Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Conway, "Alternative Facts," and "The Reality-Based Community"

   I've been meaning to offer a defense of Kellyanne Conway's assertion about "alternative facts," but I'm not all that eager to do it, so I've been putting it off. Then I read someone making an effort to make the point, so I'll do it too: there's a decent chance that Conway meant something like "alternative evidence" not "alternative facts." Or if she did mean "alternative facts," she almost certainly didn't mean that the Trump team lives in one world and everyone else lives in a different one. More charitable is something like: you think that a, b, and c are the facts; we think that x, y and z are the facts
   Now, Conway and the Trump folks are still full of shit. They're lying or they're being wildly epistemically irresponsible, or they're delusional. But it's unlikely that they're offering up an alternative metaphysics in order to defend their claim about the size of the crowd at inauguration. (Though, for the record: one way people end up with dumb philosophical views is that they do grab whichever philosophical view sounds like it might be handy for defending some much more particular view they want to defend. This ad hoc philosophizing commonly leads to disaster at the theoretical level...but most people don't care about that. If, e.g., accepting cultural moral relativism is a handy way to defuse criticism of, say, female genital mutilation...then by God lots of people are all too happy to become cultural moral relativists...)
   This all reminds me of a dust-up of yore, when (allegedly) Rove was quoted like so:
The aide (Rove?) said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
   We all had a good laugh and felt superior, and not without some justification... It's a dumb way to put things and it's confused almost no matter how you read it. But, as I've noted before, there's an obvious and more charitable interpretation of what Rove is saying. He seems to be fumbling to say something like:
You all want to sit around and think about things forever like the eggheads you are. And you think that solutions and change will emerge from that...in the fullness of time. We think that it's a time for action. While you're still arguing about how many angels can dance on the edge of the UN Charter, we're changing the world, for the better.
Anyway, he probably didn't mean to commit himself to screwy metaphysics. Though, given the Bush administration's seeming disdain for facts, I'm inclined to think that they don't deserve the benefit of the doubt, ridicule-wise. They weren't relativists, but they were radically epistemically irresponsible. 
   So it's basically the same deal with Trump, Conway, and company, I think. They're liars and epistemic cheats, and they deserve to be ridiculed for that. She said something that would be relativistic if she meant it exactly...but she didn't mean it exactly. She meant a different dumb thing. So they deserve ridicule...but probably not for holding a crazy metaphysics. 
   In fact, for the record, it's the far left (and, increasingly, sadly, the not-so-far left) that tends to hold that kind of crazy philosophical view. The right is more likely to just refuse to accept the evidence, or to muddy the waters, or to be selectively skeptical. Those are all bad things, but they're different bad things. They're rather more ground-level, rather less philosophically/theoretically bad things. The right is, in this respect, simple. It's more likely to just be straight-up dogmatic. It's the left that tends to slip into relativism when convenient, arguing (ad hoc) that thinking so makes it so, that we live in different worlds, that even the most horrific acts can somehow become right...if enough people do them. And so on. It remains to be seen whether that form of madness will ultimately cause more real harm than the simper kind preferred by the right...but I rather doubt that it will. At the theoretical level, however, relativism is worse. And if people did actually believe it, it would be disastrous, a kind of insanity. But people don't really believe it. They just trot it out as a rhetorical tactic to win debates. And: as a psychological mantra that helps defuse cognitive dissonance. 
   Anyway, I think I've done more than my share of defending Trump from unfair attacks. I've done my duty. And I don't have all that much sympathy for the devil. So don't expect a ton more of it. 
   Anyway, my $0.02, FWIW.


Blogger Pete Mack said...

She doubled down on it during the interview. I reckon a lawyer probably knows the definition of facts.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Did she? I'll have to watch that again. Should have done so before writing.

She's a lawyer???

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a euphemism used by people in customer service whose costumers lie to them but can't be called on it. Weirdly enough, I ran right into the term the day before Conway's use, during a call with an insurance adjuster. We were discussing a basic I-said-they-said parking lot tap. After I finished saying what (really) happened, the adjuster said: "Well, we have inconsistent facts." That remark really strummed my harp of course, and I said, rather angrily, "No, we have inconsistent statements! Facts are always consistent." The adjuster was clearly taken aback. She was clearly used to having that formulation smoothing things over, being able to state that there is an inconsistency without having a liar blow up, as they always do, with "Are you calling me a liar?!" She then said, clearly trying to conciliate, "Sir, when your insurance company contacts us, we will present our facts, your insurance company will present your alternative facts, and then we'll divide the payment." I already felt bad for snapping over it, so I just let it go.

So there you go. "Alternative fact" is just what a fearful customer service rep calls a lie when the liar who pays the bills is present. Conway is a service provider, first and foremost, and the liar who pays her bills watches TV constantly.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ha ha...a little philosophy always makes things better.

I like the "fearful service rep" hypothesis...but damn, Conway seems to really believe what she's saying... Maybe she's just a really *good* customer service rep...

3:21 PM  

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