The alternative truth

Merriam Webster is my favourite free online dictionary. I don’t just use it to look up words, but there are  some interesting articles as well. They occasionally write about spiking words, which usually occurs after it has been used on TV. That happened recently when Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s campaign strategist and now special adviser, used the term alternative facts on NBC. This was in response to the accusation that Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, had lied during his first press conference. He was talking about how many had watched the inauguration and argued that more people had watched it on TV and internet than ever before. This turned into the now very familiar abuse between Trump and the press, and the journalists probably felt they were justified, because how could there possibly be an alternative to the truth? (as if they don’t know what yellow journalism and misrepresentation means)

This is from the altercation on Meet the Press:

I’m not sure it is as illogical as it sounds. Most people look at science as the absolute truth. There is no alternative, only the unbiased conclusion from a study. In reality it’s not that simple. There have been studies where they repeated previous studies, and in too many cases they fail to get the same result, which is one of the most important principles in science. Publication bias is a well known fact in the pharmaceutical industry and probably kills a lot of people. Most people have also heard about the corruption that goes on in medicine and no matter what you think about vaccines, it is a fact that different studies have different end point. That is the reason why some vaccines appear to be more effective in some countries than in others.

Imagine a traffic accident. The witnesses may not give the same version of what happened. That doesn’t mean they lied, but there are many factors that could change their perception. They could see the accident from different angles and something blocking could change the sound for example. I have read some bizarre coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis in Norwegian newspapers, stories that sounded so unrealistic that they couldn’t possibly be true. Mainstream media also rely on Assad’s enemies, including one refugee in Coventry, England for accurate information from the ground in Syria. This is at best one of many alternative truths.

These are a few examples of dishonesty and different perspectives that may provide different versions of the truth. We have certain professionals that handle the facts for us (journalists, politicians, scientists), and if we immediately accept everything they say as facts, it becomes clear that the truth has multiple alternatives. Maybe this is about debating semantics. I seem to recall a president that didn’t have sex with “that woman” because he had a different definition of what sex was. When I think about how fluid the term fact is to many of the people that are supposed to convey the unquestionable truth, I wonder whether having an alternative is as unusual as some seem to think. Maybe we have no choice when we are faced with false experts.

Incidentally, there is also an alternative to oxymoron. Just leave out the oxy.

3 thoughts on “The alternative truth

  1. John,

    Fascinating piece! Semantics may be well part of the issue. However, it does appear that Western society (at least in U.S.) seems to have lost complete touch with what truth is.
    As a society, we have rejected any concepts of absolute truths and embraced moral relativism. I think this is at the core of this conflict (and separate from different perspective such as your car accident example, thought it is an important angle in this).
    If we reject that there are ANY absolute truths and embrace moral relativism, then truth itself eventually loses all real meaning. Then, the truth simply becomes whatever we want it to be, and we all create our own facts and realities about everything. At that point, reality becomes created based on feelings and opinion.

    Additionally, this development blends with confirmation bias. If the reporter in newly sworn in President Trump’s office has already pre-determined that Trump is a raving racist, then his confirmation bias would be seeking evidence (consciously or unconsciously) to support this pre-existing concept. Therefore, when he sees that the bust of MLK Jr. is not in its usual position, instead of looking around the room to see if it has been moved, or asking WH staff about it, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that confirms his existing bias: the raving, racist president MUST have removed it. Because of course, a racist would not want that bust in his office. (the matter of whether or not the removal would actually make one a racist is a separate matter)

    But I’m not entirely sure where confirmation bias, moral relativism end and and where sloppy, lazy journalism begins. Truth can be presented in ways that intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents it.

    The issue of the two photos of the presidential inauguration crowds from 2009 & 2017:. Both photos can be completely true and accurate. BUT, if the photo of one was taken earlier on inauguration day than the other one, it misrepresents the actual numbers, as people were still arriving and the crowd was not yet fully gathered. Truth, presented at different times, presents a different reality in this case, yet still true. Yet, if the different times of the photos are not taken into consideration, the “news” story about the crowd size becomes falsehood. Whether it is an unintended or intended falsehood is possibly up for debate.

    Lastly, seeking and speaking truth, in any area of life (whether as a professional fact gatherer or as an individual) is hard, grueling work, rarely appreciated, and often confronted with intense opposition and persecution. It is just easier, to be intellectually and morally lazy and publish and promote and believe a lie.

    Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem, “If,” ….”If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools….”

    Jesus said with regards to the Truth, “narrow is the gate and few there are that find it.” Paul stated of those that reject the Truth of God’s Son: “they will believe a lie and be damned.”

    Hopefully I did not take Scripture out of context there!

    There’s my 99 cents for the day, because I haven’t figured out how to keep it to just 2 cents!

  2. I have over 160 followers, but for some reason you are more opinionated than those 160 combined. I appreciate every word, and in this case I don’t think it matters that my foreign pronounciation doesn’t distinguish between wordy and worthy. I have some hopes that the others still read.

    This is a quote from one of my favourite TV shows, Doctor Who: “You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapons in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”
    I am not as well armed as I would like, but working on it.

  3. Thank you for your kind words, and I am glad you appreciate them and think them not only wordy, but worthy! 🙂

    As far as being more opinionated than the 160 followers combined, it is probably not the case. They may well be as opinionated as me…..but they may not feel comfortable or safe expressing those opinions. A year ago, I would not have expressed the ones I have expressed the last few days. Why not?

    I was scared to. But I decided that what worth is freedom of speech if we don’t use it? What worth is it to have it and not use it for fear of being attacked, vilified, or worse? Is it not for times such as this that we need that right? If we self-censor to the extent that we feel pressured to do so, then do we not abolish freedom of speech through our own silence?

    Not saying one should not exercise caution or discretion or count the cost, but I have concluded that I have been silent too long about too many things.

    I love the quote about books. I wish more people read them, then relying on TV or videos, which operate in sound bits. Books take time to read, and that time provides the opportunity to think over, digest, analyze the information.

    Thank you for writing truth and asking questions in a time when it is so much easier not to.

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