What’s wrong with ‘alternative facts’?
Written by Kip Hansen
‘Alternative facts’ is a term in law to describe inconsistent sets of facts put forth in a court given that there is plausible evidence to support both alternatives. The term is also used to describe competing facts for the two sides of the case. – Wikipedia
So . . . what exactly is a ‘fact’? From the Wikipedia:
A fact is something that has occurred or is correct. Facts may be checked by reason, experiment, personal experience, or may be argued from authority. In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.
With this context, it is not surprising that there are competing ‘facts’ of which their proponents are equally certain. ‘Facts’ are being confused with hypotheses and theories, and too many ‘facts’ are being asserted by authority.
So . . . what’s wrong with ‘alternative facts?’
Nothing — absolutely nothing. Quite the opposite, really. Alternative facts are what we use to learn new things about the world around us. Science is the subject of using alternative facts to come to a better understanding. Discovering that there are alternative facts about something – even better, seemingly contradictory facts – is what points us to an area of study that promises the reward of new insights into the natural world.
Out in today’s world of U.S. Two-Party Politics – an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque landscape being repainted daily in the “news” and “social” media – a lot of ill-mannered, Queen-of-Hearts-style nonsense is being churned out by turning this perfectly good and useful idea – alternative facts – into a mockery of truth-finding — turning Truth into an one-word oxymoron.
Facts vs factoids
Much of what we know as facts, and much of what are presented to us as facts, are more correctly characterized as “factoids” – a word believed coined by Norman Mailer – which has two closely related meanings:
1) a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it is not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.
a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it is not actually or strictly true, or an invented fact either deliberately created or created by sloppy thinking, poor logic skills, lack of critical thinking or poor journalism believed to be true because it appears in print, in a journal article, in mainstream or social media, on a web site or has ‘gone viral’ on the Internet.
2) a brief or trivial item of news or information.
Factoids are often presented to us as numbers – which influence us to find them somehow truer or more believable – or are presented as impossibly simplistic assertions about complex topics. Factoids most often are used rhetorically [as in argument, debate, or propaganda] in opposition to other facts in a fact-vs-fiction construction, explicitly stated or implied – “Here are the facts!” – implying that all else is fiction, all other ‘facts’ are false.
Tied to the use of factoids is the principle of “Only One Fact”. This is the rampantly popular idea that for each subject there exists only one fact (or set of related facts) and, from that, it follows that all other statements on the subject are falsehoods, lies, or errors. We hear this in common speech: “The fact is…” and we see on single issue websites “The Facts are…”. This “Only One Fact” version of reality is a serious cognitive malfunction – and a leads to serious critical thinking errors.
Climate science, and the never-ending debate about its implications, is particularly rife with Factoids and Alternative Factoids. Each side, mostly from the extreme edges of the field, sling factoids at one another in endless streams of numbers, graphs, trend-lines, echo-chamber talking-points (prepared by their own side’s experts) – spiced with an truly incredible number and variety of personal opinions presented as if they were facts.
Once we weed out the truly daft opinions, the obvious non-physical misunderstandings and the delicious-and-nutty fruit-cakery served up from the far edges of climate alarm and hard-core “its all a big hoax” skepticism alike, we are still left with a huge number of seemingly true statements, facts, that seem to contradict each other, sometimes apparently in direct opposition.
Competing ‘facts’ about the Amazon
How’s that, you ask? Let’s look at an example. It has long been considered a fact, and still is by almost all environmental movements, that:
[T]he Amazon forests are pristine forests, never touched by humans….the rain forests of the Amazon were untouched by human hands before the arrival of European explorers in the 15th century. [The Amazon is] an old-growth forest — primary forest, virgin forest, primeval forest — is a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibits unique ecological features and might be classified as a climax community [a biological community of plants, animals, and fungi which, through the process of ecological succession the development of vegetation in an area over time, had reached a steady state].
Yet, reappearing again in the science press this week is the story of ancient earthworks deep in the Amazon forest:
Deep in the Amazon, the rain forest once covered ancient secrets. Spread across hundreds of thousands of acres are massive, geometric earthworks. The carvings stretch out in circles and squares that can be as big as a city block, with trenches up to 12 yards wide and 13 feet deep. They appear to have been built up to 2,000 years ago.” The study [ doi: 10.1073/pnas.1614359114 ] states “We reconstructed environmental evidence from the geoglyph region and found that earthworks were built within man-made forests that had been previously managed for millennia.
The existence of these earthworks, and their antiquity are facts – actualities, they really exist and strong, replicable evidence exists for the dates of creation.
The facts reported by Watling et al. (2017) in regards to the earthworks are not only alternative to our accepted facts [above] about the Amazon; they directly contradict long-standing, almost universally-accepted, facts. It is because they are contradictory that we can begin to develop a new and better understanding of the ecology of the Amazon rainforests, their history, their evolution and the South American nations within whose boundaries these forests exist, can create national policies based on this better understanding.
By combining the two sets of seemingly contradictory facts– alternative facts, we can see that while the Amazonian forests are certainly old-growth forests, having existed in their current states for hundreds, up to thousands, of years, they are not “virgin forest, primeval forest” at all but have actually been created by long-term interactions with the human civilizations that lived within them.
This is not a trivial example of “new discoveries lead to better understanding”, though it could be viewed that way. There has been a long constant stream of alternative facts to the background fact of a pristine, primeval Amazon. The investigation of a soil type named “Terra Preta” (Portuguese for “black soil”) began producing alternative facts in the 1960s and they have rolled out regularly since. Yet it was fact not long ago, despite these alternative facts, that the land of the Amazon was relatively useless for agriculture.
Now we see that there is very strong evidence that the Amazon is not being newly deforested but is apparently being re-cleared, re-claimed as arable land. It is land that in the past was cleared and used for agriculture, speculatively thought to be a sort of ancient perma-culture, and for the building of extensive towns and cities.
Example: climate science ‘alternative facts’
Consider the following statement:
“Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by about 0.8° Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”
Well, we have a fact – “Earth’s average surface temperature has risen”; a number related to the magnitude of the temperature increase (which must be considered subject to some degree of factual uncertainty); and a time period. The statement can be considered, factual (subject to some caveats) or true. However, the statement implies causation — that the warming was caused by the Industrial Revolution–which makes it a factoid because the cause of the warming is a hypothesis.
Consider the following alternative statement:
“Earth’s average surface temperature has risen for the last several hundred years, since the depths of the Little Ice Age*, and by about 0.8° since the mid-19th century, which is the beginning of the instrumental temperature record.”
[* = “three particularly cold intervals: one beginning about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, all separated by intervals of slight warming.”]
This statement is equally true but again implies causation – “since the depths of the LIA”.
It is possible to construct a clear Fact about changes in global mean surface temperature changes and the associated uncertainties. However the IPCC’s mandate to focus on man-made climate change resulted in a conclusion dictated by their mandate that is arguably a factoid.
Not all alternative facts lead to a better understanding. Some just stand in opposition to one another until such time as new and better facts or evidence emerge from the confusion to help clarify the situation. Those new facts or evidence will be, at first, Alternative Facts – they should not necessarily be expected to match either of the preferred climate science factoids above.
As these new alternative facts emerge, they should be embraced and seriously considered by all sides and positions in the climate debate. Those new, alternative facts –those few that survive the fire of massive open public review– will lead to better understandings of the physical actualities of Earth’s climate which in turn will allow policy makers to make better climate policy.
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