Opponents of President Trump – and they are legion – reserve their most savage attacks for his ‘alternative facts’. These are the apparent absurdities they see when he claims that there were 3 million illegal voters who prevented him winning the popular vote, or when his inauguration crowd was ‘the biggest ever’ despite no evidence for the claims or photographs that show them to be false.
The New York Times is one of his leading critics and among its columnists, Roger Cohen is perhaps the most vituperous. Recently he wrote, ‘the blurring of truth and untruth, fact and falsehood is most grave. When the distinction between truth and lies disappears there is no basis for rational discourse…on which a free society governed by laws depends.’
Hard to argue with that.
Except for this: nearly all of us live by ‘alternative facts’ even while we preach the virtues of rationality. For example, Mr Cohen is a very active member of the Jewish community and so lives by the holy books of the Old Testament. And they tell a very different story of human beginnings in the book of Genesis than does either the great astronomical discoveries of the Big Bang and the evolution by natural selection discovered by Charles Darwin.
These are ‘alternative facts’.
The same applies to all religions. In Mr Cohen’s words, ‘there is no basis for rational discourse’ between different religions or between religionists and non-believers. On the one hand you have rationality, on the other faith in ‘alternative facts’.
And that’s just the beginning. As any experienced lawyer will tell you, our court system is designed simply to decide which of two sets of alternative facts finds acceptance by the jury. And what are our elections but the parade of alternative facts, each seeking to persuade us that one set is more attractive than the other. Indeed, the old saying that ‘there are lies, damn lies and statistics’ is the perfect illustration of the alternative facts that can be drawn from a single set of numbers.
And what of the overwhelming consensus that human activity is heating the globe towards a tipping point. Mr Trump and his millions of followers have an alternative set of facts that shows the whole thing is a Chinese hoax. And speaking of the Chinese, a whole raft of alternative facts were brought to bear on our racial prejudice to produce the White Australia Policy that disfigured Australia’s relations with its neighbours for almost a century.
So, where did we all go wrong? Perhaps we need look no further than parenthood where, with no thought for the future, we start out children’s lives with a few ‘alternative facts’ that are close to their hearts. The tooth fairy is a favourite as we tell them in all earnestness that she will take the little incisor away and replace it with a dollar (or two). And in the morning, there it is. Then comes Santa Claus, and prayers and Bible/Koran/Upanishad stories made from whole cloth but which dance around a child’s mind in those last moments before sleep.
But what of science. you say. Surely, we can rely on our scientists for an unimpeachable set of facts upon which we can base our rational discourse. Well, science itself is actually a vigorous debate between proponents of alternative facts – known as hypotheses – which are debated and resolved, only to discover in the future that the agreed synthesis was in fact quite off beam – for example Newton’s notion of gravity was accepted for several centuries before Einstein came along and upset his applecart.
The saving grace is that it really is a place of rational discourse, but for vast numbers of humanity it’s merely a set of ‘alternative facts’. Happily, at its heart is mathematics which leaves no room for argument. Two plus two will always be four. You really can’t trump that.