Facts, what they are, and whether or not we should focus or rely on them has come into dispute once again. Stephen Colbert’s first Wørd was Truthiness, id est, the truth one feels especially when it contradicts truth derived from facts (related to the similar concept deeper truth coined by Newt Gingrich, which is the notion a group might use — as a collaboratively agreed-upon pretense — to justify action that would be inappropriate, or even abhorrent, if such a deeper truth were, in fact, false.
Alternative facts are not what I would think they would be. Now they’re decrees by fiat of truth, like King Cnut commanding the sea foam to mind his royal feet. That’s not what an alternative fact should be. But then again facts themselves have become watered down. It’s time to dry them out. Proverbially.
A proper fact — what I learned in middle school in the 80s — is an event in nature. More precisely, it’s an observation of that event in nature.
So it’s not just My cat weighs 9.1 pounds. but According to my bathroom scale, my cat weighs 9.1 pounds.
And not even that. It’s more like I weighed my cat on the bathroom scale. As I did, the readout said 9.1 pounds. More likely I weighed myself, first holding my cat and then again, not holding my cat, recorded the two and the difference was 9.1 pounds.
As I want more confidence in my cat’s weight, I could make additional weighings, recording the value to make sure it’s consistent. I could also get someone else to weigh themselves cat and sans cat, to make sure the difference stays consistent regardless of the base weight. We want our figures to be indisputable.
Each of these observed, recorded weighings is a separate fact. The final figure at that point becomes a conclusion. But these days we’d call that a fact too.
If Sean Spicer wanted to challenge that fact, he could question the accuracy of the scale while I was holding a cat or even my dubious math skills. He could accuse me of misreading the scale, of exaggerating the cat’s weight to impress, or even say I was lying in order to deceive him (provided I was somehow motivated to misrepresent my cat’s weight)
But then he’d also have to present his case for why these are points of contention, preferably with what I would call alternative facts, that is a second set of observers making observations regarding the weight of my cat.
In the days before computers and digital sensors and devices that transfer observed data straight to record without the need of human eyes or human penmanship, alternative facts were a bit of a problem. After the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic, accountings from different witnesses of the night gave conflicting reports, which shattered the notion that police work could depend on witness accounts. People often interpret what they see, their brains automatically filling in what they would have expected for their blanks. On that terrible night, people saw different things and, with no cause for anyone to willfully mangle the truth, several inconsistencies came out, and we’ll never be certain what actually happened.
So it’s very possible, in the case of Trump’s inauguration Friday, that someone surveyed the National Mall and saw that the audience was yuge!, and this got telephoned up to Spicer that it was the largest audience EVAR! (purple monkey dishwasher) and how dare news publications report different numbers, because we have the most terrific crowd-assessment guys. The absolute best head-counters.
Spicer and Conway may just be unaware of the era we live in. Our society harbors a hardened cynicism of claims without basis, and in an era of mass surveillance and national security awareness, we expect cameras to be everywhere. We expect a satellite monitors the National Mall all the time for the very purpose of sizing demonstration and ceremony attendance (let alone, for security). And we have software that can estimate headcounts, let alone people willing to meticulously delineate and count the people in a high-res image. (It turns out there’s open-source software for crowd analysis and head-counting!) I expect we have head-recognition so we always know if a VIP (or Person of Interest) is visiting the Mall.
Spicer, Conway, Trump-people, your fans in the alt-right have a saying by which you will dearly want to abide:
Pics or it didn’t happen.
We the people will expect you to show your work.