The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, there are ‘alternative facts.’ That’s different from falsehoods.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, prepares to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning from the north lawn at the White House on Jan. 22. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Nervous laughter broke out in my classroom last week when I announced that we would be discussing alternative facts about poverty. My students knew I was alluding to Kellyanne Conway’s claim that the Trump administration’s estimates of the inaugural crowd size were “alternative facts.”

Although the claim was discredited and mocked, here’s the difficulty: There are indeed such things as alternative facts. What matters in a democratic society is the ability to distinguish alternative facts from falsehoods.

Let me explain.

Facts (like government statistics) are socially constructed.

That doesn’t mean that reality doesn’t exist; it means we use social processes to observe reality and create facts to describe it. That’s plain if we look at government statistics. Consider two familiar examples, the unemployment rate and the poverty rate.

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President Trump has made critical comments about the unemployment rate, saying it underestimates how many people who want to work actually are out of work, and that it overstates the recovery. Although at times Trump’s rhetoric was excessive, he has a point. “To be classified as unemployed, a person must be without work, be available for work, and have actively searched for work,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In practice, that means that people who have given up looking for work don’t show up in the unemployment rate. Neither do people working part time who would prefer to work full time.

There are many such limitations to the unemployment statistic, as labor economists know. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly compiles and reports six measures of “labor underutilization.” The unemployment rate is only one of them, but it’s the one most widely reported.

Or consider the official poverty measure. The official poverty measure compares family income to three times the cost of food for a thrifty diet in 1963. By the census definition, family income doesn’t include cash that low-income workers may receive from refundable tax credits; nor does it account for noncash government benefits such as food stamps.

The list of limitations goes on. For years, the Census Bureau has been developing an alternative measure of poverty (the Supplemental Poverty Measure) that tries to overcome these and other defects.

These alternative measures, in essence, provide alternative facts that can change how we think about the world we inhabit. For example, when the Supplemental Poverty Measure is compared to the official poverty measure, it indicates that more elderly people and fewer children are poor. Those are alternative facts.

The gap between the abstract concepts we use to discuss policy and the concrete indicators we use to construct facts implies that claims about alternative facts cannot be hastily dismissed. And if there are alternative facts, reasonable people can disagree. Presidential spokesman Sean Spicer has observed: “Sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

So what is the difference between reasonable people disagreeing about facts and people spreading falsehoods?

Consider two examples of public discourse:

  • Presidential spokesperson 1: “Recent reports indicating the unemployment rate is down are very misleading. The unemployment rate masks the extent to which people are out of work and exaggerates how fully the economy has recovered. The real rate is closer to 40 percent.”
  • Presidential spokesperson 2: “Although we welcome news that the unemployment rate is down, the administration is aware of the limitations of this statistic. To understand economic conditions more fully we are also monitoring alternative statistics that take a broader view of labor force participation and indicate that labor underutilization is a more significant problem than the unemployment rate suggests.”

In the two examples above, spokesperson 1 should be asked to explain the claimed 40 percent rate. If he or she does not or cannot do so, that claim should not be taken seriously.

Spokesperson 2 should also be asked to explain. The answer would be that the claim can be explained by noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics website contains the three measures of labor underutilization that are broader than the official unemployment rate.

Serious people who enter the public square armed with alternative facts will welcome the opportunity to explain themselves. Those who can’t or won’t are charlatans, falsely presenting speculation, wishful thinking, or baseless assertions as alternative facts.

Charlatans should be judged harshly for the damage they do to our democracy.

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Robert P. Stoker is professor of political science at George Washington University.