Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)

Uncivil Epistemology

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the second part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ have also been published on the blog. 

Some of the “epistemological” disputes that arose in the early days of the Trump administration had to do with specialized factual claims made by scientists, investigative reporters, and intelligence agents. However, some of the most notable disputes about “facts” and “alternative facts” concerned more mundane matters, such as the crowd size at the inauguration. The advantage of mundane facts in political discourse is that they appear to be democratically available: there is no apparent need to trust the “so-called experts.” For similar reasons, reverting to such plain examples also is common in academic disputes. Those of us familiar with the debates about realism and relativism in the “science wars” of the 1990s may recall that simple mundane examples often stood proxy for arguments about more technical matters.

One such example was used to refute the relativism that allegedly was running rampant through social and cultural studies of science: it concerned the factual statement “it is raining,” said by someone standing outside in a crowd. According to the argument, anyone (including a philosophical relativist) standing in the crowd who possesses a modicum of sense, honesty, and rationality, should be able to tell if the statement is supported by fact. If virtually all of us can verify or falsify observational claims about rain, why shouldn’t physicists with the requisite skills and specialized equipment be able to do the same for their observational statements?

A variant of this mundane meteorological example arose at the very start of the Trump presidency, but far from providing a touchstone for agreement the example illustrated the extraordinary extent to which even the most trivial facts got swept up in controversy. The incident in question occurred the very moment at which the new President began his inaugural address. Time magazine reported that it started raining just as Trump began to speak. The next day, however, Trump recalled that “God looked down and he said, ‘We’re not going to let it rain on your speech’.” Presumably, he was not being literal at this point. But then, after noting that he felt a couple of drops as he started his address, he went on to say, “But the truth is that it stopped immediately, it was amazing, and then it became really sunny. Then I walked off and it poured right after I left. It poured.” In The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky begged to differ, “No—it started raining when he started speaking; it was visible to any viewer that some on the podium started donning ponchos (it was a light rain that didn’t last long, but it was still rain). There was a huge rainstorm after, he said. No, there wasn’t. Again, the whole world could see this.”

In the emerging alt-episteme of empire-ical reality, facts no longer provide a compelling epistemic base for presenting and resolving disputes. Instead, a partisan base provides the discursive and institutional support for a parallel universe of alt-news, alt-facts, and alt-reality

Trump’s main spokespersons did not attempt to defend Trump’s “alternative fact” in this instance, as they were more concerned to prosecute the dispute about audience size. But, had they done so, they could have mentioned that most “observers” witnessed the event through the media, and raindrops were only indirectly visible on screen through the reactions of some crowd members. Breitbart, the alt-right news outlet did not try to refute the rain, but instead put an interesting spin on it by reporting that “Trump brought the rain in his blistering airstrike attack on the failures of Washington….” And so, if it had rained at the start of the speech, contrary to Trump’s image of a benevolent god clearing the heavens, Breitbart suggested the rain was brought on by Trump himself in the role of an angry deity smiting the enemy.

Tomasky listed Trump’s story about the rain among the “first one hundred lies” of the new administration. As usually defined, a lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. This particular lie was so blatant, and yet so trivial, that Tomasky listed it in a special pathological type of “non-premediated falsehood” that requires the audience (including Trump himself as witness to his own experience) to disbelieve what was just witnessed. A line from the Marx Brother’s movie Duck Soup (spoken by Chico, but usually attributed to Groucho) is often quoted to illustrate this contest between authority and experience: “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Tomasky also referred to journalist Ron Susskind’s 2004 analysis of the G.W. Bush administration’s contempt for what one staffer called the “reality-based community.” This aide was quoted as boasting, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

In the emerging alt-episteme of empire-ical reality, facts no longer provide a compelling epistemic base for presenting and resolving disputes. Instead, a partisan base provides the discursive and institutional support for a parallel universe of alt-news, alt-facts, and alt-reality. This symphony in the key of “alt” enhances the appearance of a symmetrical play of charges and counter-charges of lies, fake news, and junk science. A demonstrable, and arguably deliberate, product of this play is an indiscriminate public distrust in government and media.

As historians of science and law inform us, modern political and scientific institutions emphasize the importance of basic facts that any reasonable person should be able to understand. In both science and politics—in principle, if not in practice—reasonability is closely allied with civility. Accordingly, civilized dispute requires truth-telling, a presumption of sincerity, and a willingness to give way to the better argument, rather than a no-holds-barred defense of dogma. The epistemic and political hopes invested in such civilized adjudication is embodied in the legal (and arguably problematically gendered) construct of the “reasonable man,” whose judgment is free from ideology and vested interests, and whose testimony is trustworthy. With the proliferation of charges and countercharges of lying that we have seen in the opening days of the Trump administration, we are vividly reminded that the effort to establish facts requires a willingness to accept them—a requirement that, in turn, necessitates a suspension of the very civil strife that an adherence to matters of fact is designed to foreclose. If rain cannot be acknowledged, so much the worse for climate change.

Michael E. Lynch is a professor in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, where he co-directs the the Cornell Law and Society Program.