Of Particular Significance

What’s all this fuss about having alternatives?

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 01/23/2017

I don’t know what all the fuss is about “alternative facts.” Why, we scientists use them all the time!

For example, because of my political views, I teach physics students that gravity pulls down. That’s why the students I teach, when they go on to be engineers, put wheels on the bottom corners of cars, so that the cars don’t scrape on the ground. But in some countries, the physicists teach them that gravity pulls whichever way the country’s leaders instruct it to. That’s why their engineers build flying carpets as transports for their country’s troops. It’s a much more effective way to bring an army into battle, if your politics allows it.  We ought to consider it here.

Another example: in my physics class I claim that energy is “conserved” (in the physics sense) — it is never created out of nothing, nor is it ever destroyed. In our daily lives, energy is taken in with food, converted into special biochemicals for storage, and then used to keep us warm, maintain the pumping of our hearts, allow us to think, walk, breathe — everything we do. Those are my facts. But in some countries, the facts and laws are different, and energy can be created from nothing. The citizens of those countries never need to eat; it is a wonderful thing to be freed from this requirement. It’s great for their military, too, to not have to supply food for troops, or fuel for tanks and airplanes and ships. Our only protection against invasion from these countries is that if they crossed our borders they’d suddenly need fuel tanks.

Facts are what you make them; it’s entirely up to you. You need a good, well-thought-out system of facts, of course; otherwise they won’t produce the answers that you want. But just first figure out what you want to be true, and then go out and find the facts that make it true. That’s the way science has always been done, and the best scientists all insist upon this strategy.  As a simple illustration, compare the photos below.  Which picture has more people in it?   Obviously, the answer depends on what facts you’ve chosen to use.   [Picture copyright Reuters]  If you can’t understand that, you’re not ready to be a serious scientist!

A third example: when I teach physics to students, I instill in them the notion that quantum mechanics controls the atomic world, and underlies the transistors in every computer and every cell phone. But the uncertainty principle that arises in quantum mechanics just isn’t acceptable in some countries, so they don’t factualize it. They don’t use seditious and immoral computer chips there; instead they use proper vacuum tubes. One curious result is that their computers are the size of buildings. The CDC advises you not to travel to these countries, and certainly not to take electronics with you. Not only might your cell phone explode when it gets there, you yourself might too, since your own molecules are held together with quantum mechanical glue. At least you should bring a good-sized bottle of our local facts with you on your travels, and take a good handful before bedtime.

Hearing all the naive cries that facts aren’t for the choosing, I became curious about what our schools are teaching young people. So I asked a friend’s son, a bright young kid in fourth grade, what he’d been learning about alternatives and science. Do you know what he answered?!  I was shocked. “Alternative facts?”, he said. “You mean lies?” Sheesh. Kids these days… What are we teaching them? It’s a good thing we’ll soon have a new secretary of education.

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41 Responses

  1. i once read a book on ‘truthiness’, endorsed by Bush. I can’t recall the title, but it was a very small book that dealt heavily in circular logic trying to assert that subjective truth is absolute truth is subjective. If you read the book in a semi- conscious state you might (or might not) perk up at the blatant contradictions (thankfully, it was poorly written).

  2. To be fair I think what they meant to say was ‘(alternate) estimations’; gauging crowd numbers is not a precise science, just look at our estimates for the ‘million man march’. Even photographic comparisons like that can be misleading (Taken at different times of day or event say or when people are elsewhere.) One could argue that the estimates given by the media were biased and that some alternatives might give a better overview of the situation. One could even argue that doing so would be good science..

    However in that particular case most reliable estimates differ so greatly that there is no credible argument to be made that the 2017 crowd was larger. The treatment of the issue however I find illustrative in terms of bias and how the public deals with it.

  3. I wonder if our “post-fact” world might not have some roots in the tactics of marketing, sales, and commercials. To sell products (which we often don’t want or need), they manufacture this weird alternate reality that seems like our reality, but which is twisted off-kilter to their own ends.

    And politics has always been the realm of the unreal.

  4. I certainly prefer when you write about particle physics.

    Common people tend to be less rigorous about using their language than scientists, I think there’s not much point to be so upset about it now – it’s been happening for years if you didn’t notice.

    I have also heard that scientists examine things from different points of view before they get to conclusions.


  5. Pr Strassler,
    As a Canadian I am very worried to see Trump as President, and I agree that it is important that people take position and opposition on any none sense.

    Are you still planning to publish a book on particles physics?

    Thank you, Claude

  6. For just a moment at the start, it felt like you were going to defend the alt-fact movement… But only just a moment. And that was scary enough. 🙂

  7. To be fair, gravity pushes down rather than pulls. Find myself falling or more accurately, being pushed into love with Erik Verlinde’s emergent gravity. Completely clueless about those other countries…do you know where your ambassador is?…there currently aren’t any…so much for diplomacy and well, good manners…As to traveling with a Samsung Galaxy note 7 in your pocket…there is a very real possibility it will explode…the many worlds, multiverse interpretations within string theory do point to alternative realities filled with alternative physical laws and facts…had no idea we could stumble into one on the whims of a carnival barker…seems clear that at least some have…

    1. 🙂 Also, I think it’s important to understand that string theory’s prediction of a multiverse, with its different laws of particle physics in different patches of a large multiconnected universe, is STILL governed by one law of nature: the equations of string theory. Those don’t change from place to place; just their manifestation in terms of particles and local spacetime change.

      1. There are many alternative theories. Progress in science requires throwing out the wrong ones. That would be impossible if there weren’t facts beyond dispute; you can’t tell if a theory’s wrong unless you can show that its predictions are in contradiction to facts. And the success of science in serving as the foundation for technology we use every day is post facto proof that facts do, in fact, exist. That doesn’t mean they’re simple, or that they can’t be interpreted in multiple ways, especially if you’re trying to obscure their meaning. But they do exist.

  8. It seems that you are either with us or against us and to have any criticism must be counter argued; there is no neutral. To challenge one view is to imply you take the other view and you are presented with an alternative fact.
    With so much media coverage, live recordings, time lapse videos, it can all be ignored because the CNN Gigapixel image at it’s most zoomed out doesn’t appear to show the emptiness.
    The power of cognitive dissonance!

    All very Orwellian 1984’ry

  9. Professor Strassler, I enjoyed your post about alternative thinking and unfortunately, it looks like we will be seeing a lot of that in the next four years. I had a couple thoughts I wanted to share.

    I can think of two explanations for the difference between the pictures of inauguration day crowds in 2009 and 2017 on the national mall and the perceptions of one 47percenter. (1) There are actually a LOT of people in the 2017 picture, but you just can’t see them. Either (a) they are all wearing white hats, white coats, white pants and/or white dresses and you just can’t see them against what appears to be mostly empty areas covered in white tarp or (b) they are very very small people, perhaps homunculi, and just don’t show up in pictures taken from that distance. (2) There were people there, but they spontaneously fluctuated into invisible particles. If they became gravitons, perhaps that might further explain why we seem to see small clusters of people gathered toward the Capitol. These might be very dense clusters of people, perhaps on the order of neutron stars.

    You mentioned that you felt our borders should be safe from invasion as the laws of science and physics hold sway here (making us safe from invasion of flying carpet soldiers), but perhaps not elsewhere. I sense this about to change. In my very own state of North Carolina, climate change does not exist. The state legislature forbade studies of sea level rises from extending beyond a certain time limit (so as to keep the barrier islands from disappearing?) I suspect this type of “vision” and ostrich thinking may go nationwide.

    Chuck Lallier Durham, NC

    On Mon, Jan 23, 2017 at 8:51 AM, Of Particular Significance wrote:

    > Matt Strassler posted: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about > “alternative facts.” Why, we scientists use them all the time! For > example, because of my political views, I teach physics students that > gravity pulls down. That’s why the students I teach, when they go on to be > ” >

    1. Uh huh.

      Teaching that evidence-based science gives us access to reality, and that basic facts about the world (such as counting people in an open field) are not open to political debate, is most definitely my professional purview.

      You don’t have to like it, but giving me free advice is wasting your time; do you really think I’d take it? On the contrary, it encourages me.

    2. John, unless your professionial field involves giving advice to theoretical physicists about the fundamentals of science, why not apply that comment to yourself?

    3. You do realize that facts ARE a scientist’s professional field. That’s why we have things like scientific method that gives us a way to test facts objectively by having anyone, even people who disagree with us – especially people who disagree with us, check or work.

      What do you offer that’s better?

  10. Thanks. I like elitists. Elitists are those who believe things should be run by experts. I believe that, too! Of course, those who think things should be run by amateurs may use different facts…

    1. I don’t agree that elitists are people who believe things should be run by experts. Elitists are people who don’t *respect* those who are not experts, and deny that non-experts have a right to an opinion. Science has nothing to do with elitism; yes, if you’re not a scientist you can’t *do* science, but the whole point of this blog is that science can be *understood by anyone*, if experts take the time to explain it to non-experts. In that sense, I view this blog as highly anti-elitist. I still want airplane pilots to fly my plane and experienced autoworkers to build my car, but I do think they shouldn’t view their jobs as something too complicated for me to understand the basics of.

      1. I appreciate your view. I’m going by the definition of “elite”: “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.” I want my leaders to be superior. I want those in charge to be the best.

        1. The word “elite” might indeed be defined that way, but an “elitist” (used pejoratively) is something else. I am certainly among a scientific elite, in the sense that I have unusual training and knowledge about science. But I don’t view that as making me somehow part of a private and superior club that doesn’t deserve or require oversight by non-scientists.

          1. Again, I get your point. I was pushing back at the person who called you an elitist as a pejorative. I do not see it that way. I am glad there are experts in science, and I agree that even experts require oversight, regardless of their field. And I still want experts in charge generally. Please, I am not trying to argue with you. Let’s be done now.

  11. Mark, I don’t mind that you’re making a political statement, I even agree with you. But, you have really disappointed me. I’ve always held you in higher esteem than your colleges because you dig for hard realistic facts instead of the fluff that hits the front page. As I was reading this I was sure that you would provide the evidence to prove the Trump line wrong on this issue, but you didn’t. You just posted the same picture with necessary data missing to disprove their hypothesis that the picture taken for 2017 wasn’t during the speach. To decide what this picture means I need to know how many minutes before or after the announced start time both of these pictures taken. You’re missing this data. Why did you let your emotions over this make you stop being a scientist? Get back to work. Get the missing data so I can form my own opinion about what the pictures mean. I will not let you, or the media, decide for me what any data means. I form my own opinions on every subject. That’s what I have always loved about your blog in the past. You give me the data and then I have a firm foundation to make my own informed opinions. Please keep up this blog Mark. It has always been, in the past, a refreshing oasis of data in a sea of media supplied opinion and infotainment. Martin Iverson

    1. Hi Martin. (It’s “Matt”.) You are of course right that such a post going into such details is needed. But read what I wrote, and read it carefully. I did not, in fact, claim anything about the two photographs as far as Trump’s inauguration. I asked a simple question: “which [photo] has more people in it”, and made a joke about the answer depending on your facts. If you saw an implication in it that the photographs are sufficient evidence to prove anything about an inauguration, that was in *your* reading, not in *my* writing. I made no such claim.

  12. Even a scientist is capable of despair. Take the long view Matt. How much will today’s “facts” matter in a million years? Carry on with your quest sir. Humanity will ultimately benefit from your work.

    1. Is that the extra dimensions are truth – or at least the quantum states are truth – in which we chose (wave function colapse) one ?

      Trump’s choose another one (more disordered or increases in entropy) – because the Nucleation (rearrangement of Informations or time forward) decides which is reality ?
      This implies the slight change in the constancy of heavens ?

  13. You are forgetting one thing. The idiots talking about alternate facts to the press don’t believe in science and don’t believe in the free press. 🎶 It’s beginning to look a lot like Russia 🎶. Am I ever glad I’m in Canada.

  14. Prof. Strassler:

    Your comments perfectly illustrate one reason why people voted for Trump. In a mocking, sarcastic manner you looked down your long, elitist, physics nose. To Trump supporters you are a loser, most likely a sore loser who voted for Clinton.

    Much better if you had used your considerable talents to argue that the observations, i.e.l the two photos, were the truth. I assume you did not take either of them but even if you had you could have easily altered them in Photoshop or Gimp. Furthermore, even if photos were not altered, how does one know if they are an applies-to-apples comparison. One could have been taken with the crowd at a maximum and the other with the crowd at a minimum.

    If they were introduced in a trial would they be admissible evidence?

    Given you had not verified the photos were unaltered and each were the maximum crowd size, the phrase “Assuming the photos are…….” would be appropriate.

    The old adage “Truth is the first casualty of war” certainly applies to politics as well and I hypothesize most certainly to the Trump Administration.

    Finally I enjoyed reading your blogs on quantum physics and it is sad you stopped responding to posts. But I completely understand. Why waste your time even reading gibberish let alone the time to respond to people who would not exert the time to understand your answer. There are most certainly scientific losers in this world.

    1. I certainly understand your point of view. But the piece is a joke, and the only persons I am mocking in this piece are Spicer and Conway, who did not make a reasonable, evidence-based argument against the photographs, and said a lot of ridiculous things. I have nothing against Trump supporters; I have something against those who obscure the truth, of any political party. If anyone sees an attempt to defend the process of science and the value of evidence as an attack on the supporters of Trump, I think that’s… Sad!!

  15. Donald Trump is proof of the Uncertainty Principle in action. The more you try to pin him down the more he changes the truth. “Alternative Facts” is just a natural outgrowth and corollary.

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