The Problem With Our Problem With Alternative Facts

by Sophie Wang
An image of a bisected human, showing an acupuncture map on one side and a muscle map on the other side.

An image of a bisected human, showing an acupuncture map on one side and a muscle map on the other side. Artwork by Art Li.

Can alternative facts be…good?

March 23, 2017


Back in January, I had two very different reactions in very quick succession when the whole “alternative facts” thing happened.

My first thought was, “Hahahahahahahahaha, how stupid, there’s no such thing as alternative facts. Republicans are dumb and manipulative.”

My second thought was, “Wait, but Sophie – YOU totally believe in alternative facts.”

And then my second point five thought was, “But that’s totally different! Believing in the value of non-western alternative ways of characterizing the world is totally different than believing in Trumpian alternative ways of characterizing the world.  Right?”

Right.

…Right?

So then I struggled for a whole month to figure out how to articulate what that difference was. If I remove the fact that I hate Trump’s policies, what’s the difference between these two kinds of “alternative facts?”

And why is it so important that we not lump them under one umbrella and that we not throw the alternative-epistemologies-and-marginalized-sciences baby out with the trump-administration-alternative-facts bathwater? 

Here’s how I ended up characterizing the differences between the two.

Trump Administration: Intention to Break the Rules in Pursuit of A Better Narrative For Themselves, Fuck That

As much as folks in social justice spaces like to talk about impact over intent, here, intent really does matter. (And power, of course. But power always matters.)

The “alternative truths” coming from the Trump administration are a) coming from a position of power, and b) created to intentionally mislead and manipulate the truth. They either distort the truth (lying about the inauguration numbers) or make things up out of whole cloth (the fake “Bowling Green Massacre”), and then often use the excuse of being misinformed by someone else to cover their asses whenever someone points out, hey, that’s not true. This essentially gives them the unfettered power to lie to the public, with the power vested in them as the executive branch.

Sometimes, they aren’t even truly lying – they’re not contradicting a truth they know to be accurate, they’re just (probably intentionally) not fact checking before sharing. Which would already be bad. But it’s actually even worse, because check out this tweet by Spicer that says “A reminder of the media danger of tweet first check facts later.”  Hm………..

Essentially, the administration is aware of a certain framework of truth, claims to uphold it, but in reality does not.

(And also of course their intention with these lies/untruths/whatevers is to normalize an administration whose intent is to take away the rights and livelihoods of marginalized people.)

Alternate Epistemologies: Intention to Just Explain Life From Our Marginalized Point of View And Live Our Lives, Damn It

On the other hand, the idea of contradictory truths in science theory is born out of the knowledge and practices and histories from various cultures, regions, and peoples. One culture’s local beliefs may seem absurd to Westerners or to people trained in Western epistemologies (theories of knowledge), but has actually been an effective way for folks to understand their local environment, deal with health/wellness/death, create a sustainable society, etc. (I write more about this in my comic on strong objectivity, which you can check out here).

While a Hmong belief that epileptic seizures are a sign of spiritual giftedness may seem “wrong” or “inaccurate” to secular Westerners, that belief comes from a deep epistemology that just happens to be in contradiction with how the secular West sees the world. It comes from its own rich history (just like Western science does) and helps people in that community deal with health/wellness/death. Same goes for something like acupuncture – something can have immense effectiveness and/or cultural value regardless of its ability to be explained through Western science. Now, just like Western medicine isn’t perfect, non-Western medicines aren’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value, especially in specific contexts and for specific communities. Universality is overrated.

Unlike the Trump administration’s lies, these alternate epistemological frameworks of “truth” and “belief” are consistent within themselves, and also hold no intent to infringe on the rights of others. These communities don’t create alternative sciences to manipulate or oppress others – on the contrary, many of them are considered “alternative” to begin with because their communities have been victims of oppression.

Conclusion: Trump “Alternative Facts” Are Shitty, But Not All “Alternative Facts” Are Shitty.

Right now is a super important time to get involved politically and to push back against all the terribly fascist and oppressive policies of the 45th administration. Do you think Trump’s administration’s use and defense of their “alternative facts” is laughable? Do you think intentional lies and manipulation with the aim of more control and more power is terrible? Great, I do too.

But keep in mind that it’s dangerous to think that the alternative to “alternative facts” is a world where we think that only one truth should exist. After all, the diversity of types of scientific thought (including western and non-western) is what makes our exploration of our world and ourselves so rich.

Ultimately, a world where there is only one truth – and where that truth comes from a position of power – sounds a lot like the end goal of the very regime we’re fighting against.

Final note: For a beautifully nuanced take on the difference between “alternative facts” and feminist standpoint theory, check out this article by University of Sussex Professor Dr. Natalia Cecire, which I found after writing this piece and left me feeling like I should just gently dig a grave and bury my own piece because hers does such an incredible job of explaining exactly the points I wanted to touch on. Read it!


 

 

Sophie Wang is a capricious comic artist, chronic garlic craver, and believer in a better science. You can contact her by sending shiba inu photos to @wangshuf.