A fact by any other name

By Laura Grimm

grimmla@mnstate.edu

    On Jan. 21, a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Sean Spicer spoke to reporters for the first time as White House press secretary.

    During this speech, he claimed that Trump’s inauguration was the most-attended and most-watched inaugural ceremony in U.S. history.

    The next day on “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd confronted Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. She claimed that Trump having a larger inauguration crowd was an “alternative fact” from Spicer.

    By now, most people have heard of the “alternative facts” debacle.

    Interestingly, a Google search of “alternative facts legal term” will bring up a blog article and a Wikipedia page that claim alternative facts is a legal term used “to describe inconsistent sets of facts put forth by the same party in a court given that there is plausible evidence to support both alternatives” (Wikipedia).

    If you scroll down to the references on Wikipedia, they share an interesting characteristic. All of the sources with a listed retrieval date were found on or after Jan. 25, 2017. Scroll back up and you’ll find a large box citing multiple issues with the page, like the “article contains wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information.”

    To me, it seems as if this page was hastily put together to make Conway look good, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Conway has a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from George Washington University Law School; she should know legal terms.

    But she’s still wrong. The key phrase in the above definition of alternative facts is “plausible evidence.” Spicer had no evidence to support his claims that Trump’s inauguration was the most attended.

    Let’s take a look at the evidence. If you compare the aerial photos of inaugural crowds for Trump and former President Barack Obama, you don’t need to count every person in order to see the huge size difference. It’s there; it’s obvious.

    But according to Trump, the media framed the pictures to make him look bad—even though both photos were taken from roughly the same angle,  and Trump’s picture was taken as he was sworn in.

    This ties into a much more disturbing trend: the invalidation of facts. Trump has basically declared a personal war with the media, especially CNN. He has called the news organization fake news multiple times. Is it biased? Yes, you can argue that. But fake? Just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t mean you can invalidate its existence. Facts are facts are facts.

    If it isn’t a fact, it’s a lie. “Alternative facts may be found in our fiction sections on the fourth floor,” reads a sign in MSUM’s library, joining the massive quantity of memes making fun of Conway. I was always taught that libraries were the best place to go for research, so I’m going to take their side on this one.

    But while alternative facts are being treated as a joke by some, the incident also set off a wave of fear. Some have drawn parallels to George Orwell’s “1984.” Sales of the iconic dystopian, totalitarian-state novel have exploded almost 10,000 percent, according to a spokesman for its publisher Signet Classics.

    Honestly, we should be scared. One of the president’s counselors defended a lie from the White House. If the president and his staff are clinging so tightly to their “alternative” to an inconsequential fact, what else are they going to lie about?

    In his first official press briefing on Jan. 23, Spicer said something truly troubling: “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

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