I've always been a bit bemused by the term alternative facts. It was twisted beyond all recognition first by being employed as a rhetorical bludgeon by cable news pundits and then, like 'fake news,' by being subsumed into ironic internet culture. Despite this abuse, it remains fairly self-evident that alternative facts are a thing.
Not only are alternative facts a thing, they play an essential role in healthy politics.
Of course, when Kellyane Conway told CNN that the Trump administration had "alternative facts" about the number of attendees at his 2016 inauguration, she had a flattering number. Without provenance for that number, it became clear that not all "facts" carry equal weight, even when they pass muster as facts, alternative or otherwise. Self-interest is a hell of a drug, though, and the facts arms-race in politics betrays what's solidifying into dominant political logic. Truth is what's expedient for "us," lies are what's expedient for "them," and we can tell no lies.
How did we get to this point?
My blog posts are often sparked by attempts to integrate the different things I'm reading and observing online and in the world. In this case, the reflection came out of too much politics Twitter, an essay in The New Atlantis, and a documentary from 2016 that Mark Hurst's newsletter put me onto. Though not directly related, each helped me see the necessity of alternative facts, which, in case it's not clear yet, are just facts (when they aren't self-interested fabrications).
A lot of this has to do with the relationship of science and politics in a technocracy (or maybe a technopoly). But a helpful starting point is to think about the stultifying effects of hyper-normalization. First coined by Alexei Yurchak, the term describes the inability of the Soviet public and elites to imagine alternatives to the status quo despite knowing the system was failing. In the 2016 BBC documentary HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis updates the term to fit our techno-social times. Narrating the opening of the documentary, Curtis argues that since the 1970s "politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring." He also describes how dissent has been absorbed in this simplified system, which results in much tweeting and posting, but little change. Resistance to this new status quo "actually became part of the trickery, because [the counter-culture], too, had retreated into the make-believe world, which is why their opposition has no effect and nothing ever changes."
This simplified, “make-believe” world has at least some connection with the ills of scientism, which holds that what is knowable (or worth knowing) can only be ascertained by scientific inquiry. Scientism isn’t a view most people consciously hold so much as it’s something they slide into, but it’s not difficult to see why so many are caught in its deadfall. Quantifiable facts are easy to put to use, but they aren’t the only facts available to us, and, even more troublesome, is how different sets of quantifiable facts can fail to agree. Ursula M. Franklin shone some light on this drive towards simplification in her 1989 CBC Massey Lectures, The Real World of Technology. Attempting to make sense of the transformation of the notion of scale from “a measure of comparison” to being “a figure of merit,” Franklin offers two metaphors: The growth model and the production model.
In the growth model, there is a “notion that size and scale are given relative to any particular growing organism.” Growth accepts that it “occurs; it is not made” and while it can be encouraged and coaxed, it ought not be controlled or coerced. Contrast this with the production model, which assumes “conditions that are, at least in principle, entirely controllable.” Inherent in the production model is the expectation that things not currently conscripted for prescriptive control will one day be mastered. One day, we will have the technology, as the saying goes. The production model requires reductions and simplifications to work, and not just in a manufacturing context. Franklin takes care to point out that production models are now dominant in education, health care, finance, and politics, despite more holistic approaches being better suited to the stated ends of these domains.
But let’s return to HyperNormalisation’s mains idea, that the powers of the world have conspired (without an actual conspiracy) to create a make-believe world for their benefit. How does this work? Franklin’s definition of the now dominant “production model” shows how the modern modes of planning and control require reality to be carved up and delineated into easily digestible chunks. Complete and perfect control may only be a pleasing fiction, but it’s especially beguiling once we’ve thoroughly reduced reality to numbers, interchangeable parts, and replaceable labour — all easily manipulable. Instead of the holistic world that requires accommodation and care, the idea of society as garden tended by and for people, we have the factory civilization managed by technocrats for whom people are sources of problems and technology is a source of solutions. The global factory is managed largely by and for a technocratic elite who benefit from the reduction of people to “human resources” and pursue maximal self-interest. The make-believe world of these pleasing (and pliable) simplifications has paralyzed the process by which democracies govern their diverse populations.
In “Democracy and the Nuclear Stalemate,” Taylor Dotson and Michael Bouchey describe how “Technocracy produces gridlock by invoking the name of science to short-circuit political conflict.” The core of their critique centres around how invocations of “listen the science” are actually the outworking of a politicized scientism. The problem is, if we honestly listen to the science, we quickly discover that there are always alternative facts. The game then becomes one of discrediting the facts of our opponents instead of doing the hard work of politics. Dotson and Bouchey frame it thus:
“Man plans and God laughs. With the aid of cutting-edge computer models, statistical analyses, and stacks of scientific studies, the belief that the Truth is within our grasp and can provide us with the unequivocally right decision becomes an alluring one. Once accepted, it is easy to see democracy and disagreement as mere impediments, obstacles to realizing the world as it was always meant to be. All that stands in the way of experts ushering in a brilliant future for ordinary people is — well, ordinary people.”
In the face of complexity and uncertainty, “it can be comforting to believe that one’s chosen position is supported by the true facts.” But it’s not always possible for the relevant scientific discipline to settle questions of public and political significance. Believing it can actually makes science less likely to help where and how it does best: by furnishing the tools necessary to make an informed decision. Deciding, though, comes with risk because, in a democracy, decision carries the weight of responsibility.
And so it’s easier, more expedient, and less risky, to defer to a world where “just the facts” is enough. No recourse to values, principles, or essential commitments. It’s much easier to layoff workers when they’re imagined as pesky obstacles to meeting growth targets and not, you know, people. In the creaking world of make-believe, reality fits into a spreadsheet and outputs pleasing graphics. That these graphics emphasize the staunching of corporate financial wounds over human lives is precisely why the fiction is so pleasing.
What’s the alternative? The good news is that reality hasn’t gone anywhere. Reality is still here, inconvenient and full of contingencies; there is work to do beyond stating the facts. Dotson and Bouchey suggest the practice of intelligent trial and error as one way of moving past disagreement to deliberation and onto action. Intelligent trial and error accounts for the provisional nature of our knowledge and, more importantly, sees politics as a collective project that is informed by facts but directed by humans, irreducibly complex and value-laden as we are.
"Technocracy produces gridlock by invoking the name of science to short-circuit political conflict. By contrast, intelligent trial and error recognizes that action becomes possible only by engaging in the very stuff of politics: by locating where our values and interests overlap, and developing policy options to which most citizens can give at least partial assent."
In a world full of competing facts, to retreat into a make-believe world where we can unreflectively “follow the science” is an abdication of responsibility. A robustly democratic politics must seek that place where “values and interests overlap,” while recognizing that being halfway-happy is healthier than accepting the pleasing fiction that political might, right now, will make things right in the end.
It’s unlikely to result in utopia, but it can still work, provided we can learn to accept the inconvenient presence of alternative facts.
Cover image: Old Book Illustrations
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