people can create different views about the meaning of events.
Disagreements over meaning are as old as human history. Over 2,000 years ago Plato’s The Republic tackled fundamental questions of human existence: What is a happy life? What is death? Although Plato’s characters agreed there were such things as death and a happy life, through dialogue he illustrated different ideas about what those things could mean. Philosophers, scientists, theologians, and thinkers ever since have searched for answers while establishing churches, building universities, and creating laboratories along the way. The impulse to seek answers gave us the modern world.
Since different answers to fundamental questions emerged people began to argue about which answers were true or false. Distinct schools of thought grew around different sets of answers, and the ensuing debates produced armies of defenders and critics. Their written debates and subsequent commentary on them probably constitutes half of all the material sitting on library shelves today. As a result the existing methods for finding answers and meaning are well known. For example St Augustine argued that reason can only construct what is already implicit in religious faith. Centuries later logical positivist Ludwig Wittgenstein countered that philosophical problems cannot be solved by faith but only by logical analysis.
A disagreement over what facts mean is different from a dispute over what constitutes a fact in the first place. Imagine if during the Watergate scandal the American public collectively said “Ah, who cares it’s just fake news?” Nixon would have been pleased. That would have been a dispute over the validity of the facts, not their meaning. Disputes over what constitutes valid facts are also not new in human affairs. The many schools of thought frequently attacked each other’s facts, often triggering violence and war.
Whether they agreed on the facts or not though, past thinkers had one thing in common: they took facts seriously. Theologians and philosophers devoted hundreds of years to proving their arguments; individual thinkers often devoted their whole lives to a single question. Meanwhile scientists painstakingly gathered data and used experimentation to test new theories. The animosity and the effort of the past proves the seriousness with which facts were treated. Sadly, today facts are taken seriously no longer.
The concept of alternative facts is an insult to rational thought. George Orwell, author of the landmark book 1984 which described the horrors of a totalitarian society, understood well the danger of alternative facts: “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.” Now lies are trying to pass not only into distant history but into yesterday’s events too. We are literally watching a president and his subordinates rewriting things that happened only a few days ago while telling eye witnesses they didn’t really see what they saw. Their actions are eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth, whose job was to continuously revise history, spent most of its time rewriting the recent past so it conformed to whatever version of reality Big Brother felt like articulating on a given day.
Only a person who doesn’t take facts seriously would suggest alternative facts exist. They do not. The only alternative to fact is fiction. To claim alternative facts exist represents a new low in the history of human communication, because this time it came from the spokeswoman of the most powerful leader in the world and not from a book of fiction. But disrespect for facts isn’t limited to politics.
Scientists and scholars too are falling prey to the influence of money and fame. For example when big drug companies pay for studies proving their drugs aren’t harmful, they are creating a credentialed fiction to serve their financial interests. Our founders would be stunned. John Adams said “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Yet today power and fortunes are gained precisely by altering facts and evidence. The simplest way, especially in politics, is to substitute opinions for facts. That’s what “fake news” means; opinions systematically presented as facts. Fake news is a method not a source. Its principal features are laziness and a total lack of intellectual curiosity or honesty. Because fake news is easy to produce it accumulates quickly. To paraphrase Mark Twain consumers of fake news publications “believe the ignorance contained in those pages to be unquestioned wisdom.” Thanks to the internet, opinion masquerading as fact is now everywhere.
Fake news is a method the people of the United States, and indeed the world, must reject. Presenting opinions as facts is a form of lying. Eventually lies will have a head on collision with reality; the only question is how fast will we all be going? As children we all learned when we told a lie, the more lies we had to tell to cover up the first lie just kept making things worse. What could’ve been a minor problem ballooned into something much bigger. Honesty is the best policy, and a big part of honesty is taking facts seriously.
That means spending more than five minutes on Google to find links that validate an answer we already believe. It means careful research, allocating lots of time to reading, and gathering factual evidence from first hand sources. Thomas Jefferson said “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” An educated citizenry knows the difference between fact and fiction, and when their leaders tell them the two are interchangeable, those leaders are threatening our survival as a free people. A well-informed citizenry would have laughed Kellyanne Conway out of the room for suggesting alternative facts are real. That’s the world we need to make.