On "Alternative Facts," Alternative History, and the Slippery Stubbornness of Facts
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.
1/23/2017 11:29:22 am
Why keep attacking President Trump? Isn't your schtik pseudo history? Frankly your anti conservative commentary is getting boring.
1/23/2017 11:48:32 am
I find it refreshing and apt. The connection between the debasement of mind by pseudo-history and pseudo-science is part of what creates the mental climate which leads people to believe the sort of distortions and outright lies that constitute the whole stock in trade of 'movement conservatism', and of the popular vote loser currently squatting in the White House.
1/23/2017 11:51:26 am
1. Pseudohistory is inherently political because it seeks to rewrite history to the advantage of the claimant. Therefore it cannot be separated from politics.
1/23/2017 01:29:55 pm
As a traditional conservative (in the vein of Theodore Roosevelt) and an ardent fan of fact-based reality, I thank you, Jason, for continuing to highlight the confluence of pseudohistory and Trumpian (has that been coined yet?) politics.
1/23/2017 06:52:54 pm
Jason, let me state for the record I understand your point. However, I disagree with, "Donald Trump explicitly stands against facts." I could make the same argument against Obama. During his farewell speech, he outright lied about not having a single scandal during his tenure. Benghazi, the IRS, Fast & Furious?
1/23/2017 07:16:06 pm
1/23/2017 09:02:25 pm
1/23/2017 11:56:25 am
"I will take the power in Washington and give it back to the people." Trump
1/23/2017 02:57:38 pm
" "I will take the power in Washington and give it back to the people." Trump"
1/23/2017 07:06:43 pm
It's also a pretty meaningless statement.
1/23/2017 12:26:53 pm
Alternative facts ,,,, An instant classic !
1/23/2017 12:51:58 pm
So then, facts cannot or should not be in the eyes of the beholders, unless the beholders are in general agreement? Climate change comes to mind. Yet, this notion sometimes proves to be wrong.
1/23/2017 01:48:47 pm
I agree with you whole heatedly. It's super aggravating when someone won't let an idea go, but find ways to twist around any inconvenient facts and ignore any other interpretations as irrelevant. Or they always try to steer the conversation in a direction they want even when it has no relevance.
1/23/2017 03:59:26 pm
Two points. And all three if you intentionally typed "whole heatedly." ;-)
1/24/2017 01:49:08 pm
Here's the "scientific approach" about proposed medieval Norse stoneholes that's been missing, not engaged, purposely overlooked and held at bay:
1/24/2017 03:37:06 pm
To establish an "insider's point of view" it really helps to have some clear evidence of what "inside" is. For example, the stoneholes illustrated on
1/26/2017 10:31:59 am
Hi David, yes, there remains the problem of being able to assign aging (to some degree) to these stoneholes, some of which were made in medieval times and some of which were made in more modern times...mostly associated with early pioneer farming, but also associated with railroad expansion.
1/26/2017 01:59:42 pm
First, I'd argue that one cannot straightforwardly assign stoneholes to "medieval" and "modern" groupings by appearance alone. A technology does not necessarily disappear when a better technology becomes available- I have both manual and powered screwdrivers, for example- and erosion is dependant upon all sorts of factors.
1/23/2017 01:34:46 pm
An incisive uprooting of Argumentum Ad Trumpulum
1/23/2017 04:33:59 pm
Mind if I use that phrase?
1/23/2017 06:31:55 pm
Be my guest!
1/23/2017 07:11:25 pm
The debasement of reason and critical thinking started in the 60s in both academia and govt. Nixons "we are all keynsians now" was just the final nail in the myth that debt doesn't matter and prices are best distorted for the public good. Throw in this confusion over a free society versus fairness as decided by so called enlightened liberals and the path to trump was well paved.
1/23/2017 11:12:17 pm
I don't see how liberalism paved the way for Trump, except in the sense that his supporters seem to be hostile to everything that has happened in the USA from the 1960s on (in some ways, hostile to everything that happened from the 1930s on).
1/24/2017 10:34:31 am
1/24/2017 11:10:58 am
I think this whole "alternative facts" thing is being set up as the basis for an ongoing anti-Trump narrative, and that this narrative will be used unrelentingly regardless of whether or not Trump's policies have a positive effect on this country over the course of time.
1/24/2017 02:41:58 pm
"the press as a whole is not willing to give Trump the same leeway it gave to Obama in regards to decision making and policy"
1/24/2017 03:26:56 pm
As I see it....the press influences public behavior/perception. In turn, public behavior/perception influences Congress. In this day and age of populism the framework the press chooses to use in presenting the news can go along way to determining public policy.
1/24/2017 03:22:54 pm
Do you expect the press to give Trump leeway when he's constantly tweeting and stating on record that he believes the members of the press are liars who do not print the truth or facts?
terry the censor
1/24/2017 06:55:37 pm
> I think this whole "alternative facts" thing is being set up as the basis for an ongoing anti-Trump narrative
1/26/2017 04:17:15 pm
Good summary, thanks for providing it. It's important to highlight that the criticism comes from all corners because, as someone mentioned above, "this is not normal."
1/25/2017 12:20:25 am
Um, Jason! It was that even bigger loser, Robert Burns, who couldn’t even speak English.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
1/25/2017 12:45:53 am
He's not insulting Burns any more than he's insulting John Adams. That entire paragraph is sarcasm.
1/25/2017 03:08:14 am
I apologise, did not have my sarcasm-ometer on! My Bad! Sorta glanced over the reference to the former President. We Scots are getting a bit of flak here in the UK since the Brexit Referendum, I guess I showed I can get a bit more touchy than I like to admit publicly.
1/25/2017 06:25:07 pm
"Comedian Eddie Murphy, who can't even speak English..."
1/26/2017 04:18:57 pm
"We Scots are getting a bit of flak here in the UK since the Brexit Referendum"
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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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