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George Orwell on “alternative facts”

Paul Alper points me to this quote from George Orwell’s 1943 essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War:

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that “the facts” existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost anyone. If you look up the history of the last war in, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be a body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “Science”. There is only “German Science,” “Jewish Science,” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not such a frivolous statement.

It’s not about left and right. In the above passage Orwell points to the Nazis but in other places (notably 1984) he talks about the Soviets having the same attitude.

The Orwell quote is relevant, I think, to the recent story, following the inaugural festivities, of the White House press secretary unleashing a series of false statements—I think we can’t quite call these “lies” because it’s possible that the secretary went to some effort to avoid looking up the relevant facts—followed up by a presidential advisor characterizing these falsehoods as “alternative facts.”

The tricky thing about all this is that there are few absolutes. I won’t say that everybody does it, but I will say that Donald Trump is not the only leading political figure to lie about easily-checked facts. There was Hillary Clinton’s “landing under sniper fire,” Joe Biden’s plagiarized speech, and who could forget the time Paul Ryan broke 3 hours in the marathon? All these are pretty inconsequential, and I can only assume that the politicians in question were just in such a habit of saying things they wanted their audience to hear, that they didn’t care so much whether they were telling the truth. My take on it (just my take, I have no idea) is that for these politicians, speech is instrumental rather than expressive: it doesn’t really matter if what you’re saying is true or false; all that matters is that it has the desired effect.

So I guess we have to accept some ambient level of lies on issues big and small. I agree with Orwell, though, that there’s something particularly disturbing about lying being endorsed on a theoretical level, as it were.

This is related to various statistical issues we discuss on this blog. It can be hard to move forward when people won’t recognize their mistakes even when the evidence is right in front of them. At some point the practice of refusing to admit error edges toward the labeling of false statements as “alternative facts.”

82 Comments

  1. Jeff Scott says:

    All politicians lie or tell half-truths. Sometimes it’s on purpose, or possibly it’s inevitable given the daunting task of distilling complex events into easily digestible parts for the public.

    To say that all people lie, including politicians, seems like a trivially true observation.

    So, then, aren’t we really and always talking about magnitude? Why obscure the concept of magnitude by trying to make it seem like this is just something both Clinton and Trump did? You know, people have actually looked at this, and have shown that for every untrue statement from the Clinton campaign, the Trump team dished out 3-5. That’s huge, and there’s an extra dimension about lying captured in that difference of magnitude beyond just the obvious statement that “everyone lies.” Lets keep that in sight.

    • I think it goes beyond magnitude or convenience. It’s a pathological case here, in the mathematical sense, if not the psychological one. There is a qualitative difference between the person who admits that lying is wrong, and is something that they did, have done, or even still do, but then at least makes a show of apologizing, versus someone whose modus operandi is to lie even about trivial and obvious things, then deny having done so, and when flatly faced with the facts, still refuse to call the lie what it is.

    • Jacob says:

      Agreed. Jibes nicely with what Andrew is always talking about on this blog, Type M and Type S rather than Type 1 and Type 2.

    • Craig says:

      If I look at George Orwell’s statement above…Trump has proactively been pushing the “falsehood” theory for quite sometime and many have began to buy it. This double-speak that goes on in the Trump administration is so obvious, yet others are taken by it as an actual “possibility”; however, they don’t rethink it as a “probability”, which would lead them to disregard he’s words.

      And with Russia’s involvement in hacking the RNC and DNC servers and influencing the election to help place Trump in the White House, it makes me think that we’ve been taken by both Trump and the Russians. The U.S. worked throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s to actively rid (or stop) the communist infiltration of our gov’t — catch the “Yuri”. Well, doesn’t the compromise of our democratic values/policies that has led to the new POTUS make Trump the modern day Yuri?

    • Bill Jefferys says:

      Frankly, I call them “lies” but reserve the term “liar” to refer to a person who tells lies and knows that they are lies.

      “Falsehoods” and “untruths” and similar circumlocutions are highfalutin’ language that changes the level of the information from something that fifth-graders understand to something that takes a beginning college education. Which makes it difficult to get the message to many of the people who really need it. Supposedly, it was under 100,000 non-college-educated white voters in three states that led to the election outcome being what it was.

  2. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    I agree with Jeff. Everyone lies ( white lies?) however Trump seems to have gone to another level.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    Here’s a useful concept from “1984:”

    “Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

  4. James Purdee says:

    Librarians, of which I am one, have been known to say that they may not know everything, but they do know how to find it out. So, when you say “So I guess we have to accept some ambient level of lies on issues big and small,” don’t include us with those who have to accept some ambient level of lies.

  5. Clyde Schechter says:

    There is another style of recording history that was practiced by the ancients. They sometimes strove to bring across “the essence” of what happened and the persons involved, not through the use of meticulous accuracy, but through metaphors or symbolism, often contradicting the facts. For example, the many of the details of the lives of Christ or Muhammad as portrayed in the Bible and the Qur’an are embellished or even events that most current historians agree never happened, but that are designed to support the perception of their divine or prophetic essence. It is not just religious scripture that is written this way; much of history recorded in that era was written that way.

    Reza Aslan has written two very interesting books that make this clear and point out many examples of this: Zealot (about the life of Jesus Christ) and No God but God (about Islam).

    To be clear, this is an aside. I’m not saying that modern politicians are doing this.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Why is the crowd size based on the word of “experts” and photos? Is there no video?

    • Eric Loken says:

      there are photos, videos, metro ridership stats….plenty of “alternatives”, as it were, to quantify and verify.

      • Anonymous says:

        When I clicked the link it had photos and a claim of “experts”, totally unconvincing. Why not share the evidence that is convincing? Even you just failed to share any link to it…

        There is a new trend of people just saying things and expecting others to look it up themselves (“google it”), it is very lame. I wouldnt be surprised if that “rhetorical strategy” you just used was actually meant to increase ad views by making me click around to a bunch of sites. Not that it would be conscious on your part. You are just following the new social norms, which were set subversively.

        Seriously, this would only be evidence for people with critical thinking turned off:
        https://img.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/imrs.php?src=https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_960w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2017/01/20/Others/Images/2017-01-20/Untitled-1.JPG&w=1484

        • Andrew says:

          Anon:

          See the first link in my post above for the series of false statements made by the White House spokesman.

          • Anonymous says:

            Yes, the above pic is the best “evidence” they present at your first link (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/22/spicer-earns-four-pinocchios-for-a-series-of-false-claims-on-inauguration-crowd-size). Obviously that could be taken before the ceremony started, etc. It means nothing. How am I supposed to tell who is lying/incorrect here from what they showed me?

            I really expected to see some evidence regarding crowd size. How hard is it to make timelapses of the two events and compare the peak size? Or even plot a curve from the series of images? Is there not video of these events from a similar vantage point?

            Another thing, I really think this topic is silly and am not willing to spend much time on it. It seems the anti-trump crowd learned nothing from the last election and continues to give trivial aspects of his situation unwarrented levels of attention. You are helping him by doing this! I understand the ad-funded media can’t help themselves, but not why blogs are partaking.

            • Andrew says:

              Anon:

              1. I don’t know why you’re focusing on this particular picture, as the article at the link has several examples of demonstrably false statements by that spokesman.

              2. I’m also not clear what your political take on this is. On one hand, your reference to “the anti-trump crowd” suggests that you support Trump. On the other hand, your statement “You are helping him by doing this!” suggests that you oppose Trump and you don’t want anyone to help him. It doesn’t really matter, I guess; I just found your comment hard to follow because you seemed to be arguing in two directions at once.

              3. From my own perspective, I was not trying in this post to help or to hurt Trump. The reason why I’m “partaking” is that, as I wrote above, I share Orwell’s distress over the labeling of false statements as “alternative facts,” which seems to me and others like a 1984-like degradation of the concept of objective truth.

              • Anonymous says:

                1) Simple, I read the very first sentence and went to see the evidence provided on that. I didn’t bother continuing to the next one since I could see the level of investigation I was dealing with.

                2) I am a supporter of rationality.

                3) I came away wondering whose facts were really “alternative” here. Since the media are the ones who decided to make a big deal of it and still couldn’t present decent evidence, I now lean towards them.

              • Andrew says:

                Anon:

                I recommend you read the entire linked article. I can understand if you feel irritated that the Washington Post did not thoroughly explain their reasoning. But it seems a bit ridiculous for you to take that irritation and use it to claim defend the following statements made by the White House spokesman:

                “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”

                “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall.”

                “And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people.”

                “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.”

                “This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”

                As the Washington Post writer wrote: “Again, we must emphasize that Spicer provided these numbers as part of a prepared statement. There is simply no excuse for such a basic failure to do due diligence in double-checking facts.” Again, I’m disturbed not so much by the blatant untruths (again, we can’t quite say they’re “lies” because it’s possible that Spicer went to some special effort to avoid looking up the facts) but by the next stage which was the relabeling of the false statements as “alternative facts.”

              • Corey says:

                It seems the anti-trump crowd learned nothing from the last election and continues to give trivial aspects of his situation unwarrented levels of attention.

                As a supporter of rationality you have no doubt noted that it was the (unwarranted?) attention and response of the Trump administration that elevated this circumstance from trending meme on twitter to national news.

              • Anonymous says:

                First, this strategy of swamping people with many crappy lines of evidence, that fail to stand up to scrutiny, rather than producing any/a few good lines of evidence is common in the research community. To deal with it, I know we need to focus on one at a time. Still here:

                “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”

                I read the entire washington post article and still don’t know what the facts are. Ignoring this “around the globe aspect”, what were the actual numbers of people present during the speech? There are no facts here.

                ‘As a supporter of rationality you have no doubt noted that it was the (unwarranted?) attention and response of the Trump administration that elevated this circumstance from trending meme on twitter to national news.’

                It is in the Trump administration’s best interest to generate these trivial controveries. It is also in ad-supported media’s best interest. For example, I just checked out the inauguration speech when I otherwise would not have.

              • Andrew says:

                Anon:

                On one hand, I’m distressed that anyone would, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, believe the following statements:

                “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”

                “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall.”

                “And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people.”

                “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.”

                “This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”

                On the other hand, sure, I know that the country is politically polarized. And, for that matter, millions of Americans believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, power pose, himmicanes, young-earth creationism, and whatever Daryl Bem has been saying lately. So it should be no surprise that some such people make it on to the blog! In any case, I appreciate your openness in sharing your perspective. Or your willingness to troll, if that’s where you’re coming from.

  7. Angus says:

    In Australia we used to have rather lovely thing provided by our independent state broadcaster (The ABC) called Fact Check. It would track all the claims and promises made by politicians every year and looked at how many were delivered, in-progress or abandoned and what claims were true or false. They also quantified things beyond just true/false and went to things like overreaching, technically true, close to the mark etc.
    They had to abandon it when the government kept cutting their funding.

    One good example was when a minister claimed the previous government had left their new administration with the highest level of debt ever. The fact check explored the nuance that while yes, in raw dollar amount it was the biggest but if you adjusted for the value of the dollar or debt to GDP everything was piddly compared to the post WW2 depression.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Orwell argued in “1984” for a moderately strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in which the existence of vocabulary terms makes it much easier to conceive of the concepts. I think that’s a little too strong — obviously, people do invent new terms to summarize previously fuzzy concepts — but it is helpful.

      For example, I’ve been using the term “hate hoax” since 2004 to describe one of the more important phenomena of modern life: bogus claims of hate crimes against favored groups, such as the Duke Lacrosse hoax and the Rolling Stone gang rape on broken glass hoax.

      I don’t recall if I invented the phrase, or an editor at The American Conservative made it up for my 2004 article about the Claremont McKenna professor who accused her white male students of trashing her Honda, or if one of us got it from somebody else. But the important point is that once you have the phrase “hate hoax” in your head, it becomes much easier to notice the pattern that a large percentage of the most publicized hate crimes turn out to be highly dubious if not ultimately debunked. But if you aren’t familiar with the existence of the category of hate hoaxes, then the idea of being less credulous about purported hate crimes is more difficult to consider. The cases of hate crimes turning out to be hoaxes seems like random noise to you.

      Not surprisingly, the New York Times has never allowed the term “hate hoax” or “hate hoaxes” to appear in its columns. The term is too simple, obvious, and alliterative to be allowed to catch on.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      “Independent State Broadcaster” sounds like an oxymoron, even just within the context of your story.

      • Rahul says:

        I’m not sure. BBC, state broadcaster as it may be, sounds more balanced than a lot of private channels with a decided bias.

        • Dzhaughn says:

          What you have above (and in most state broadcasting) is the government leveraging its funding to successfully control editorial content.

          The NYT (resp. Fox) is not vulnerable to that sort of control. Certainly the NYT (resp. Fox) have others that set boundaries for them; however, at least they can easily substitute funding sources, unlike a state broadcaster.

          “Independent” does not equal “unbiased.” Even an organization like Consumer Reports, who are radically independent in important ways (no ads, no individual or corporate contributions greater than a few thousand annually) nevertheless have clear biases that stem from their funding model. No one is unbiased.

      • Angus says:

        Yes I agree it does sound odd but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, funded by the government (and very similar to the BBC) is arguably the most balanced in the country for reporting on issues. The conservative governments routinely critisise it for a left-bias but they have annual independent assessments for any partisan bias and there are rarely any problems.

        This is the inevitable problem with a free press. Either they are funded by the state, in which case you will always fear the government propaganda (or even that their funding relies on pleasing the government), or they are independently owned but inevitably lose control to advertising or the other interests of the major share holders. Murdoch runs a paper in Australia that hasn’t made any profit for years. Certainly they haven’t paid any tax. I doubt he does that to be philanthropic.

        One thing that is notable, regardless of any government intervention, is the enormous cultural power the ABC and BBC have over public issues. For instance there is a movement to change Australia day away from the date of arrival of the “First Fleet” (of British convicts) as the indigenous people in Australia consider that to be invasion day. Australia day for most young Australians involves going to BBQs and listening to the Hottest 100 song countdown by the ABC’s youth radio station. The station is thinking about changing the date of their countdown away from Australia day. If they did that, there would be far less resistance from Australia’s youth to change the date of Australia Day. They could even influence what day we change to.

  8. John says:

    Marxists and the new-left have been doing this to academia for a long time already — the “bourgeois science” , “the proletariat science”, “feminist science”… and so on.

  9. Matthias Gallé says:

    With respect to “to politicians, speech is instrumental rather than expressive: it doesn’t really matter if what you’re saying is true or false; all that matters is that it has the desired effect.”, Frankefurt difference between what is a lie and what is bullshit is relevant:

    https://www.stoa.org.uk/topics/bullshit/pdf/on-bullshit.pdf

  10. Thomas B says:

    Nietzsche famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” And in so saying, formed the basis for modern propaganda. Nietzsche’s sentiment was echoed by Orwell and, more recently, by the post-modernist challenge to the very foundations of science, i.e., challenges to “the claim that knowledge of matters of fact is true knowledge.” At the other extreme we have David Wootton, who in his excellent and prescient book, The Invention of Science, argues that “we swim in a sea of seemingly obvious facts,” that weren’t always so. In the centuries long transition from Medieval scholasticism through the emergence in the Renaissance of observation or experiment as the source of knowledge, the “book” remained the locus of immutable fact. “Without facts there can be no reliable knowledge…sources that don’t alter and change from one day to the next…(immutability is) needed if facts are to endure into the post-print age,” (quotes from Wootton, p. 309).

    It’s Wootton use of the word “if” that should concern us all in this age in which the immutable book is being supplanted by fungible knowledge inherent in erasable, updateable and privatized computer storage.

    So it is with this new administration, the first truly post-modern American presidency: rootless, unprincipled, amoral and focused solely on “winning” at any price.

    • Ben Bradshaw says:

      Just want to throw in another recommendation for Wootton’s book. I think one of the biggest issues facing our society is the fact that scientific epistemology isn’t adhered to more rigorously in the social sciences and humanities. Ignorance of statistics in these fields is a major problem, and so is ignorance of/antipathy to the idea that humans result from specific, knowable evolutionary processes. If professional researchers and academics have not had the wherewithal to adequately address these gaps in knowledge in the century or so since they were discovered, what chance do journalists have?

  11. Paul Alper says:

    On this blog, numbers carry some importance. That is why the remarks of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, about the inauguration and the demonstration the following day are so stunning. From

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/22/spicer-earns-four-pinocchios-for-a-series-of-false-claims-on-inauguration-crowd-size/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_fc-spicer-1203pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.073dd07dcfec

    Spicer said, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”

    Glenn Kessler continues, “It’s rather remarkable that the Trump White House has decided to make easily disproved claims about the size of the inauguration crowd Friday.” He concludes his Pinocchio Test:

    “This is an appalling performance by the new press secretary. He managed to make a series of false and misleading claims in service of a relatively minor issue. Presumably he was ordered to do this by Trump, who conjured up fantastic numbers in his own mind, but part of a flack’s job is to tell the boss when lies are necessary — and when they are not.”

    “Spicer earns Four Pinocchios, but seriously, we wish we could give five.”

    So why lie about the undeniable? Alternative realities are perhaps reflective of sociopathic true believers. How else to explain Betsy DeVos and Grizzlies?

    • A different Ashok says:

      I agree that what is shocking is the silly categoricity of his statement, and how easily it can be proven wrong. Trump needs better, more lawyery , weasely liars. DNC could lend them some.

      • Thomas B says:

        That’s pretty knowingly cynical.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        I always impressed by Obama’s skill at using extremely lawyerly language to mislead without flat out lying.

        For example, in “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Obama recounts an anecdote about how one night in Chicago he racially profiled four black youths as potentially violent criminals who might attack him and how his fear made him realize that, for all his leftist rhetoric, he was really on the side of the cops.

        But Obama presented his epiphany in such convoluted, abstract prose that I’ve never seen any evidence, despite a lot of Googling, that any other reader of his autobiography ever figured out what he was saying.

        • Rahul says:

          ….which could also mean that you are the only reader seeing patterns where none exist?

          • seenota says:

            “Wage gap” debate is an example of lawyerly “lies by implication”: Obama had no evidence of discrimination against women but he knew that describing the difference in average earnings as a “wage gap” they will convey the message that women are being discriminated against. All of the Democrat supporters I’ve spoken to took it precisely as a “discrimination” claim – but technically Obama’s administration never said that

            • Steve Sailer says:

              Yes, there are numerous examples like this.

              I have to say that I rather admire Obama’s ability to mislead without flat out lying.

            • Cliff AB says:

              I’m a bit surprised that a reader of this blog would object to very articulately stating what the facts/data really are and then allowing a reader to speculate on the more difficult questions of causality.

              It is very rare that you will ever have data that completely answers any questions, but hopefully you at least have data that updates your prior! Being precise about what the data really is should not been seen as wrong, as neither should leaving the results that cannot be determined without priors be stated as such.

              As a contrast, if Obama was a statistician, he might have been saying “I’ve got this data and if your prior is not too far from mine, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as me”. Meanwhile, our new president is, very literally, coming to us with “Here’s a bunch of data I made up, and I’m also working very hard to remove the data that disagrees with my prior”.

    • zbicyclist says:

      I think we should start a betting pool here on how long Spicer is press secretary. I’ll say he stays until Jan 1, 2018. Other guesses welcome.

      Press secretary is ordinarily not a fun job. But if your boss orders you to lie, and you don’t, you can lose the job. If you knowingly lie, you either become good at it / morally bankrupt or eventually you can’t take the stress any more and decide there’s easier ways to make a living.

      As to Kellyanne Conway, she’s not only drunk the Kool-Aid, she’s making a fresh batch every day.

  12. Chris J says:

    At least 8 types of “lies” exist if we accept the term to mean any utterance, whether or not true or even meaningful, intended to distract from the relevant truth. Fact checking, American style as practiced by mainstream outlets cedes the narrative to the deft speaker. In the broad sense, many of Trump’s statements are “lies” (misleading) by their structure — “People are saying X” can never be proved false and is therefore an effective instrument of political speech. Flat refusal to answer relevant and important questions – “I don’t talk about that anymore” on the birther lie. Note that our regular language had no term adequate to the task of defining “birther lie”. “Nobody cares about that anymore” on the tax returns. The Sean Spicer briefing on Saturday, a statement about crowd size, but was an expression of power. “We decide and you report what we say.” This was a final pivot from HRC as pubic enemy no. 1 to the mainstream press moving up from public enemy no. 2 to no. 1. Scientists just moved up in medal territory.
    At the recent American Economic Association annual meeting session of Nobelists, one speaker (old enough to remember) invoked the memory of the 1930s and even mentioned Hitler by name (which surprised me). We are in an age where we need to be as specific as possible and using the generic term “lie” instead of more specific definitions will not suffice. We need to recognize when statements are manipulative by design – just as we need to recognize when a Congressional committee calls a climate scientist in for testimony it is not a search for the truth, but to intimidate all scientists. Context is so important. The liberal progressive tendency toward caution is admirable, but when faced with a situation that is extreme, needs more juice. The one must-see is the full Trump 15 minute speech at the CIA standing before those stars to memorialize the fallen anonymous heroes. The paradox of politics is that anything that I say or you say can be discounted as biased by someone who wants to disagree. We are all citizens, actual or potential voters, possibly advocates, and therefore presumed biased. So watch that speech, not the edits and see if, like me, you start searching the internet for primary sources on “narcissistic personality disorder” so you can adapt your model accordingly.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      A major phenomenon in modern intellectual life is the firing of people for mentioning in public truths about social science data, especially about IQ, to (as Voltaire might say) encourage the others: e.g., Larry Summers, James D. Watson, and Jason Richwine.

      My impression is that ex-President Obama was vaguely troubled by this pattern of censorship and intellectual stultification.

      Hillary? Not so much …

  13. John Bullock says:

    Joe Biden’s plagiarized speech, and who could forget the time Paul Ryan broke 3 hours in the marathon? All these are pretty inconsequential, and I can only assume that the politicians in question were just in such a habit of saying things they wanted their audience to hear, that they didn’t care so much whether they were telling the truth.

    Another interpretation is possible — if not for Trump and Spicer, then for the cases quoted above and for many like them. It is that the speakers merely had brief mental lapses, of the sort that we all do. I find this especially plausible in Biden’s case. He had given the same speech on multiple previous occasions, duly crediting Neil Kinnock. He may simply have neglected to credit Kinnock on a few occasions, including the day that he was taped. See the twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs of this Washington Post article for evidence that Biden had previously credited Kinnock during the speech.

  14. Paul Alper says:

    Apparently, Sean Spicer just can’t admit that his numbers are factually incorrect. From the Washington Post:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/01/23/theres-no-evidence-that-trumps-inauguration-was-the-most-watched-in-history-period/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.93e37a6f4b05

    “During a news conference on Monday, Spicer clarified that his assertion extended beyond just the in-person audience.”

    “There was one new audience that could possibly have helped shift the numbers. That analysis of Twitter’s stream found that viewership in Russia doubled compared to election night, and, apparently for the first time, it ran on Russian state TV. (It’s not clear, though, how many tuned in.)

    Maybe Russia propelled Trump to an unexpected victory. The only problem for Spicer’s claim is that there’s no evidence that it did.”

  15. Jonathan says:

    Have you read Trump’s book? I think people misread him. I believe this is a form of strategy, that he sends signals that he’ll contest anything – just as he does in his book – to a) show he’ll fight over anything, no matter how small, so you need to be aware that he’ll fight you and b) that he’ll use these fights to drag you down, that he’ll impose a cost on you to improve his bargaining power. In this case, I think he is picking fights to signal the media that they can’t set themselves up as what I call the arbiters of truth. That is, all Administrations lie – and they lie a lot – and the media reports lies, attacks those they choose and treats others as true because those lies fit that particular media organization’s perspective or narrative interest. So attack them so they can’t grab that ground and attack them in an almost seemingly random manner, sometimes taking offense and other times not, sometimes praising and sometimes cutting them viciously so they don’t know how to respond and, in this case, so people grow to distrust what the media reports as “truth”. The media has always had explicit and implicit biases. FoxNews brought that to the surface. Trump intentionally attacked Fox to show that was indeed a maverick, non-politician not beholding to the GOP star-making machinery. He’s signaling the same thing now. Friends have told me they can’t believe this because the attacks are so weird but they miss the point that this is exactly how you do it: what’s the point of getting into an argument over something rational? I mean that: what is the point of actually arguing? You’re not going to convince anyone – as the internet daily shows (not intended as a reference to the Comedy Central show but it fits). So how do you get people to distrust the media? Fight them about their coverage. Tell them publicly that they suck at their jobs. Take away their platform of pretend objectivity so that anything they report is suspect. Yes, that plays into the hands of absolute partisanship but you won the election and have 4 years at a minimum to beat on them. And the public wants a “leader” who is “on their side”. So all this talk about “alternative facts” may be playing right into Trump’s strategy, if only because people still can’t grasp that he has strategies even though that’s what his bleeping book is all about.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      You could be right on this, I have no idea. One think that makes this strategy work, if it is indeed a strategy, is the existence of people such as the anonymous commenter on this thread who seem to be willing to swallow whatever is told to them, if the source matches their ideology.

      • Anonymous says:

        Please point to where in the washington post article there are facts provided about whether this was the most widely witnessed speech. It is missing, yet the thread here is full of people saying “how easy” it is to prove the quote wrong.

        My position is there are no facts on either side here, just a waste of everyones time as they soak up propaganda and advertisements. How is that is swallowing whatever is told to me?

        • Andrew says:

          Anon:

          Let’s just take following five statements by the White House press secretary:

          “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”

          “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall.”

          “And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people.”

          “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.”

          “This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”

          Let’s say that you’re not sure about statement 1 and that statements 2 through 5 are demonstrably false. The Orwellian point still stands, that the term “alternative facts” is being used to apply to flat-out falsehoods. I’m with Orwell in not liking this.

          • Anonymous says:

            So you admit there is no evidence either way presented to us for claim #1?

            Claim #2: “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall.”
            -The evidence is this photo: https://twitter.com/Acosta/status/822964269641822209/photo/1.
            -Ok that one seems to be wrong.

            Claim #3: “And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people.”
            – We are now back to #1 here. Where is the evidence that area was empty during the speech?

            Claim #3:

            • Andrew says:

              Anon:

              I think all five claims are ridiculous for the reasons discussed in detail in that Washington Post article, and I think it’s just horrible that an official government spokesman is using the term “alternative facts” to apply to flat-out falsehoods.

              • Anonymous says:

                You can’t point to where any evidence is presented about the size of the crowd during the speech. I know they do not share any such evidence with us, but for who-knows what reason. Does it exist elsewhere, but I need to click around through dozens of different sites?

                The Washington Post isn’t doing the anti-Trump cause any favors (beyond their own pocket book) by using such flawed argument. It will only work in an echo chamber.

              • Andrew says:

                Anon:

                The key problem, I think, is in your phrase, “the anti-Trump cause.” It’s your attitude that reporting has to be part of a “cause,” that it can’t just be that the Washington Post wants to report the facts and that, as a news organization, they don’t like it when a government press officer disseminates false statements.

                What are the best strategies for the pro-Trump or anti-Trump causes? I have no idea. These are interesting questions but not what I’m addressing in my post. But it’s a sign of polarization, I think, that you turn the discussion in that direction.

              • Anonymous says:

                The facts you claim are in the article, that would allow us to identify falsehoods, simply are not there though (so far the only helpful info was the pic of 2013 ground covers).

                Anyway, yes there seems to be little point in continuing. Readers will check for themselves if they care.

              • jrc says:

                From Fox News, two block quotes:

                ***

                Spicer joked Monday that he wouldn’t be claiming his predecessor Josh Earnest’s title as most-popular press secretary any time soon, and went on to acknowledge he made a factual mistake.

                “Knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA’s numbers are different,” Spicer said, referring to the agency that controls the Metro system. He said he was operating off stats given to him, and didn’t pull them from “thin air.”

                He also noted the media routinely publish corrections, and said the administration “should be afforded the same opportunity.”

                ***

                Spicer said Monday: “It was the most-watched inaugural.”

                He cited online audiences around the world in addition to television audiences and the in-person attendance.

                “I’d love to see any information that proves that otherwise,” Spicer said.

                It is difficult to verify the claim, as such comprehensive statistics are not available.

                ***

                http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/01/23/spicer-changes-up-format-at-wh-briefings-moves-to-hit-reset-with-press.html

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Jonathan’s description makes Trump’s behavior sound like a variant of gaslighting.

    • Chris J says:

      Correct, but no one needs to read Trump’s book. Many people work for companies that have done business with the Trump Organization over decades. These people all know that the Trump method is to be more of a PIA to work with than any other client. If every firm did what the TO did, there would be chaos. When one person does it, other firms try to minimize the negative impact of that outlier. When DJT ran for President, “fair and balanced” new organizations felt the need to treat him as an unknown quantity and permitted him to define himself, else they could be accused of bias. The data was there, in troves, that he was a “bad actor” in business (no pun intended), but during a political campaign, the NYT, for example, requires the accusations to be made from “the other side”. Thus, facts become accusations, which can be swatted away with “they did bad work, so I refused to pay”. Trump 1, Reality 0.
      This is a real problem of causal inference based on direct experience and analysis. Fair minded commenters jump to compare him with “politicians”, but he only just became a politician, so why go to “all politicians lie” which only waters down the subsequent analysis. People voted for him as a “successful businessman” which was generally challenged based on the term “successful” — show us the taxes — but that misses the point. But the more significant issue was that he was a “businessman” unlike any other, an outlier to be handled with kid gloves because he never acted in good faith like other business people. Bottom line – what do you do when the data is there, but objective journalistic standards require treating a candidate’s claims as possibly true and significant, but ignoring what you as journalist know as fact. Why did not NYT and others just start interviewing firms in NYC area that worked with the Trump Organization in July 2015?

  16. Steve Sailer says:

    Trump won because he gave the impression he’d lie less than Hillary about important policy issues like crime and immigration.

    • Rahul says:

      I think he won because he lied about what he said he could achieve. Hillary didn’t lie as much so sounded ineffective.

    • Thomas B says:

      To suggest that Trump won as a function of greater perceived “veracity” is an ignis fatuus of the highest order.

      There is a distinction and a case here that will always be worth making: Trump lost. He lost the popular election by ~3 mm votes but won the electoral college, by definition and design a separate process.

      Regardless of whether you think FBI Director Comey was an agnostic bureaucrat faithfully exercising his due diligence or a terrorist driving a truck bomb through the campaign, it is an unassailable fact that the reaction to his reopening of the Clinton email investigation sent huge shock waves throughout the financial markets, social media, survey polls, prediction markets — pretty much everything, everywhere. More than anything else, this single event sealed Clinton’s fate.

      • seenota says:

        There is a distinction and a case here that will always be worth making: winning the election in the US means winning the electoral college. Popular vote numbers are an irrelevant (albeit curious) statistic.

        Campaign is structured around the actual, not imaginary electoral system. GOP does not spend much time in NY and CA precisely because they know however many votes they will get, majority and therefore electoral votes will go to the Democrats

  17. Paul Alper says:

    Continuing the discussion of alternative facts, from today’s Washington Post:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/24/trumps-unsupported-claim-he-has-received-awards-on-the-environment/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_fact-checker-745a%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.ece73a7b16c3

    “I’m a very big person when it comes to the environment. I have received awards on the environment.”
    — President Trump, remarks during a meeting with business leaders, Jan. 23

    “Are there any facts to support this claim to environmental fame?

    The Facts

    The short answer is: No. Media outlets and environmental groups have tried to find evidence of this claim since 2011 but have come up short. We could not readily find references to Trump’s environmental awards in news coverage over the past 10 years.”

    Here is one award that we’ll give to Trump. It’s not related to the environment — and he already has many of them — but we present Trump with his first four-Pinocchio rating as president.

    Four Pinocchios”

  18. Robert Andreu says:

    There are no alternative facts in Orwell’s 1984 because there is only “newspeak” i.e. Big Brother’s narrative. Today Conway refers to alternative facts because they contrast to the still readily available real facts. When those disappear then we’ll all be left peering at the small print in Pravda, trying to deduce truth by sifting through the many lies…

  19. m says:

    In the context it’s pretty clear that when she said “alternative facts” she meant “additional evidence”.

    • Andrew says:

      M,

      Ahhh . . . but the White House spokesman was not offering facts or evidence! He was offering false statements. Saying that “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall,” when this was not in fact the case, was not evidence, it was an untruth. Giving erroneous numbers for Metro riders, that was not evidence, etc.

    • Andrew says:

      M,

      I looked at your first link and I don’t see it being a report of lies. For example, the author, Jason Richwine, criticizes a report by ABC News that had the following statement, “And it is hard to say there is a current policy of open borders because the border is more secure than it has been in U.S. history.” Richwine characterizes this statement as “vague” but his rebuttal is that “around 80 percent of the apprehended [at the border] are simply released into the U.S., some with little more than a Notice to Appear at an immigration hearing.” That doesn’t address the issue at all, as the claim was only that the border is more secure than before. So I can’t see this as an example of a “lie.” There’s also some stuff about an economic report regarding the consequences of immigration, but that seems more like a difference of emphasis than anything else.

      Also, you characterize that as an example of something produced by Trump’s critics, but ABC news is not Trump’s critic, it’s a news organization. When I followed the link you gave, it pointed to an ABC News report following the vice-presidential debate, a report that was not about Trump but was about vice-presidential candidates Kaine and Pence. The ABC News report had some harsh words for both candidates, for labeling one of Kaine’s claims as False.

      In any case, the issue to me in the above post is not that politicians make false statements—although I agree with the ABC News reporters that public statements should be checked. And it’s not that journalists make errors—although I agree with you and Richwine that journalists’ statements should be checked too. What motivated me to write the post was dismay about an Orwellian approach of government officials doubling down on false statements even in the face of evidence.

      • m says:

        Richwine’s comment on “And it is hard to say there is a current policy of open borders because the border is more secure than it has been in U.S. history” is the last and I’d say the least important part of Richwine’s criticism of the fact- checking conducted by ABC.

        But even is that case he appears to be right: I imagine that for many people “secure border” means “a border that prevent people from outside to get in illegally”. The fact that the arrival of illegals to the US is being mediated by a short-term apprehension by the border control is an unimportant detail. If the illegal border crossers are being released inside the US territory (with an un-enforceable demand to appear before court or some such), US border control essentially transports them part of the way inside the US. That situation is what is means for the border to be “insecure”.

        “ABC news is not Trump’s critic” – well that’s precisely what Richwine is trying to show to be false. CNN, NYT and various “fact checking” sites are not “news organizations” when it comes to Trump, they are “critics”, they are propaganda outlets

        Every government takes Orwellian approach to the facts that do not fit the ideologically-driven narrative. Point is that media outlets are much more willing to let it go when the Orwellian stuff was and is done by the Democrat side of the political spectrum

        • Andrew says:

          M:

          1. The statement, “more secure than it has been in U.S. history,” is comparative and cannot be rebutted merely by a statement on the current situation. It’s fine for you to say that the current border is insecure by your standards, but that doesn’t invalidate the claim that it’s more secure now than it was in the past.

          2. The linked ABC news article criticized both Kaine and Pence. I guess you could call it a Pence critic if you’d like, but then you should also call it a Kaine critic. I think it’s worth criticizing factual errors wherever they occur; I agree with ABC news, Richwine, and you on this point.

          3. To say, “Every government takes Orwellian approach to the facts that do not fit the ideologically-driven narrative,” is to dilute the concept of Orwellian so much as to make it meaningless. In the cold war, the Soviet government had Pravda, Tass, and total control of the press; the American government had Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and a free press. Both governments used propaganda; nonetheless we, rightly, characterize the Soviet government but not the U.S. government as Orwellian. Official denial of the concept of objective truth is scary, and it’s one reason that Nineteen Eighty Four is so powerful.

  20. sirsroka says:

    There is a very pragmatic solution to the problem of “alternative facts”. Allow the public to file class action only law suits against politicians and anyone who spread lies in media. This should be considered false advertising, since they use free speech as a tool to get votes (not merely to express their opinion). This way only an interpretation of the facts can be communicated, but open lie could be prosecuted.

  21. Andy P says:

    Persons susceptible to authoritarian leaders and their lies consistently score high on the F scale. These folks tend to lack the ability to discern truth from fantasy and are willing “groupthink” followers. In addition, they are unable to think critically for themselves. Blind allegiance to a strong leader who lies and manipulates them, drive their sexual libidos.

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