‘[A]ll belief is of little value.’ – Nietzsche
‘You can’t let facts get in the way of the truth.’ – Leonard Cohen
The news, and Twitter, have been buzzing lately with the term ‘alternative facts’, thanks to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s rebranding of the lies told by White House spokesperson Sean Spicer. In spite of ample evidence to the contrary, Mr. Spicer insisted that the Trump inauguration had larger crowds than reported by the media, and that it was viewed by more people than any other on television. The substance of the lies, and who uttered them, have been much discussed, and I won’t go into that here. What’s interesting is the notion of ‘alternative facts’, and the suggestion that facts are somehow distinguishable from evidence.
Facts do not depend on evidence, nor are they independent of it; they are evidence. What depends (or is independent from) evidence is opinion. Opinions are expressions of belief, and like beliefs they may have much or little factual, or evidentiary, support. The more facts you have in support of your opinions and beliefs, the more likely they are to be true.
Many people insist that beliefs are different, somehow weightier than mere opinion. Some even insist that even though their particular beliefs are at odds with facts, they are still true. That their truth is somehow deeper and more profound than mere factuality. They subscribe to the view expressed (ironically) by Leonard Cohen above, and would recoil from Nietzsche’s observation that their beliefs hold no value.
You see this sort of thinking not only in political spheres, where disregard for evidence and truthfulness is conventional, but to a disturbing degree in everyday life. Just this week, a woman in Alberta was convicted of negligence causing death because she refused to take her seven-year-old son to see a doctor, and instead treated him with ‘natural’ remedies, in spite of the urging of a friend, because she didn’t believe in science-based medicine. What she assumed was a flu turned out to be meningitis accompanied by a strep infection, against which dandelion tea and oil of oregano proved inadequate, and her son died. This is not an isolated instance. There are at least two other examples just in Alberta.
‘Alternative’ medicine depends for its continued existence the idea of alternative facts, on disregarding evidence in favour of unsubstantiated belief. Other examples include the anti-vaxxer movement, the Flat Earth movement, and many similar conspiracy theories that have become popular, in many cases wildly so as a result of social media.
It used to be fashionable in some academic circles – and maybe it still is – to say that there are no such things as ‘truth’ or ‘facts’, only competing claims, different perspectives, alternative interpretations. Everything, in this worldview, is merely belief. And as such, nothing has value – or at least, no more value than anything else. (Except, they don’t really believe that last part.)
To use the example Robert Bolt uses in his play A Man for All Seasons, the shape of the earth is something that can be reasonably questioned. (It is also something that can be answered, but we’ll leave that for a moment.) Some say it is round, some say it is flat. But once evidence determines it is one or another (it’s round, by the way, in case you were wondering), believing the opposite won’t change that fact. It will simply make the believer absurd.
I won’t go quite as far as Nietzsche and say that all belief is without value. Belief in your ability to do something, provided there is no evidence to the contrary, can be a valuable thing. But once a belief or opinion has been disproven, continuing to hold it as if it has value is absurd. Like claiming a lie is just an alternative fact.