Alternative Facts and Crying Wolf

My satire about “alternative facts” from yesterday took some flak for propagating the controversial photos of inaugurations that some say are real and some say aren’t. I don’t honestly care one bit about those photos. I think it is of absolutely no importance how many people went to Trump’s inauguration; it has no bearing on how he will perform as president, and frankly I don’t know why he’s making such a big deal out of it. Even if attendance was far less than he and his people claim, it could be for two very good reasons that would not reflect badly on him at all.

First, Obama’s inauguration was extraordinarily historic. For a nation with our horrific past —  with most of our dark-skinned citizens brought to this continent to serve as property and suffer under slavery for generations — it was a huge step to finally elect an African-American president. I am sure many people chose to go to the 2009 inauguration because it was special to them to be able to witness it, and to be able to say that they were there. Much as many people adore Trump, it’s not so historic to have an aging rich white guy as president.

Second, look at a map of the US, with its population distribution. A huge population with a substantial number of Obama’s supporters live within driving distance or train distance of Washington DC. From South Carolina to Massachusetts there are large left-leaning populations. Trump’s support was largest in the center of the US, but people would not have been able to drive from there or take a train. The cost of travel to Washington could have reduced Trump’s inauguration numbers without reflecting on his popularity.

So as far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t make any difference if Trump’s inauguration numbers were small, medium or large. It doesn’t count in making legislation or in trade negotiations; it doesn’t count in anything except pride.

But what does count, especially in foreign affairs, is whether people listen to what a president says, and by extension to what his or her press secretary says. What bothers me is not the political spinning of facts. All politicians do that. What bothers me is the claim of having hosted “the best-attended inauguration ever” without showing any convincing evidence, and the defense of those claims (and we heard it again today) that this is because it’s ok to disagree with facts.

If facts can be chosen at will, even in principle, then science ceases to function. Science — a word that means “evidence-based reasoning applied logically to determine how reality really works” — depends on the existence and undeniability of evidence. It’s not an accident that physics, unlike some subjects, does not have a Republican branch and a Democratic branch; it doesn’t have a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish branch;  there’s just one type.  I work with people from many countries and with many religious and political beliefs; we work together just fine, and we don’t have discussions about “alternative facts.”

If instead you give up evidence-based reasoning, then soon you have politics instead of science determining your decisions on all sorts of things that matter to people because it can hurt or kill them: food safety, road safety, airplane safety, medicine, energy policy, environmental protection, and most importantly, defense. A nation that abandons evidence is abandoning applied reason and logic; and the inevitable consequence is that people will die unnecessarily.  It’s not a minor matter, and it’s not outside the purview of scientists to take a stand on the issue.

Meanwhile, I find the context for this discussion almost as astonishing as the discussion itself. It’s one thing to say unbelievable things during a campaign, but it’s much worse once in power. For the press secretary on day two of a new administration to make an astonishing and striking claim, but provide unconvincing evidence, has the effect of completely undermining his function.  As every scientist knows by heart, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Imagine the press office at the CERN laboratory announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle without presenting plots of its two experiments’ data; or imagine if the LIGO experimenters had claimed discovery of gravitational waves but shown no evidence.  Mistakes are going to happen, but they have to be owned: imagine if OPERA’s tentative suggestion of neutrinos-faster-than-light, which was an experimental blunder, or BICEP’s loud misinterpretation of their cosmological data, had not been publicly retracted, with a clear public explanation of what happened.  When an organization makes a strong statement but won’t present clear evidence in favor, and isn’t willing to retract the statement when shown evidence against it, it not only introduces immediate suspicion of the particular claim but creates a wider credibility problem that is extremely difficult to fix.

Fortunately, the Higgs boson has been observed by two different experiments, in two different data-taking runs of both experiments; the evidence is extraordinary.  And LIGO’s gravitational waves data is public; you can check it yourself, and moreover there will be plenty of opportunities for further verification as Advanced VIRGO comes on-line this year.    But the inauguration claim hasn’t been presented with extraordinary evidence in its favor, and there’s significant contradictory evidence (from train ridership and from local sales).    When something extraordinary is actually true, it’s true from all points of view, not subject to “alternative facts”; and the person claiming it has the responsibility to find evidence, of several different types, as soon as possible.  If firm evidence is lacking, the claim should only be made tentatively.  (A single photo isn’t convincing, one way or the other, especially nowadays.)

As any child knows, it’s like crying wolf.  If your loud claim isn’t immediately backed up, or isn’t later retracted with a public admission of error, then the next time you claim something exceptional, people will just laugh and ignore you.  And nothing’s worse than suggesting that “I have my facts and you have yours;” that’s the worst possible argument, used only when firm evidence simply isn’t available.

I can’t understand why a press secretary would blow his credibility so quickly on something of so little importance.  But he did it.  If the new standards are this low, can one expect truth on anything that actually matters?  It’s certainly not good for Russia that few outside the country believe a word that Putin says; speaking for myself, I would never invest a dollar there. Unfortunately, leaders and peoples around the world, learning that the new U.S. administration has “alternative facts” at its disposal, may already have drawn the obvious conclusion.    [The extraordinary claim that “3-5 million” non-citizens (up from 2-3 million, the previous version of the claim) voted in the last election, also presented without extraordinary evidence, isn’t helping matters.] There’s now already a risk that only the president’s core supporters will believe what comes from this White House, even in a time of crisis or war.

Of course all governments lie sometimes.  But it’s wise to tell the truth most of the time, so that your occasional lies will sometimes be thought to be true.  Governments that lie constantly, even pointlessly, aren’t believed even when they say something true.  They’ve cried wolf too often.

So what’s next?  Made-up numbers for inflation, employment, the budget deficit, tax revenue? Invented statistics for the number of people who have health insurance?  False information about the readiness of our armed forces and the cost of our self-defense?  How far will this go?  And how will we know?

53 responses to “Alternative Facts and Crying Wolf

  1. Yeah what’s next? A theory of quantum gravity that can never be proven but the brightest minds in the world waste half a century on it?… oh

    • A perfect example!! Thank you, I didn’t think of that! Have you seen scientists claiming that string theory has been proven experimentally? Of course not. String theory is most definitely not “fact”, by any measure. Even Brian Greene says so: “[Testing string theory] is a really difficult problem, the really big picture, and it’s going to take a long time,” said Greene. “I’m saying this is not the time to judge the theory.”

  2. No they don’t say “experimentally proven” (they are brilliant not insane) but many scientists in many (popular) publications talk as if it’s a given. And for Larry the Layman and the legion of mathematically challenged I represent it’s presented as a fact, if ever so subtly.

  3. I guess satires about facts do not propagate well in alternate reality.

  4. Awesome comments, both yesterday’s and today’s comment!

    Kudos to Matt on this double punch on what is the actual issue here: how this conduct is a serious blow to the idea of any line of thinking based on falsifiable evidence.

    Kind regards, GEN

  5. Great post, Matt. I will admit to not being a physicist in any way, shape or form, other than having an interest in it.

    Just a thought: perhaps String Theory–though unproven and highly suspect–could help explain the alternate dimensions that provide facts for Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer.

  6. Thank you, Matt. Always have enjoyed your physics posts and updates from CERN as succinct and informative.
    Dismaying as it may be, the world is filled with non-scientists who neither seek nor question the nature of the truth. Most will accept what is convenient or popular and follow the path of least resistance. Politics and religion, or any mixture thereof must maintain the illusory veneer of infallibility. History has been based entirely upon superstition and the misrepresentation or misunderstanding of facts. Natural history will continue. Unfortunately for us, human history may not survive four years of a Trump presidency. Good luck to you.

    • Coming late at this party 🙂 Nice article and comments! Mine is only a very marginal one about religions. But yes, for strange that it is, they’re also based on “facts”, sort of. Better saying personal experience. Let me explain what I mean, starting from the above quote: “Politics and religion, or any mixture thereof must maintain the illusory veneer of infallibility”. Or course everyone is free to deceive himself or the the others, but let’s assume some honesty and a minimum of rational behavior… For example, I’m Christian and… why should I or anyone in my shoes strive to follow such a difficult lifestyle? Do you think anyone would do that without having had a real life motivation?
      So yes … somehow it sounds paradoxical but facts are important… fundamental, even in an opinion based, non scientific context.

  7. There is one caveat: String theory has its own explanation on how conservation laws apply as there is no “spill over” of magnitudes to the extra dimensions, but, on the contrary, it is clear that there has been a lot of “spill over” of certain magnitudes to some extra dimensions when metrics of public attendance to the inauguration are analyzed.

    Kind regards, GEN

  8. While physics may not have a republican/christian branch does it really need one when 76% of all it’s doctorates between 1973 and 2012 were awarded to white males in the US?

    • I think you should look more carefully at the demographics. You’re assuming that white males who choose to study physics have the same demographics as white males throughout the country. I suspect that’s not actually true.

  9. Good reply. However, one point, as your discussion with Larry. There are Dems and Republicans in Physics, at least, in a sense. String theory supporters are one example. It’s just that the disagreements are usually fact based and I suspect, in most cases, you guys are more civil to each other than our political leaders. The real problem with this “alternative fact” issue is trust. Right now many Americans don’t trust Trump because of his outrageous claims (as well as his policies) while the rest don’t trust the Media because of his outrageous claims. This country right now needs a uniter but what we have is the anti-matter opposite of that.

    • It is certainly true that physicists often strongly disagree with each other. But the disagreements are about things like (a) which theoretical idea is worth taking seriously, or (b) what’s the right area to put research dollars into, or (c) whether tentative evidence for a new phenomenon is really convincing or not. It’s extremely rare to see an argument about well-established facts (which does NOT include well-validated theories, which should never be mistaken for facts.) Note that even when Einstein dethroned Newton, this was not because of a debate about facts; it was a debate about whether, for instance, the established failure of Newton’s laws to explain the precise orbit of Mercury was due to a cloud of dust near the sun or due to a failure of Newton’s laws themselves. The fact — the data, the evidence — was Mercury’s orbit, and everyone could see that it wasn’t agreeing with Newtonian predictions. The debate was about how to interpret the evidence, not about the evidence itself.

      • My dad taught me that Newton sits on a throne to the right of Einstein, but that Einstein will sit on his throne to the right of somebody else, and so on, because it’s thrones all the way up…

  10. That is interesting, in the year 2014, in Argentina, 42.8% of PhDs were males, while 57.2% of PhDs were females.

    This is the last year (2014) that we have official stats on higher education in Argentina.

  11. I like how most disagreements in physics are decided with a wager, it’s usually Hawking and he usually loses… I’m pretty sure he has a gambling problem.

  12. I suspect must presidents have lied. In recent times we saw Clinton lie about a supposed “genocide in Kosovo”, Bush lie about “Iraq WMD”, and Obama lie about “97% of scientists”. What’s a bit surprising is to see educated adults be so naive they think lying about crowd sizes is such a big deal. If Trump only lies about stuff that hurts his self image, then everything should be ok. Evidently the guy is kinda stupid, and that’s a concern. But the big problem arises when they lie to justify bombing, invasion, and huge numbers of dead.

  13. Still not quite the Utopia you painted, that’s a massive differential and I think you’d get an argument from your female colleagues judging by their tweets.

  14. Prof. Strassler:

    There are two cultures, those who have the aptitude for, training and interest in analytical reasoning to arrive at the truth and those who are satisfied with talk radio show reasoning.

    Neither side is going to convince the other. Nature will crown the winner in cases such as climate change. For such as false economic statistics they will eventually collapse under their own weight.

    Those who cannot or do not wish to reason analytically will bear the burden of not needing the wisdom of those who do.

    • What aré the criteria to decide the “climate change” winner? Will it be whoever comes closer to the Mauna Loa CO2 concentration in 2067? Or the average temperature in Central England in 2037? The number of Class 5 storms making landfall in 2047? How is that decided?

  15. The whole globalist agenda has to die. I dont want to live in some open borders version of an impoverished Europe. Furthermore, I could care less about some half starved immigrant, I have my own childrens future to think about. Finally, the crowds were about even.

    • Many years ago I was in NE Kenya, tucked close to the Somali border, and I saw the government making sure there were no water wells left close to the border. This was intended to hinder the flow of Somalis coming into Kenya. However, once in a while a group did manage to get through, and because they were armed with AK47s, those Somalis were scary. The good side was that they were incredibly poor shots. And that’s my border story for today.

  16. Clearly someone is messing with the photos and switching the data. There were a lot of very fantastic special billionaires with a real extra good view of the amazing crowd. So we must shut off all this fake media reporting until we figure out what happened and how they did it and lock em up. History must be corrected to show the true feeling of all the beautiful people of all kind and color.

  17. I fully agree with you about the triviality of the crowds issue, but the outcome of something like the recent US election, which merely established who would rule in that particular elective dictatorship for the next four years, was depressing for me in an unexpected way.

    For the last six weeks or so I’ve been checking up to a dozen twitter sites linked to my favourite science twitter site (Ethan S) and checking comments made by various scientists. With very few exceptions, the level of vitriol and bigotry I found there quite staggered me. The comments made by some of these scientists were as bad as the kind of stuff found regularly on most political websites.

    It completely cured me of any notion that a meritocracy would result in anything better than that provided by that collection of elective oligarchies and elective dictatorships making nuisances of themselves on this planet and each supposedly representing the best form of government developed so far.

  18. Pingback: Redemption of Nobel-Physics | The Great Vindications

  19. When a source of information is discredited, it’s important to stop using it, and switch to more reliable sources.

  20. The Trump administration now has gag orders on the EPA and the USDA. A Google search will give the details. As everyone knows, those agencies report on the environment and track things like climate change. The republican war on facts is ramping up.

    • The EPA and other agencies have been staffed with a heavy political slant. Given the diametrically opposed positions held by Obama and Trump (both of which are extreme and happen to be wrong), it’s understandable there would be orders to shut down hiring and outward facing communications. This is done during corporate takeovers, and remains in place until management has been changed and the command and control centers are fully under control of the incoming power.

      Given this polarization, the media and Internet wars, and Trump’s flawed personality we should expect to see blood splattering on the walls until the resistance is subdued by presidential forces.

      You know, it seems to me that Trump may have a failed presidency, but this voter fraud issue has you barking up the wrong tree. The question is whether Trump visualizes a super imperial presidency, whether congress will let him get away with it, and how much long term damage that will cause. The rise of the imperial presidency, which started getting really bad under Clinton, is the real danger. The other items are just details.

  21. Michael Rally

    At least you make sense without the rage.

  22. I am surprised this is even being discussed on a scientific site. But since it is……

    Trump is a master manipulator of the media, which should be obvious by now. He got far better coverage than Hillary throughout the election by being inflammatory. He didn’t need to buy idiotic commercials like the crap Hillary put out. Notice how Spicer could come back later and say he meant number of all viewers worldwide, not persons present in DC, which is probably correct?

    The media was petty by bringing up the crowd size to begin with, for reasons well stated by Matt. There are good reasons for the differences and it should not have been brought up to begin with, except to belittle Trump. Thus Trump’s response. Barrack explains that well on 1/22’s “Meet the Press”

    Trump says borderline outrageous things he can later step back from to keep public attention at a high pitch worldwide. He knows how to grab and excite an audience and keep the base motivated as he works to expand the base with outreach to the minorities, unions, etc. This keeps pressure on the politicians to move forward with him.

    The man is a genius. Notice today he left the Dreamers safe from deportation, left the Dreamers’ act in place. The guy is a populist centrist who is merely staking out his initial, i.e., extreme, bargaining positions on all the issues. Taiwan’s status puts China on notice, for instance, a strong initial bargaining position.

    All this hysteria is very amusing and really what he wants. Chaos creates opportunity.

    I suggest you read his book,Doc, (I haven’t, but I get it). The man is a genius and you are being pulled into the vortex.
    Notice yet that everyone who talks to him, Al Gore, Kanye West, Martin Luther King III, etc., regardless of party affiliation or race, EVERYONE, says good things about him and nothing negative after talking to him?

    I suggest everyone just chill out and let’s get the site back to real science…..The world is not ending in the political sphere and we are all in for a lot of entertainment and excitement there. Obviously…. 🙂 I’m 67 so I love the excitement.

    Here is an “alternate” fact: the Higg’s Boson is not the Higg’s Boson. There were two possible masses according to current theories and the mass of the new particle fell midways between. It fits neither theory and therefore is not the Higg’s Boson by any known measure. It is just a new particle, probably, as it was confirmed using two different methods.

    In reality, the Standard Model is probably invalid, CERN is just not producing anticipated results based upon that model. There is too much damn speculation in the model anyway….gluons, etc…..

    Of course, as per QM, the confirming observations of the supposed Higg’s are probably just a synchronicity based upon the act of simultaneous observation collapsing reality into a conformal state for the two teams. This maintains rationality which allows for continuity and sanity, an aspect you whizzes are totally missing out on, Doc. Can’t see the forest…..

    The universal continuum, the quantum energy field, always existing in a state of superposition, evolves forward to maintain the evolution of existing events in space/time so that the lives of the living continue to make sense and goals are reached and destinations arrived at. When I move my arm, my hand ends up where I want it to. I have faith it will and so it does.

    The continuum evolves forward to sustain us, the evolution of our lives, and our endeavors. This is the true wonder.
    No matter what we finally determine is the scientific proof positive of how it began and how it works, it will be wrong because the science itself is part of what Einstein called a very persistent illusion.

    I am currently working on a theory based on time dilation being the primary cause.

    João Magueijo, of Imperial College London, and Niayesh Afshordi, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, are postulating that instead of inflation, the speed of light was infinite in the extremely early, extremely hot, universe, contravening Einstein’s steady C.

    According to my theory, the relative rate of time, Rt, seemed to be infinite in the singularity. (This would also create an apparent infinite C). An increase in the rate of time requires a shortening in the relative length, Rl, of a meter to maintain C. Therefore as Rt approaches Infinity, Rl approaches 0, the singularity.

    When time is dilated, Rt < Infinity, Rl increases. This stretches out, attenuates, the light, creating the perception of depth and distance and differences in time, i.e., the impression of always looking back into time over distance. A simple time dilation could instantaneously create the universe at the speed of perception. From it is not there to it is there. Not nearly instantaneously inflation, or an infinite C, just a popping into being: "Let there be light".

    This does away with the need for inflation and an "infinite" speed of light, is also subject to the Heisenberg principle allowing for the patterns and near uniformity and deformations we see in the CMB.

    To be brief here, being willing to explain this aspect in more detail in another forum if Matt objects to it being pursued here, having learned to wash my hands in acid without harm some 45 years ago under a Muslim Haj in Djakarta, and thus seeing the world differently than most in that I see the illusion evolving forward for me in miraculous ways, I say what follows. It can only be proven through personal experience, but most can see the reason in it without directly experiencing it like I do.

    Because everything is relative to a frame of reference and a perception must exist for a reference frame to exist, if there is no perception, there is no frame of reference.

    The universe is an evolving continuum of illusionary events occurring in space/time. not particles evolving forward. and moving through, space over time.

    The illusion requires an observer. Space/time is created by an observer being aware of itself existing here (space) and now (time). There is a single primary observer.

    When the primary observer "drifts off", like when we sleep, time flies by at a perceptually infinite speed, as it does with us. When it focuses on its rate of time, slowing it, we get distance, time differentials and the universe. This is the same as our waking state.

    Energy accretes in areas of relatively slower time. Space thickens when time slows like molasses thickens when the temperature cools.

    The primary observer exists in a solitary state in a void with no senses. It only exists because it it aware of itself "existing", i.e. it is aware of the passage of time. "I am that I am".

    This is an intolerable state of being. The worst thing we do to people in prison is solitary confinement. Imagine that with no senses at all: no taste, hearing, smell, touch, sight.

    Fortunately that "being" can imagine light and can create worlds out of that light and can then incarnate itself into those
    worlds to escape its eternal loneliness and live adventurous lives where it always get to finally die…..

    These lives are built upon loving others, male and female who participate in the process of creation by mating and creating more loving others in the persons of children.

    How friggin' beautiful is that?

    Each individual life is that primary awareness escaping its eternal loneliness here. We are all just different points of view, different reference frames, for it, and we are all therefore all one in it and we are all its "children". Get it?

    Because that is what we are, in faith we have divine power and the rules and laws of science disappear and miracles occur. In faith, I could wash my hands in acid without harm. Without faith I burned the hell out of them. I did both, learning the difference. 🙂 But I won't go into that here.

    Anyway, lets chill out and get back to discussing science in this forum, which is really appreciated by a lot of people, Doc.

    I believe, and am trying to prove, that particles are vortices in time creating primarily-permanent events in space. Also, that gravity is a force in time created by the update of the next instant shifting down relative time dilation gradients. Time cannot pass at different relative rates in adjacent frames without there being a stress and strain effect in space. That effect accelerates all energy concentrations down gradient in a time dilation gradient. This is the gravitational "force" and this is why gravity has only one direction, down gradient in a time dilation gradient.

    Anyone want to talk about these ideas? Matt? Are these topics OK here? If not, I understand.


    • /The science itself is part of what Einstein called a very persistent illusion.

      Because that is what we are, in faith we have divine power and the rules and laws of science disappear and miracles occur. In faith, I could wash my hands in acid without harm./

      After Jesus death, at the abscence of Apocalypse, the “mockery” of then existing beliefs was invitable.
      Now at the failure of capitalism, the neo-con is inevitable.

      The choice of “Human” is there – but it does not mean we could wash our hands in acid ?

      “Rest mass and time dilation cannot coexist”.

      The persistent illusion (The “You” is sedimentary sediments of informations = Holographic) – makes the Rest mass and time dilation to coexist – as Equivalence principle – what we call reality.

      If we approach the truth (naturalness), it is not Uncertainty principle, but the Time dilation implies, the Mass is an illusion. ??

  23. Americans tend to be a bit exaggerated, and Trump is just so American. Rather than worrying about whether Trump is number 1 or number 3 in the classification of best presidents, it would be more interesting to investigate why so many scientists seem to be believe in politically correct lies originated from the ideology known as cultural Marxism. Fact checking and independent thinking can give more interesting results, if used in any direction.

  24. Thank heavens liberal people never cry wolf. I’m glad people are expecting the Trump administration to adhere to the truth. Use the same measurement scale that was used for the Obama administration: like, love, orgasmic.

  25. Prof Strassler

    I agree completely with you, but let alone politics in any where in the world, physics is also not free from near similar issues raised by you. A new form of mysticism, for example, like Big bang theories (If one cannot solve lambda-CDM in present context what right one has to pronounce theories about Big Bang) and String theories in the name of mathematical simplicity and beauty has creeped into mainstream physics. Though lack of evidence so far of such claims, do not seems to be supported by Nature, and amazingly may be unlike politics, still advancement in physics has sometimes benefited from such claims.
    Now my point (not a claim at all as I do not have any proof and not even mathematical elegance in my support) is that instead of introducing exotic/mystical/mythical particles, dimensions, multiverses, time travel or speculative therories based on associated so called beautiful and complex maths comprehensible only to expert mathematicians, why don’t we allow expansion and contraction of particles including space particles in discrete form to Planck constants and other limits and below these respectively this may have potential to solve many problems under one theory/framework. My crude or may be stupid ideas/comments are posted (spread over) under your post “Virtual Particles: What are they?” from December 16, 2016 to till date at the end of the page. I offer my sincere apologies if I am taking any undue advantage of any liberty or freedom of speech or posting comments/ideas in anyway.

  26. Sorry, folks, I join you too late.
    My opinion is the kid Matt mentioned in his prior post is right:
    An alternate Fact is a Lie. However alternate thinking is not necessarily.
    Science is far ahead of other areas of human activities, including politics.
    And Science uses vigorous standards of getting to Truth, as Matt pointed out. Einstein once mentioned in his private letters that in public relations, however, we still live in a stone age, and that was the reason, I guess, he refused to be a President. of Israel b/c it takes a completely different set of skills to do this job.
    Science rotates around Truth, trying to get to it as close as possible.
    Politics rotates around Interests of different groups of population. And if
    Truth contradicts some Interests, Truth very often will be denied. Here is just one simple example of it. Current warming of our Planet is a scientific fact, but many people in the industry deny it, b/c they will have to pay huge moneys to prevent it. It’s much easier to deny the very fact of warming, rather than to pay for measures to stop it. In private conversations our captains of industry recognize it but wouldn’t tell it in public That’s the difference between “political fact” and Scientific fact..
    Generally speaking, if math theorems contradicted people’s interests, they
    would be reconsidered many times over. I wish I knew who first said it.
    I would be glad, if you proved me wrong, folks.
    Yours, bob

  27. Edwin Steiner

    Thank you for this rather balanced post. It is rare to read a comment which does not completely demonize one side or the other.

    I agree that it is vital for human societies to respect empirical facts and to base decisions upon them. The idea that the truth be just a narrative like any other is very dangerous and in my opinion deeply misguided. However, I find it dubious and maybe even partly ironic if these dangerous tendencies are attributed solely to the new US administration. (Disclosure: I’m an outside, European observer.) I think that their enemies, who are now gleefully dwelling on terms like “post-factual” and “alternative facts”, are in many cases just as guilty.

    (Granted, the statements in this particular press conference are probably false in most plausible interpretations, and certainly were less than brilliant. I hope the new administration will consider the effect on their credibility.)

    A side topic that interested me was the term “alternative facts”:
    I checked the claim that “alternative facts” be a term used by lawyers. The Wikipedia page “Alternative facts (law)” was created after the incident, so that would be suspicious, but the claim seems to hold. Citing from [1]:

    “4.4.5 Alternative facts […]that a party could raise alternative and inconsistent sets of facts or alternative and inconsistent defences. As a matter of principle it must still be possible to do so. A party may always say that one or other of two versions of the facts is true, but he does not at present know which […] A claimant can quite properly state: ‘The defendant hit me deliberately; if he didn’t he did so carelessly.'”

    This is not exactly the way in which Conway used the term, but it makes it plausible that she chose it due to her legal background. However, the term points to a deeper discrepancy, a clash of cultures: A scientist would never use the word “facts” in this way, he or she would use “claims” or “statements” instead. (This reminds me of how non-physicists regularly misunderstand the word “theory” as used by physicists.) The mere idea of an untrue fact is absurd to a scientist. On the other hand, a lawyer who understands “facts” as in the cited text, may very well choose Conway’s words (“our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that”) without having Orwellian intentions.

    [1]…David Emmet, editor. “Drafting”. 18th Edition. Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN 9780198766001. p. 26

  28. Apart from “alternative facts”, the new administration will be very beneficial for the outsiders 🙂 Foreign physics institutions will quickly shorten the gap and become more competitive and successful in their advanced experiments: while their researchers are projecting quantum walls and looking for new dimensions, Americans will be building just a single, “badly needed”… ehm.. classical wall (lol)

    • Quantum “walls” are not much of a barrier, if we take into consideration the tunnel effect.

      Magnetic “bottles” are good as containers, but are not perfect barriers either.

      Kind regards, GEN

      • Sure, tunneling and (in)coherence are parts of the quantum trump conjecture 😉

        Hopefully, in the remembrance day, people should lean towards shaping tolerance and positive attitudes!))

  29. One of the Last Living Moderates

    Objective factual accuracy is not going to be of any importance to this administration. It’ll be a steady stream of distortion and untruths, combining self-serving Trumpian bluster plus all the paranoid memetics of the Right-wing blogosphere from the last 15 years.

    Perhaps the one silver lining is that what’s happening in Canada right now vis a vis hate speech laws won’t happen in the USA any time soon.

  30. RE: to Cass.
    Brief comment.
    Everybody ignored your long message, so I decided to say something.

    I tend to agree with the 1-st, not physics related part of your message, but
    very much confused regarding the 2-nd part of it. For example, you write that “the science itself is part of what Einstein called a very persistent illusion”. Where did Einstein did this CALL ? In my view, it’s very much contrary to Einstein’s concept of reality and the way physics is related to it
    ( recall his Q in his letters regarding the existence of Moon depending on whether we keep our eyes open or closed. Does it cease to exist, once we close our eyes ? Certainly not ). This definitely contradicts your words that I put in quotes.
    As for your thoughts on inflation, I can’t assess it . Matt certainly could do it, though my feel is that he will oppose them on the ground of currently accepted criteria regarding which materials are publishable and which are not in today’s theoretical physics professional publications. That’s
    my humble opinion on it
    Yours, bob-2

  31. “For a nation with our horrific past —” and you lost your entire argument about ‘alternative facts’ right there. Would you please in your vast historical wisdom like to point to another country which does not have a ‘horrific past’ even far greater in scope? Spain? Germany? France? England? Russia…? China….? Italy…..? Egypt……. oh that’s a laugh. Matt, if you want to feel guilty about something, how about your apparent utter lack of historical knowledge and context? Considering what was going on in England at the time of the early American colonialists, (Everyone in England was practically the king’s property) the early Americans were quite advanced in their thinking for their time, and many of them already were quite aware of how vile slavery was. Maybe you should read up on the Quakers and the Abolitionists a bit before weighing in on what you are so ignorant of.

    You should also like to pay notice to the fact that those ‘dark skinned citizens’ were actually sold into slavery by their own ‘dark skinned’ countrymen back in Africa, and that most of them did not end up in the United States at all, but in South America and the Caribbean, as slave labor. Slavery is still practiced to this day in parts of Africa, and might as well be for women throughout much of China and the middle-east.

    For a supposedly educated man who plays with math, you are actually quite uninformed and bigoted yourself. Many of the people who voted for Trump had voted previously for Obama. If you are going to understand reality, you need to get out of your echo chamber more often or you will be continuously surprised.

    • In a contemporary article “past” should probably read as recent past and surely “horrific” doesn’t imply a comparison or a hierarchy.
      “Old” countries – that had ancient and medieval civilization – have started to shape their particular culture before.
      The history of Human Rights should be carefully studied. Only a little, minor example: United States is considered to have inadequate protection for personal information and the European Data Protection Directive is a more advanced model.
      Anyway what really matters here is that Trump’s problems with Human Rights are clearly more horrific than his issues with “alternative facts”.
      The Guardian these days has titled “US could face human rights crisis after Trump’s xenophobic immigration orders”.

      Finally, hostile, insulting (“you are so ignorant”,”you are actually quite uninformed and bigoted yourself” etc etc) comments reveal the nature of those haters who can’t reasonably and peacefully discuss with others.
      Prof. Strassler is obviously not going to engage his readers in a stupid flame war.

  32. I personally voted twice for Obama and then switched to Trump on pragmatic grounds of need for profound change in this country
    As for “horrific past”, Russia never imported slaves, she “only” conquered neighboring tribes similar to the way Americans conquered Indian tribes.
    And I am sure there exist other countries similar to this. Perhaps, China.
    If, by chance, among us there are some participants with Chinese descent, they can clarify this issue. It’s not that difficult to find out.
    Yours, bob-2

  33. @bob-2,
    A slave is a person who has no say in the matter of their own life, and is controlled utterly by someone else. I am leaving children and imprisoned criminals out of this definition for obvious reasons. Russia enslaved entire countries, so by no stretch of the imagination do they get a pass on slavery, or brutality. My father survived the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and after having him tell me about how the soviets controlled every last facet of life, from what you did, if you were allowed to live, where you lived, if you could go to school, what you could study, what you could read, how big your house was, what you could wear, how much you made, who you were allowed to talk to, I can tell you if being a satellite country of the soviet union wasn’t slavery, nothing is. I have several younger left leaning friends who literally have no idea why anyone would be against Marxism…and then profess they don’t know what the Iron Curtain was, who Stalin, Lenin, or Pol Pot were…bless their liberally educated but historically vacant little minds.

    As to China, She has a very long and illustrious history going back continuously over three thousand years. Over that period, if you can imagine something gruesome, it has happened there. China has never been that big on individual rights, much less rights, much less commoners, and has never claimed otherwise…unless you were the eternal emperor favored by the heavens, a noble…or more recently, a member of the ruling communist party. Chairman Mao killed about forty-nine to seventy-eight million people in four years of his little cultural revolution, which you could fit the entire population of colonial America (under four million people in 1790) into over eleven times….and this is just their recent history. Generally speaking, the older the country, the bloodier the history…and China is very old.

  34. Your physics blogging used to be so very interesting. Has the Great LHC Desert got you depressed? I’d bet money either it or some other experiment will turn up enough unexpected to get interesting.

  35. @ CFT
    I have the same opinion as you on the multiple atrocities you have just described. Don’t have any doubts about it !!!

    But you try to redefine the meaning of a SLAVE.
    In Aristotle’s time a slave was just a THING by Law.

    In Roman Empire it was a property which you could sell / buy by Law.
    Sometimes gladiator slaves got freedom for good performance, though an Emperor always had a final say on this matter.

    In Czarist Russia until 1861 ( when SURFs were freed by Czar’s Manifesto) a SURF ( subject who belonged to a landlord and worked on his land for him) also could be bought/sold, but could not be killed by landlord by Law. And that was an official definition of the difference between a SURF and a SLAVE . When I said that Russia never imported SLAVEs I meant
    the meaning of a SLAVE in the above described definite sense, and not in the meaning of a person oppressed in any other ways, including the ways it happened in your country, which ( ways ) I certainly condemn.

    So when I wrote that Russia never imported SLAVEs, I meant the above explained definition of a SLAVE. I don’t see any contradiction here. And
    those conquered tribes were never treated as SLAVEs in above sense.
    They were treated as SURFs.

    In the United States SLAVEs were liberated after the Civil War
    So history does progress, though we would like to see it happen faster.

    And Russia today is not the Soviet Union you saw in Hungary.

    The major pbm today is that the entire Humanity is in danger of
    nuclear proliferation and possible annihilation.

    As for China, acc to my humble knowledge, she has at least 5000 years
    history. And today is the 1-st day of a Chinese New Year. I looked in my Calendar, but they don’t mention which Year they are now in
    (may be b/c it’s too large a number to mention or they just don’t know it
    like me). I anyway congratulate all participants of this blog with this
    Special Day, if you do not mind.

    Yours, bob-2

  36. @ everybody

    Correction: in my latest message I made an error.
    SURF spelling is wrong, what I meant is SERF.

    Sorry, bob-2

  37. Matt, I wish people like you* would steer clear of political mudslinging. Stick to the physics,

    * See Woit’s blog. It is dire.

  38. >So what’s next? Made-up numbers for inflation, employment, the budget >deficit, tax revenue?

    Err, yes, yes, yes and yes.

    >Invented statistics for the number of people who have health insurance?
    Certainly yes.

    >False information about the readiness of our armed forces and the cost of our self-defense?
    Yes and yes.

    >How far will this go? And how will we know?
    Turkey. (The country. Read everything you can about it. Seriously.)
    You won’t know. Again, see Turkey.