You know you’re living in strange times when the maker of the world’s most popular dictionary feels compelled to send out a tweet defining the word “fact.”
As National Public Radio reported, there were actually two tweets, one defining “fact” as “a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” and a later one saying that the word “is understood to refer to something with actual existence.”
The people at Merriam-Webster sent out those tweets after seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people looking up the definition of “fact” on the internet—which itself is a sign that we are living in strange times.
It’s as if there had been a sudden uptick in the number of people looking for a definition of “red” or “dog.”
The puzzlement over what should have been a simple word was created, as everyone knows—if it is possible to “know” anything anymore—by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” to describe falsehoods, or, more plainly, lies.
I’m still not sure what to make of the incident. Conway’s remark didn’t seem to be offhand. It was more like a deliberate rebuke to journalists, letting them know that the rulebook has been thrown out and there was nothing they could do about it.
And why not? That approach certainly worked for Conway’s boss, who skipped merrily from outrage to outrage, all the way into the White House. If your entire campaign is built on a contempt for decorum, tradition and intelligence, on a headstrong aversion to facts, why would you change course after winning the election?
It would be a mistake, though, to think that Trump is solely responsible for this state of affairs. It has been building over many years.
We have long been confronted with alternative science in response to the actual science of evolutionary biology. Creationism at least had the virtue of being honestly presented as a theologically based rejection of science.
But it is difficult to change laws, or textbooks, based purely on religious considerations, so the alternative science of intelligent design was cooked up as a way of smuggling theology into the realm of science. It didn’t persuade any real scientists—no more than alternative facts have swayed thinking adults—but it gave some cover to politicians and policymakers who wanted to advance fundamentalist religious ideas while pretending to believe in science.
The funny thing is, intelligent design cannot accept basic astronomy or basic geology any more than it can accept the theory of evolution by natural selection. Publicly, though, proponents of intelligent design talk only about “Darwinism,” apparently because it’s the only branch of science that impinges directly on our dignity as human beings, leaving people more susceptible to unscientific claims.
In much the same way, it used to be unwise to come out as an admirer of Adolf Hitler. It was better to espouse “alternative” explanations of the Holocaust, claiming, say, that Jews were only put in refugee camps for their own protection and died from cholera and other diseases.
In the era of Richard Spencer it might not be necessary to disguise your admiration any more, but it still serves a purpose to deny that Jews were the target of a deliberate attempt at genocide.
Do I even need to mention the heavily bankrolled claims that climate change is a hoax, or that, in the alternative, it is happening but has nothing to do with the activities of the 7 billion of us crawling all over the planet?
Thanks to the internet, the industry of alternative facts has reached previously undreamed-of production levels.
If you’ve got a couple of years, and don’t have a job, you might want to hop on the web and look into the alternative facts regarding the 9/11 attacks. The great mountain of evidence gathered to support the many alternative theories of 9/11 makes the proponents of intelligent design look downright lazy, or unimaginative.
Still, even considering all that history of falsehood, we have entered a new era. It was one thing when alternative facts were being peddled by neo-Nazis, creation-museum keepers and the sort of people now able to “prove,” within a day or two of each new school shooting, that the shooting was a hoax.
It is quite another when the president of the United States and his representatives lie without blinking, then admit they are lying and then coin phrases that mock the very concept of truth.
Anyone still capable of recognizing a lie has no choice but to resist, speak out and stay true to the truth. We don’t have any other alternative.