No facts? What does that mean?

Since Wednesday, you have undoubtedly seen several headlines about some Trump surrogate denying the existence of facts. It’s from Scottie Nell Hughes talking to NPR host Diane Rehm, and the money quote is: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” Sometimes condensed to “There are no facts”, that quote exploded across the internet in the same way that many fake news headlines do. But it had the added virtue of being true (to the extent that there is such a thing as truth any more).

But what does it mean?

If you make Hughes’ sentence stand alone, the most obvious interpretation is some kind of New Age you-make-your-own-reality philosophy. But I’m pretty sure that isn’t what she meant. For example, there are 2.6 million more Hillary voters than Trump voters, but even if we all get together on January 20 and visualize really hard, we won’t be transported to a world where President Clinton is being sworn in. Reality just isn’t that flexible, and I don’t believe Hughes was claiming otherwise.

So what was she saying? Let’s expand the context a little.

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say “facts are facts”, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there are no facts to back it up.

I’m hearing a less metaphysical claim, which I’ll restate like this: You can’t win a political argument any more by claiming to have the facts on your side, because the other side can generate its own apparent “facts”, and the public as a whole doesn’t trust anyone to decide between the two sets of “facts”. So in the end, all that matters politically is who you like: If you like Trump, you’ll believe his “facts” and if you don’t, you’ll believe the “facts” that contradict him. Worse, no one can set himself up as a neutral fact-checker, because as soon as he decides the case one way or the other, his presumption of neutrality goes away: All the public will hear is that he likes Trump or he doesn’t.

So when The Atlantic‘s James Fallows (who was on the same episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show as Hughes) listed a series of Trump lies, Hughes responded that the sources Fallows was relying on were all biased against Trump. Fallows immediately zeroed in on a Trump claim that the NFL had written to him about something, to which the NFL had responded by denying writing any letter to him at all. “The NFL?” Fallows challenged. “The NFL is biased?” And Hughes responded: “That’s the question you have to ask right now.”

So that’s Hughes’ not-quite-a-syllogism: What Trump asserts is true. People biased against Trump will say otherwise. Therefore anyone who says otherwise is biased against Trump. (Compare Woody Allen’s reasoning in Love and Death: “A. Socrates is a man. B. All men are mortal. C. All men are Socrates.”)

The interesting thing, if you listen to the rest of the episode, is that the other guests — Fallows, Glenn Thrush from Politico, and Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post — are pretty much saying the same thing in terms less quotable than “There’s no such thing as facts.” Fallows begins the show by describing the old state of affairs as

a sort of built in constraint of most public figures, that they would at least try to tell the truth most of the time and they would recognize it as a significant penalty if they’re shown not telling the truth.

And then pointing out how this has changed:

This does not apply in the same way to Donald Trump and therefore, we sort of need to recalibrate our gears to say, how do we treat assertions where the speaker himself doesn’t seem to care whether they can be proven false five minutes later, just goes on and doesn’t show any affect from that.

One perverse result of this is that Trump has gotten a reputation among his fans as “telling it like it is”. In other words, we are used to politicians spinning; they speak in elaborately constructed sentences so that they can give a misleading impression without saying anything provably false. But Trump doesn’t spin. He speaks in very direct sentences because he just doesn’t care whether he’s saying something provably false. If he wants to give you the impression that millions of people voted illegally (when they really didn’t), he’ll just say that.

I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

In the same way that “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue“, spinning is the homage liars pay to truth. Bill Clinton’s famous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was his attempt to recognize established facts, but still carve out some tiny sliver of interpretation in which he hadn’t been lying when he claimed nothing was going on with Monica Lewinsky.

It sounded weaselly. How much bolder and telling-it-like-it-is Clinton would have sounded if he had just kept saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He could have claimed that the lab that analyzed Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress was biased against him, and DNA testing is junk science anyway. Surely some “experts” could have been manufactured to go on TV and make that argument.

He didn’t do that, because sounding weaselly was a “significant penalty” Clinton was willing to pay in order to live in a world of facts. But Trump has declared his independence from the world of facts, so he never has to sound weaselly. If more than a dozen women accuse him of groping and other sexual assaults similar to his bragging claims, they’re liars and he’s going to sue them. (He hasn’t sued any of them, and he won’t.) If Trump University students claim he defrauded them and the instructor’s manual backs them up, he looks forward to refuting their baseless case in court. (He settled right after the election, paying the students $25 million.)

No spin. Just bold, direct statements that aren’t true. He hasn’t paid a political penalty for those false statements, because his supporters have neither the inclination nor the attention span to check up on him, and they don’t trust anybody who does.

If that’s not disturbing enough for you, there’s a way things could turn worse from here. An Elliott Lusztig tweetstorm explained how:

Hannah Arendt in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism provides a helpful guide for interpreting the language of fascists. She noted how decent liberals of 1930s Germany would “fact check” the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews like they were meant to be factual. What they failed to understand, Arendt suggests, is that the Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent.

So when someone would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in [World War I], naive people would counter by saying there’s no evidence of that. What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next.

Did 3 million “illegals” cast votes in this election? Clearly not. But fact checking is just a way of playing along with their game. What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to other Trump lies. For example, his claim that the murder rate is the “highest it’s been in 45 years“, when in fact it’s close to a low for that period. Combine that with his characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and “Islam hates us“, and and you get a justification for a harsh police crackdown on those communities.

What Lusztig is pointing out here is how this kind of widespread lying can turn partisanship into horror: People accept claims as factual for partisan reasons, and then later can be moved to draw consequences from those false claims. Those consequences might include horrible actions that those same people would have rejected had they been proposed directly.

It’s hard to see what to do about this, but it has to start with identifying the advantages reality has over falsehood. Obviously, reality also has many disadvantages, but its advantages include that it is persistent, self-consistent, and infinitely detailed.

Fantastic lies depend on an ability to constantly change the subject, so that the thinness of the fantasy world can’t be compared to the richness of reality. When a topic becomes so important that it stays in the public mind for long periods of time — the Iraq War is a good example — it becomes harder to lie about. The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about. And finally, anything a person cares deeply about can become a conduit to reality. For example, many otherwise conservative churches have made a project out of helping refugees resettle in America. Their commitment to those projects makes it harder to sell them horror stories about the refugee threat.

This is another example of a larger theme: The Trump administration is going to force us to think seriously about things we used to take for granted. (That’s why I wrote about white pride last week.)

For a long time, many of us have taken for granted that facts are facts, truth ultimately wins out, and lies eventually rebound against the liars. Those principles may still hold, but they’re not in the “of course” category any more. We’re going to have to study more closely exactly what strategic advantages reality offers, and figure out tactics that bring those advantages into play.

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Comments

  • Ronald Cordes  On December 5, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Doug,

    Very true, BUT…

    My First Law of Politics has always been “Perception is Reality.” I don’t see what has changed other than (1) we have a candidate – not President-elect – who actually understands it, and (2) we have a media culture which enables it.

    Ron

    Ron Cordes 3 Jeffrey Circle Bedford MA 01730 781-275-5258 (Cell) 781-275-7008 (FAX) rcordes@teamflow.com

  • Robert Girod  On December 5, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Trump is the master of distraction. His tweets are meant to distract the media from reporting on what he has actually done. If they would stop reporting on his misleading statement, that are often self-contradicting, and focus on his actions the whole what’s fact or lie thing becomes less important.

  • Mary Scriver  On December 5, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Luckily, Trump gives us a choice of facts. What he claims one day is often reversed another day, so if you don’t like what he says, just wait for different circumstances and a new version will appear. His facts never contradict each other.

    • 1mime  On December 5, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      That is not lucky, that is the problem, Mary. Presidents need to deal in facts – inconvenient or not. The biggest problem of this election is the millions of Americans didn’t care if what Trump said was factual or not. That bothers me far more than an ignoramus spinning his world view of the moment. As a society, truth should matter, and those who stand up for truth should be rewarded. That is not what just happened.

      • Mary Scriver  On December 5, 2016 at 5:33 pm

        I guess you don’t do irony and sarcasm, huh?

      • 1mime  On December 5, 2016 at 5:44 pm

        This post does deal with the difficulty of discerning fact from hyperbole………Can one be sure these days?

    • HERBERT J FEINZIG  On December 5, 2016 at 11:10 pm

      His comments are not factual, just contradictory. One negates the last, so he cannot be held to the truth.
      What is most frightening is how many people believe these statements to be true.
      We now have the most powerful nation, a leader in morality, led by a liar.

  • Tom Amitai (@TomAmitaiUSA)  On December 5, 2016 at 11:36 am

    So Trump is O’Brien telling us that four fingers are five, and we’re all on the way to room 101?

    • DFC  On December 6, 2016 at 7:09 pm

      Exactly. Trump thinks that facts are a matter of power. It’s a dangerous game for a man in business, because in the markets, sooner or later the truth emerges. Trump’s pulling the biggest swindle of our time. The GOP made a suicidal mistake in letting it happen.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On December 5, 2016 at 11:55 am

    A psychologist colleague is fond of saying how we (at least in the past) have been held together by a series of social values or norms captured by a Mark Twain story, a Rockwell painting, a tale (e.g., George Washington cannot lie; he cut down the tree). It is very disturbing that these values or norms seem to have quickly crumbled. To the point, I would say, that many people feel like their very identities have been rattled by this disintegration. It is also disturbing that the “reportedly” miserable economic outcomes in states like Kansas and Wisconsin did not prevent the reelection of their incumbent governors. If facts AND outcomes don’t matter — yikes!!! I guess Betty Boop may have to calm me down. Seriously, thank you Doug for a thoughtful examination of our very ill political process.

  • Justin s  On December 5, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    This hits home for me. The place i go to play pingpong and drink beer just recently had an armed gunman problem, still unfolding but likely the result of a bizzarre conspiracy theory about it being a democratic kiddy porn ring. Pizza joints and fake kiddy porn plots dont exactly fall on the political spectrum, but here i am, wondering why there’s a guy with a gun terrorizing the neighborhood because he lives in a world without fact checking.

  • Harry  On December 5, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    “The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about.” This is why coming out was so important to the LGBT Community – when people being offered lies could think – but my brother who is gay, my aunt, my son, my cousin, my friend who are gay – they aren’t these depraved people the religious right is talking about – I know them and so the religious conservative narrative is wrong. Took us all the way to gay marriage. But we seem to have gone beyond that – facts seem to be the enemy to a large number of people suffering from some very serious delusions – and they seem ready to respond with violence when those delusions are challenged.

  • Monala  On December 5, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    “The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about.”

    I’m not sure this is true. I think about how many conservatives say that Obama destroyed America, and I wonder what America they’re talking about? Yes, this country has problems, but how many problems does it have that didn’t exist prior to Obama’s time in office? And how many things have improved during the last 8 years? I think about people I know who were out of work, who now have work; who weren’t insured, who now are; and the fact that gas has been between $2 and $2.50 for years now, whereas it was approaching $4 a gallon in 2008.

    Some more examples: I know plenty of white people who believe that black people are as a whole poor, on welfare, and criminal, even though they know many black people and none of the ones they know are poor, on welfare, or criminal. So every single black person they know is an exception?! Or how about how many buy Trump’s assertion that we have a 45% unemployment rate? Many rightwingers will say that’s true. But that would mean that nearly 1 in 2 working age adults you know are unemployed. (I know this is true in some communities, but it is not the case in most of the country).

    It makes me think that many, many people are willing to believe things that are very contrary to their lived experience.

  • Tod Abbott  On December 5, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    I’m looking forward to the coming discussions about what we mean by “truth” — the word is getting a real workout these days.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 5, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    It is observable that Trump projects–that is, he accuses others of doing what he is either doing right now, or plans to do later.

    This, by the way, is another reason to support all of the election recounts and audits that can possible be done. Trump claimed before the election that the election was “rigged”. This signals to me that he intended to rig it. And he got all sorts of pious liberals who should have know better to claim beforehand that our elections are known to be fair and free of tampering. I think they got played.

  • Larry Benjamin  On December 5, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    So no matter what happens over the next four years, Trump will be able to declare it a resounding success, take full credit for it, and everyone will believe him.

    • 1mime  On December 5, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      What is not in doubt is that DJ Trump is inheriting a much different economy than Barach Obama did in 2009. It certainly helps to start on such a positive note…but it also lays down a clear basis for comparison….Walking into unemployment figures of 4.6% sure beats 9%+ Dems inherited. For the sake of our nation, I hope our economy continues to improve; for the sake of our nation, I hope Trump’s success is short-lived.

      • Larry Benjamin  On December 5, 2016 at 8:58 pm

        What I meant is that even if the economy tanks, Trump will claim that it improved, and many of his fans will believe him. For example, some right-wing sources claim that the official unemployment figures are artificially low, so if real unemployment does in fact go up, Trump will be able to say that it dropped compared to whatever imaginary figures he cites for when he took office.

      • 1mime  On December 5, 2016 at 9:03 pm

        Trump’s base will believe every thing he says as long as they get what they want. Trump made a lot of promises based on thin air. A base that uses such skimpy reasoning to support a presidential candidate may turn out to be a very fickle group. Let us hope his base is watching him very closely. I know I will be.

  • Robin Mizell  On December 5, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Are we assuming that cheaters (liars) always, naturally gain an advantage? If I understand this article in Inside Science, “Cheaters, Cooperators, and Evolutionary Theory,” organisms (we) are adapting continually as the need arises to overcome cheaters’ tactics. Of course, then the cheaters also adapt (level up), and the competition for survival never ends.

  • David Clow  On December 6, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    The question of “exactly what strategic advantages reality offers” is answered every day. It only looks mysterious if you make the mistake these vaudeville conservatives make, and view reality as a political construct. That’s the error: it isn’t.

    We are not “post-truth” at all, except in two realms where fantasy has taken hold: religion and politics. In every other area of our lives–in all of them upon which we really depend–facts, and the idea of factuality are stronger than ever for the simple reason that facts are equipment. They work under testing. If they don’t work we discard them and get better ones, not just ones we like, but ones that withstand the tests.

    This is the era of Big Data. In science, finance, engineering, medicine, commerce, energy, investing, measurement is undergoing a once in 500 year leap. We are in the era of machine learning, the Internet of Things; IBM’s Watson is a consulting collaborator with oncologists in hospitals; electricity is being saved by trillions of microwatts every minute of every day. This is how the world works in 2016 whether the idiots on the Right understand it or not.

    Consider their bizarre position: they live surrounded by facts and they deny fact. They’re in an engineered world, dwelling in engineered places, living on engineered drugs and food, working in a modern economy of law and science, and they deny that a thing can be true regardless of politics. The sheer labor of willful ignorance is all that distinguishes these terrified Trumpists. They are stupid at huge cost first to themselves. They cannot think in the world they inhabit. They’re parasites, clients and customers getting swindled by their own leaders. They make war on truth with each other as their first casualties.

    Capitalism is fact-based. People who think like this fail in the markets because not everyone is so goddamned gullible. Sane people cannot surrender to this dangerous idea of “post-truth” because it empowers the morons to take even more ground. Call the idiots out. Face them with the factuality of their own lives. These factless fools live in a world they couldn’t have made, with advantages and amenities they barely understand. Their whole epistemology is mindlessness and it can be stopped here and now.

  • GJacq726  On December 8, 2016 at 10:42 am

    I thought Trevor and The Daily Show were on to something here as a way to deal with this very thing. https://youtu.be/9P1IVQJdVvE

  • KB Fabrikant  On January 23, 2017 at 11:14 pm

    Trying to make a rational argument against perception and “alternate facts” like Keyyanne Conway’s is not logical. Think George Orwells novel, 1984.

Trackbacks

  • By News War | The Weekly Sift on December 5, 2016 at 11:49 am

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit” and “No facts? What does that mean?” […]

  • By The Yearly Sift 2016 | The Weekly Sift on December 26, 2016 at 8:56 am

    […] of Truth as a political value, and a corresponding rise in propaganda. Those posts were: “No facts? What does that mean?“, “The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech“, “The Skittles Analogy“, and […]

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