‘Alternative Facts’ and the Necessity of Liberal Education

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Conway meet the pressKellyanne Conway's January 22 appearance on Meet the Press (transcript) has already attracted a good deal of attention, given her use of the seemingly Orwellian expression ‘alternative facts.' The idiom serves to confirm the view many take of the Trump administration's approach to honest deliberation. In light of the fake news and post-truth politics issues and the fact that the Trump administration has required many agencies to close down their communications with the public, Conway's line is an easy fit with a broad and disconcerting narrative of willful irrationalism and bold abuse of power. In many ways, we are sympathetic with this interpretation of Conway's term; as she deployed it, it indeed sounded as the Orwellian assertion our-say-so-trumps-is-so. However, there is an interpretation of Conway's turn of phrase and her broader point that, though still disappointing, is considerably less Orwellian. And it occasions a crucial lesson about the place of liberal education in a democratic society.

First, consider the more charitable interpretation of Conway's term. In both cases where Conway uses the expression alternative facts, she is talking about how the evidence relevant for settling a question is often more complicated than it may at first seem. In the two cases where she appeals to ‘alternative facts,' the point at issue is whether Sean Spicer's claim at his January 21 Press Conference, "That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," was accurate. Chuck Todd's challenge was that Spicer's claim flew in the face of widespread photographic evidence that showed clearly that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was smaller than the crowd at Obama's '09 inauguration. Yet Spicer claimed that the size of the crowd at the mall belied a number of things about how the crowd was handled for the inauguration; moreover, his statement precisely was that the event was witnessed by more people – which included television and live-streaming. So, as the reasoning went, the photographic evidence doesn't seal the deal, because none of those folks watching Fox News or streaming the event on Breitbart were in the frame.

Thus Conway:

And on this matter of crowd size, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives. I'm very heartened to see Nielsen just came out with the ratings, 31 million people watching the inauguration. President Obama had 20.5 million watching his second inauguration four short years ago. So we know people are also watching the inauguration on different screens and in different modes.

Conway was arguing that Spicer's claim referenced the number is of witnesses to the event, which includes those who see it on their screens, not the number of attendees in Washington.

Now, of course that's slippery. And it doesn't reflect the reasons Spicer gave at the 1/21 Press Conference (analysis here). But the point is that there is a considerably less disconcerting interpretation of Conway's lines. She said to Todd,

You're saying it's a falsehood. And . . . Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.

And later, Conway claimed

. . . we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.

Interpreted more charitably, Conway's ‘alternative facts' involve (1) clarifications of the Press Secretary's claims, and (2) evidence in favor of those clarified claims. To be sure, even on this charitable interpretation, Conway's remarks are disappointing, if only because it's the Press Secretary's job to clarify claims by the administration, not to deliver statements that are in need of clarification. But there is another, more significant, disappointment.

The trouble starts with Conway's use of the word ‘facts.' She really means something like counter-evidence or complicating consideration. Confusion emerges because, when disagreeing over the facts (in this case, the number of people who witnessed an event), one must present other facts. That is, one must argue, and when we deploy, we must first distinguish between premises and conclusions and then assess how the premises support those conclusions. That's simple logic, but it's all important.

The Orwellian interpretation has it that Conway flatly asserted a favored alternate conclusion, and presented no arguments, but only referred to ‘facts' of her own creation. But the more charitable line we've suggested has it that she presented complicating reasons, or rebutting facts: (1) Spicer was talking about witnesses rather than attendees; (2) the number of witnesses to the inauguration (on television and streaming media, et al, worldwide) was far larger than the number of attendees in Washington.

Still, the conclusion is muddied, and Conway even concedes this:

Look, I actually don't think that– maybe this is me as a pollster, Chuck. And you know data well. I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or the other. There's no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that.

Conway here makes it hard to defend Spicer's "period" at the end of his statement. But what's important is that, even on the charitable reading of ‘alternative facts', Conway is confused. Why? She's still employing the word ‘facts' to make a point about evidence and reasons. Had she claimed to be interested in presenting countervailing evidence, there would be nearly nothing remarkable about her interview.

There are a few lessons to be drawn from the Meet the Press debacle. First, things have spun out of control precisely because Conway did not employ the right concept for making her intended point, and then proved unable to clarify it. In addition, on all sides of the subsequent dispute, there seems to be an unwillingness to identify cases where discussants are simply talking past each other. There are related difficulties in identifying conditions under which a disagreement is about a value and not a fact; and mot generally an incapacity to recognize when operative vocabularies are too simplistic to do all the things we need to do with them.

In the coming months and years, we as a democratic citizenry will need to develop the skills necessary for avoiding and diagnosing such failures of discourse. We need to reacquaint ourselves with concepts like reason, evidence, justification, argument, and objection. We need also to cultivate skills of reading and listening closely, not with suspicion, but with a critical eye and ear. And these skills enable creative and clear thinking, too.

It's for this reason we think that the humanities and liberal arts are good for democratic citizens. Reading, thinking, and writing about literature and ideas sound to too many like only so much indulgent bullshit, but it's not. At least when it's done well. (We addressed this point in reply to Marco Rubio's line about "less philosophers, more welders" line.) Why is this? For starters, it's because these activities teach us how to disagree and argue properly with each other over things that matter. A liberal arts and humanities education teaches us that when it comes to the most important matters, things are complicated, the evidence is complex, and smart people disagree. And we see how smart people handle their disagreements. How do they do it? They've developed not only particular skills, but they've been deploying vocabularies for working out those disagreements, making clear how they see the reasons come out in their favor. Even in the process of acknowledging that someone else has made a good point.

On our more charitable interpretation, then, Kellyanne Conway's alternative facts phrase isn't the dark Orwellian statement so many see. Rather, it's an awkwardly phrased and largely inept observation that issues are complicated and reasons can conflict. And she's frustrated that she's being interpreted so consistently badly. But it all comes out in such a muddle, and it's all too easily seen in the objectionable frame of willful and brutish anti-intellectualism. It's a great irony that the necessity of liberal arts education and the humanities in a democratic society can be recognized only when we are on the brink of being too late to save them.