It was that total loser John Adams who said in his defense of the enemy soldiers who conducted the Boston Massacre in 1770 that “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Sad! It was that even bigger loser, Robert Burns, who couldn’t even speak English in his 1786 poem “A Dream,” when he said “Facts are chiels that winna ding, an’ daurna be disputet.” Double sad!
As you might have guessed, I’m going to talk about Donald Trump, who on Friday said that American students are “deprived of all knowledge.” This weekend his administration helped explain who is stripping knowledge from our culture.
As pretty much everyone in the world now knows, on Meet the Press yesterday, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said that falsehoods are “alternative facts.” She was speaking in reference to claims from the White House during a special late Saturday impromptu press conference that photographic evidence, National Parks Service estimates, and other reliable sources of information were all simultaneously and disastrously wrong about the size of the crowd attending the inauguration on Friday. Here is the exchange with NBC’s Chuck Todd:
CONWAY: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. They’re saying it’s a falsehood and they’re giving, our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that.
At the same time, on Fox News Sunday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus alleged that reporting the crowd size was an “attack” on the legitimacy of Donald Trump and vowed to fight “tooth and nail” against the media and facts. He falsely alleged that the photographs of the inauguration had been altered to make the crowds appear smaller even though moving images of the tiny crowds were broadcast live and literally thousands of people were there to see with their own eyes. Even Fox News called the effort “ridiculous.” “This is a ridiculous conversation,” Fox’s Chris Wallace said to Priebus.
Essentially, the Trump people are Chico Marx in Duck Soup, pretending to be the premier of the nation of Fredonia and asking you to believe them over your own eyes.
I wonder how long it will be before the Trump Administration’s new “alternative facts” claim filters down to the pseudo-historians and pseudoscientists who in the 1990s called themselves (and probably will again soon) “alternative.” But the scarier possibility is that Conway took her unfortunate choice of words from the very existence of “alternative” fakery, from the “alternative right” (which is Nazism posing as conservatism), “alternative science” (which is magic and faith), “alternative history” (which is myth), and of course “alternative medicine” (which is medicine that doesn’t work).
I can’t help but draw parallels between the amoral spin doctors who lie professionally for the president and the “alternative archaeologists” who, in their moments of honesty, admit to telling untruths professionally as well. They don’t call it “lying” per se but rather concede that they bend and stretch the truth and twist the rules of evidence far beyond the breaking point. The best and clearest case of this is Graham Hancock, who famously wrote in the early 2000s about his unconventional relationship to facts:
A parallel for what I do is to be found in the work of an attorney defending a client in a court of law. My ‘client’ is a lost civilisation and it is my responsibility to persuade the jury – the public – that this civilisation did exist. Since the ‘prosecution’ – orthodox academics – naturally seek to make the opposite case as effectively as they can, I must be equally effective and, where necessary, equally ruthless.
Is there really a difference between what Hancock said here and Conway’s and Priebus’s world of lies, spin, and “alternative facts”? Maybe one: Hancock, like traditional political spin doctors from years past, at least had a passing respect for facts, and today says that “alternative” historians need to hold themselves to high standards of evidence. Ha! He is a man out of time, stuck in the old world from the last century, back when “reality” and “facts” weren’t simply boutique products patronized by the elite.
I am reminded of the apocryphal story told by Henry of Huntingdon in the twelfth century of King Canute, who tried to explain that no amount of arrogance, bravado, or spin could undo the facts of nature and God. It is perhaps a lesson for the post-fact warriors. The tale can be found in Book VI of Henry’s Chronicle, for the year 1035 CE:
… when at the summit of his power, he ordered a seat to be placed for him on the sea-shore when the tide was coming in; thus seated, he shouted to the flowing sea, “Thou, too, art subject to my command, as the land on which I am seated is mine; and no one has ever resisted my commands with impunity. I command you, then, not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet the feet and the robe of your lord.” The tide, however, continuing to rise as usual, dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leaped backwards, saying: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.” From thenceforth King Canute never wore his crown of gold, but placed it for a lasting memorial on the image of our Lord affixed to a cross, to the honour of God the almighty King: through whose mercy may the soul of Canute, the king, enjoy everlasting rest. (trans. Thomas Forester)
Henry of Huntingdon alleged that he had the story from witnesses who saw it happen sixty years before, and there is an irony that a story of an attempt to show the people the folly of imagining that a leader’s writ could stand against facts (or, in this case, the presumed fact of God’s control of nature), is itself an uncertain story more likely to be a lie than the truth.
Indeed, it turns out that John Adams, whom I quoted at the start of this piece, wasn’t even original in citing facts as stubborn things. Six years earlier, a physician wrote “Facts are stubborn things, and […] all reasoning is sophistry when opposed to facts.” That physician, writing in 1764, was somewhat opposed to the idea of facts, at least that they can be known with certainty, and wrote that “the answer to this kind of argument is, that experience shows it is difficult to ascertain a fact.”
Ah, but our anti-fact physician is himself borrowing… Gov. John Penn of Pennsylvania offered a similar thought, also in 1764: “…Facts are stubborn Things, and Truth does not stand in Need of any Colouring or Disguise…” Thomas Nash wrote in a 1759 pamphlet that “Facts are stubborn Things, which it is not in the Power of Argument to refute; and these are such as too many People can witness the Truth of.”
The phrase seems to have been proverbial by 1760. My ancient dictionary of quotations wrongly traces it to Ebenezer Elliott, who lived a century too late to have originated it. The author meant to attribute it to Jared Eliot, author of the Essay on Field Husbandry (1747) in which the dictionary and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations wrongly state that the line appears. Bartlett’s gives two different sources for the same line. The first is Tobias Smollett’s 1748 translation of Gil Blas de Santillana 10.1. The original French was less colorful: car les faits parlent (“because the facts speak out”). The second source is Alain René Le Sage, but he is the author of the Gil Blas, and he didn’t actually say it in that book, as we just saw. Bartlett’s adds that Eliot also used the line in 1747.
So how did Eliot and Smollett both independently hit upon the same phrasing at roughly the same time? Oh, aren’t you glad you asked? It turns out the recent Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs says that Bartlett’s is wrong and Eliot actually used the line in his Continuation of the Essays on Field Husbandry, in 1749, which other sources date to 1751. (I haven’t seen the book myself.) But Bartlett’s is even more wrong in that Smollett wasn’t the first to use the phrase either, more or less. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs traces it 1732, when Eustace Budgell, writing in Liberty & Progress, said that “plain Matters of Fact are terrible stubborn Things.” But as it happens, Oxford has it wrong, too. Budgell actually titled his work Liberty and Property, and the line comes from page 76 of the second pamphlet in the series. So, it looks like Smollett may have been taken by Budgell’s turn of phrase and stuck a version of it into his translation of Gil Blas. From the three early sources of Budgell, Eliot, and Smollett, it then spread like kudzu. It is probably not good press for facts if one of the most famous lines about them has created so many false ... sorry, alternative ... facts in reputable reference works.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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