Real Facts About Alternative Facts

Kellyanne Conway got blasted in the news media three weeks ago for the following interchange with the moderator of Meet The Press, Chuck Todd of NBC:

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What– You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains–

CHUCK TODD: Wait a minute– Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.

At the time, I thought … whaaa? There are often several explanations for a given event. I see this all the time in my writing and research about the climate. These different climate explanations often depend on different datasets of observations of temperature, pressure, rainfall, and the like. I thought that those would be alternative facts. So it seemed to me she was getting a raw deal, although I couldn’t say exactly why.

What I didn’t know until yesterday was that “alternative facts” is actually a legal term. Here’s a document from a case from over a decade ago:

Statements of Truth – Alternative Facts. (Clarke v Marlborough Fine Art (London) Limited and Marlborough International Fine Art Establishment)

May 30, 2003

To what extent can a statement of truth be signed when there are inconsistent sets of facts pleaded? This was the issue addressed in the case of Clarke (Executor of the Will of Francis Bacon) v Marlborough Fine Art (London) Limited and Marlborough International Fine Art Establishment [2002] 1 WLR 1731.

Mr Justice Patten found that, in certain circumstances, inconsistent sets of facts could be pleaded within a claim. Patten J held in relation to Part 22 of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) that those signing particulars of claim could plead the inconsistent facts in the alternative if they did not have personal knowledge of the relevant matter, provided there was plausible evidence to support both alternatives.

And here is a section from a recent book on drafting legal documents dealing exclusively with alternative facts.alternative-facts-i

That discussion of “alternative facts” also gives an interesting distinction of when alternative facts can and cannot be used in law.

Wikipedia has a very clear definition, viz (emphasis mine):

Alternative facts is a term in law to describe inconsistent sets of facts put forth by the same party in a court given that there is plausible evidence to support both alternatives. The term is also used to describe competing facts for the two sides of the case.

In particular, consider the second law-related definition highlighted above, “competing facts for the two sides of the case”. This fits perfectly with my experience in climate science, where each side presents its own facts and theories about why the climate does what it does.

It is also exactly what Kellyanne Conway is describing. Chuck Todd put forward facts supporting one side of the case, and Kellyanne Conway said that there were also facts supporting a different interpretation of the case. She described those facts accurately in a legal sense as being “alternative facts”.

So … is that what Kellyanne Conway actually meant? Or is this simply my own tortured legalistic interpretation? I mean, why would Ms. Conway use some obscure legal term??

Here’s a few alternative facts that might help you make up your mind …

Conway received her Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude in political science from Trinity College, Washington, D.C. (now Trinity Washington University), where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She then earned a Juris Doctor with honors from the George Washington University Law School in 1992. She served as a judicial clerk for Judge Richard A. Levie of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia after graduation.

In other words, she’s a lawyer, and if honors are any judge, a good one. Her only crime was to use a legal term that was not understood by the moderator, Chuck Todd.

Now, please note that on the basis of not understanding what Conway meant, Chuck Todd, a used-to-be-respected journalist, flat-out called her a liar. He didn’t ask her to explain what she meant by “alternative facts”. He didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt.

Instead, Mr. Todd immediately made up his own definition of the words she’d said, and then used that incorrect definition to accuse her of dishonesty. His ridicule was picked up by the rest of the Democratic-media complex and has been used to falsely impugn and discredit Ms. Conway to this day.

People think President Trump is crazy for attacking the fake news media, saying such attacks distract from his message. I think it is an unfortunate necessity. It is essential to point out the highly partisan and liberal-dominated nature of the media. If he did not fight back, the false accusations of people like Chuck Todd would be believed without question.

Finally, no, the President did NOT say that “the media is the enemy of the people”. Nor did he attack the First Amendment. You’ll see those bogus lies repeated over and over by the fake news media … surprising, I know.

What he actually said was that the FAKE NEWS MEDIA is the enemy of the people, and that is sadly true. People like Chuck Todd are making up false claims, working to slander and damage Ms. Conway’s reputation, and distorting the news to further their own political agendas. I’m sorry, but that kind of dezinformatsiya hurts the American people.

Anyhow … that’s the real facts about alternative facts.

My best wishes to each of you, I’m going outside to smell the flowers,


PS—When you comment please QUOTE EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE REFERRING TO so that we can all understand your precise subject.

47 thoughts on “Real Facts About Alternative Facts

    • As someone pointed out earlier… The ‘MSM’ doesn’t do ‘News’ anymore. It does opinion.

      It doesn’t matter much now that a ‘journalist’ should be investigating XYZ they’re too busy promoting their personal agendas to notice a real story. Failure of the media?


      • “Failure of the media?”
        Most of these talking heads make millions of dollars per year. Nearly none are going to resist when the CEO’s tell them to slant facts or make up false attacks. For those amounts of money very little conscience or morality exists.


        • “Nearly none are going to resist when the CEO’s tell them to slant facts or make up false attacks.”

          I doubt that’s necessary.
          Most entertainment political commentators like Todd know their master’s wishes.


  1. I don’t like your reality so I will live in one of my own making where I am always right.
    Sounds like an echo chamber to me!

    James Bull


  2. Oh, but you remember the ridicule that Donald Rumsfeld endured after his ‘known unknowns, unknown unknowns’, his being a perfectly reasonable assessment of various states of knowledge. Now it is almost de rigueur to use the idea.
    Now it is Conway’s ‘alternative facts’.
    Anything to do with the (not so) subtleties of knowledge are a mystery to the those who hold dear the (ever-shifting) certitudes of the liberal left.


  3. Insufficient data. The Conway/Todd quote is too short; Mr. Todd says that four out of five facts were not true. A link to the transcript would be great.

    Media are definitely doing their best to report only negatives on Trump. Not just media; I read about a first-grader who came from school totally scared of Trump, who would deport him and half his friends. I propose to fire that teacher; this is highly unprofessional if not outright criminal.


  4. Thanks for putting a formal context to this phrase, which I thought was made up, like “mis-spoke” (for “I lied…and you caught me”) or “plausible deniability” (for “I lied and will get away with it”).

    In any case, yep, Chuck Todd knew better (I suspect), but John jumped on the phrase because he saw a great opportunity to impugn.

    The Fake News Media — who claim Trump can’t swim when he’s walking on water (metaphor alert) — need a bludgeoning, and they’re getting it. I suspect more in the middle than the Democrats imagine are also “getting it.”

    Two years to go before we get a definitive readout on that, but that depends more on whether Trump can make the changes (directionally if not specifically) that he advocated in the campaign. And, of course, the economy has to continue to do well no matter what else. A huge mountain to climb, but we’ve got the workaholic-in-chief on the case and he’s a bulldog I would not bet against!


  5. Funny. I have a friend that believes firmly in pre-destiny.

    No matter how many times I point out the flaw in that belief … He just doesn’t get it.


  6. Your presentation of alternative facts reminded me of a conversation I had a number of years ago. I was a US representative for our organization to an international congress. There were a group of countries that were pushing a position paper to have our International body condemn Israel. The US, Canada, & Australia were keeping the resolution from going forward.. during this debate I had a chance to talk with a young Palestinian member during some social time. I asked him why the Palestine branches of our organization didn’t accept the Isralie invitation to have the youth groups and volunteers get together for joint activities.. I told him that seemed to be a way to build a bridge to start some discussion on a path forward. After some going back and forth he told me.. you and I have different realities.. That one statement succinctly framed why that relationship would go no further.. I am afraid in this country we are beginning to see a split where we have two groups with different realities.. I sure hope not..


    • No. Reality is such that Israel is a reality. Born for a reason. Those of the Jewish faith must have a homeland to retreat to if they feel themselves to be under threat.

      Don’t get me wrong. Jews are more than welcome where I live but they must have a nuclear armed ‘homeland’ to retreat to if ‘things go wrong’.

      Letting Iran develop nuclear capability for a few billion dollars is just ‘setting up the field’ for a mess. Mushroom clouds on the horizon. Jews will always be welcome here once the Middle East is glass.


      • According to Orthodox Jewry, or at least some of them, Israel is not as yet supposed to exist. And remember one other thing, a religious Jew is not the same as a racial Jew. Most of the immigrants to Israel are not racial Jews, which is why the nation is not yet to exist. God stated His grounds upon the fulfillment of which, Israel would come into being. If and when those grounds are met, Israel will be, but the nation that was formed by the UN – along with a nation for the Palestinians – is not “the will of God,” but the act of nations with their own agenda. IF Israel was to exist at this time, there would be peace in the middle east, not the perpetual wars that have existed ever since 1948. God would guarantee that.


    • Scott Adams, the author of ‘Dilbert’, has been commenting for some time on the fact that left and right in America are living in different realities.
      I suspect that most people who enjoy Willis’s comments would enjoy what Scott has to say as well. Today’s entry ‘the climate science debate illusion’ is topical, but read more of what he has to say before coming to a final conclusion.
      You might find also it interesting that he predicted the Trump Presidency a long time before the election.


  7. Art February 26, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    After some going back and forth he told me.. you and I have different realities.. That one statement succinctly framed why that relationship would go no further.. I am afraid in this country we are beginning to see a split where we have two groups with different realities.. I sure hope not..

    Thanks, Art. I am a great believer in the truth. I work to obtain original documents. I apply what common sense says. I strive to tell every story as clearly and honestly as I can.

    In all of this my hope is to bridge the gap between the two groups, who might be described as Trump supporters and Trump loathers … it’s more than simple hate, it is perfect loathing. He is seen as betraying his caste, education, and class, an unforgivable sin.

    I am in a funny position—I’m an educated ex-hippie, pro-choice (but strongly anti taxpayer-funded abortion), extremely liberal or liberal for most of my life. For example, I voted for Obama the first time. I was also not foolish enough to do it twice … as Keynes said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

    So I have lots of liberal and very liberal friends and relatives, some of whom have disowned me, others who shake their heads. Despite the fact that many of them see me as deplorable, from my perspective these are good folks who regrettably got swept up in media-generated anti-Trump hysteria. Basically, they believe every bad thing the media has ever made up about him.

    As a result, much of what I write is intended to bridge our two different realities. For example, my first post here was “Confessions of a Reluctant Trump Voter“, wherein I explained the reasons I voted for him. (Short version: I didn’t like his public persona but some of his policies were extremely necessary, like ending TPP.)

    I suspect that it will take at least two years, possibly four years or longer, for this maniacal hatred of everything Trump to subside. He’s already accomplished a whole lot in one month … eventually the cumulative effect will bring people around.

    It’s bizarre. Only 40% approve of Trump … but 60% or more approve of his policies.

    What a planet! What a time to be alive!




    • Yup what a planet.. I did read Confessions of a Reluctant Trump Voter.. I related to that post.. although my life journey had me approach my decision from a different perspective..


    • “May you live in interesting times”

      The loathing on the left for anyone who disagrees with them didn’t start with Trump. He’s just an extreme manifestation. It’s been true of every Republican president since Nixon. Now I understand where some of it comes from for Nixon but Regan and the Bushes all were despised by the left. To be honest, I hate Trumps bombast and I don’t think much of either Bush, but this hate is visceral.

      I think some of it, besides Trump’s personality, is due to the left’s fear that Trump might actually get things done. It terrifies them that if he’s successful they will be in the political wilderness for a generation or more and all their socialist programs will be undone and they will be denied what they see as their god given right to feed at the public trough.


      • The “hatred” doesn’t come from the left unless you are considering communist doctrine. And you might even want to consider the source of communist doctrine.


    • Willis relates that:” Only 40% approve of Trump … but 60% or more approve of his policies.”

      I believe that our host relies upon news media reporting of public opinion polls regarding that claim. These would be the same media reporters, and the same polls, that told us that Hillary Clinton would win the Nov. 2016 presidential election.

      What incentive have we to believe the media and the polls, at this point?

      One of the more famous polling institutions reports that the U.S. public’s trust in the media is at an all time low. (for “all time” being taken as the decade or so since they started asking the question) [ ] About 2/3rd the public has “not much” or “none at all” confidence in news / reporting.

      And the news RELAYS this result – knowing that the Gallup people got the election wrong. Why does the media have an incentive to believe they are not trusted? Or, (alternative fact?) if they agree that many in the public have lost confidence in them, why do they want the few who continue to give them credit to be discouraged by news that this is a minority belief? Given that they are already accused of slanting or withholding facts — why are they not downplaying THIS inconvenient data? Why is polling data, proven in the most obvious way possible to be unreliable, still being reported as gospel? Are reporters THAT lazy, in that deep a habitual rut, that they can’t help but report opinion polls regardless?


    • The “public persona” comes from acting “Hollywood,” I suspect, and the comment to Bush was probably straight out of the persona that he was supposed to have. Oddly enough, everyone jumped on that and no matter how many women said he was gracious and kind, would that persona go away – how could it, the media and Clinton played it every day.

      The public persona of Trump was created out of every possible misstatement, or, perhaps I should say, the intentionally misinterpreted meanings of every statement he made and the fact that tweets are short. Some times you can’t say everything you need to say in 120 characters, or whatever the limit is. However, when that is the best way you can get your own words out, I guess you have to take the lumps when what you tried to say isn’t what you wanted to say. And every time he clarified a tweet, well, he was flip flopping. The man won against incredible odds. And if he succeeds, it will be against even more incredible odds since the party that rode his coat tails in many states still refuses to work with him.


  8. Newpaper people used to work their way up. Now we have a combination of people that graduated from journalism schools that are totally ignorant of the subject they are reporting on or retreads from the political realm such as Stephanopolis who are just political hacks with an agenda and no ethics. One economist at George Mason University said that he stopped giving interviews because the reporters really weren’t interested in economics and he didn’t want to waste his time teaching them the basics so they could understand his answers.

    What the newspeople should be concerned with is lying by telling the truth. “I didn’t have sex with that person” for example. It’s “true” if you define “sex” to only mean intercourse. Of course you just let the listener assume the more normal definition of what “sex” means.

    Same thing with Al Gore and his Greenland melting and raising the sea level 20 feet. Just don’t mention how many hundreds or thousands of years that would actually take.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. We can all imagine alternate realities… Like what would it be like now if Gore, McCain, or Hillary got elected (or some others long forgotten)? So don’t feel too bad voting for Obama the first time. What most of us cannot imagine is alternate facts or alternate truths; it goes against our definitions of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’. Yet most of the ‘facts’ we know (or think we know) are not 100%, they have an element of uncertainty hidden in them. Facts are elusive and Logic is hard. The opposite of ‘fact’ is ‘unknown’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “alternate facts” are only a threat if you believe that you know ALL of the facts. If you are open to the idea that you don’t know everything, then having some facts presented to you that you didn’t know isn’t a threat, it’s just more information to base your decisions on.


  10. Prof Hans Rosling asks 3 questions at a huge TED talk and gets some disappointing results. This is part of his ignorance project to try and understand why people all over the world can’t accurately answer these simple questions.
    Perhaps these people like their own alternative facts? Al Gore anyone?
    Just watch the first 6 minutes to see if you can beat the Chimps.
    If you’ve read Dr Goklany’s work over the years you’ve got a head start.


  11. Sorry, but that video has to go back a few mins to the start. But here’s another Rosling video of the world since 1808 and finishing at 2009. Or 200 countries health and wealth development over 200 years or since the start of the Ind Rev. They all started at the lower poor and sick corner and so many have now become healthy and wealthy at upper right.
    Average life expectancy has risen from about 40 in 1808 to 70+ today for so much of the world and wealthy countries are about 80. A baby born today has an average life expectancy of 90+ years of age in the wealthy western countries. I’ve talked about these changes since we started using fossil fuels and some people get very upset with me and some get really hostile.
    They just love their alternative facts about that terrible co2 pollution and will howl anyone down who tries to explain what’s actually occurred over the last 200 years.


  12. Willlis, Lovely piece, pellucid and coruscant in its clarity, and I must say, it’s been a sunth of mondays since I saw a Gentleman study an issue, and set forth such a certain and forceful defense of a damsel (such a damsel!) in distress (under attack, actually).

    You are are a gentleman and a scholar…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “Alternate facts” is possibly not the right phrase – try “alternate valid scenarios”.

    Legal terms which the profession insists are necessary to render exact definition, so often are the cause of extended argument exactly about their definition.


    • Alternate facts are just the kind of thing lawyers, politicians, and climatologists would like. I think it’s an unfortunate choice of words, and now that it has caught on in general usage, facts will never be the same. When a lawyer presents an alternative fact he is presenting evidence and an interpretation, not a fact. The difference is like the difference between proof and beyond a reasonable doubt And the original fact is not necessarily any better than the alternative fact.

      Alternative facts are just a new version of folktale type 1317, with many ancient versions, also known as The Blind Men and the Elephant. You have some evidence but you only know part of what needs to be known. What you don’t know matters.


  14. When the alternative facts= lies agenda started playing with the anti-trumpets, I thought along the same lines as this defence. The whole matter was about the numbers turning up to see the inauguration and unimportant but what were the two sides estimating? Had someone told Trump that record numbers had come to Washington, maybe watching in hotel rooms or riding around on Harley Davidsons, or was it the whoopers on the lawns? The Trump is a liar theme is still played, as is the advert showing gross contributions to the EU instead of net during the Brexit campaign. Most of my family have swallowed the idea that it was a promise and it is a permanent mantra.

    The whole nonsense reminded me of the argument about what an argument is in this Python script.

    As you point out Willis, science is full of alternative facts. Having studied gravitation, GR and particle physics as an amateur for 50 years, I was quite impressed with the programmes on BBC by Prof Brian Cox, the ex-pop star smiley boy presenter. Then last week I heard him explaining that gravity can be explained as the curvature of space, which is true, but he went on to say that the weight we feel is the same as acceleration upwards, which is also true. But he interpreted it as the ground beneath us accelerating upwards because space is coming up. I had understood that light or photons fall with gravity, as does everything, including the theoretical particle transmitting gravitation, the graviton, which also travels at c. We don’t notice light falling because it is going at 186k mph and only accelerating at 30ft/sec/sec. As the particles in our bodies are mainly held together by photons, we feel electromagnetic force very strongly and gravity very weakly. We are supposed to be falling freely and feel no weight, but the solid ball beneath our feet resists with electromagnetic force and we feel acceleration as though in an accelerating spaceship. Which alternative fact is correct?


    • Fact:
      “The glass is half full.”
      “The glass is half empty.”

      Both statements False. Except when in a total vacuum, the glass is always full.

      Alternative Fact:
      The glass is always full even when the glass is inverted.

      “Any questions?”
      What is the glass filled with? Take a few deep breaths and the answer may come to you.


      • Even a vacuum is full of virtual particles, so the glass is not empty even when it seems to be. Sorry to be late with this information.


  15. I like your theory, but I find it less persuasive than my alternative explanation.
    The theory that she meant it in the sense that the law uses the term leaves me thinking that if that were her intention, she would have supported it by laying out those alternatives.
    Instead, it seems to me that this was a simple case of misspeaking, where she meant to say ‘additional’, but instead said ‘alternative’.
    If she’d meant ‘alternative facts’ in the sense of ‘a lie’, then that’s the very last thing she would have said, of course. The media that have treated it as if that were her meaning are reacting to politics as if it were football, and they were one-eyed supporters.

    As I understood it, she was supporting the idea that this was the most-viewed inauguration despite the reduced numbers present, for the reasons Spicer had already given. The additional facts (that they’d added the number present plus the number who watched on television, plus the number who watched on the Internet.)
    So, this is a ‘gotcha’ of a misspeaking that political opponents are trying to misrepresent as an admission of willful lying.

    If she’d meant it in your sense, she would have laid out those alternatives. If she’d meant it in the media’s sense, she’d never have said it at all. So at the moment, I judge my ‘misspeaking’ theory to be the most plausible one.


  16. I don’t like the term “alternative facts” because is implies some measure of relativity to actuality. Your framing it as a set of facts is better. But I understand the legal usage, having sat on a criminal trial jury. The prosecution set out very many facts – time, place, circumstances, and testimony about events around the crime (the crime itself was unwitnessed). The defense offered its own set of facts and speculations about their meaning. Both sides accepted the facts presented in evidence by the other side. The court may consider them “alternatives”, but the minds of the jury members weighed them all together, holding some to be convincing evidence and others to be not so with respect to making the ultimate decision. The arguments for and against guilt were alternatives, but not the facts of the case.


  17. Kip Hansen has a long and in my opinion excellent guest post just now at Climate Etc that extends the legal alternative facts notion into the realm of science, where it also proves useful and uncontroversial. Worth a read.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. There is a confusion of ideas I think.

    It is a fact that water boils at 100C at sea level.

    It could be a fact that one person reports having observed it boiling at 99C with their thermometer and a fact that another reports having observed it boiling at 101C using a different thermometer.

    Both reports are based in fact and are true.

    Neither alters the FACT that the boiling point of water is 100C: there is then no possibility of an ‘alternative’ FACT.

    In legal affairs it is perhaps better to use the word ‘account’ rather than ‘fact’ – differing accounts about the same thing can nevertheless be true statements, as perceptions and observations can differ.

    However to make it easy…

    In the current hysteria ‘alternative fact’ is being use as a euphemism for ‘lie’, just as ‘Fake News ‘ is a euphemism for anything that challenges or refutes the illiberal, Left orthodoxy and is intended as an attack on the integrity and credibility of the challenger.


  19. I note that the Democratic party contains what would be the Greens elsewhere. They tend to get 5-10% on their own, but have most of the Marxists in them. NZ’s Communist Green ex-leader is now running our Greenpeace, for our sins. But many other Dems may respond well in time if your govt does a good job. Or is that wishfull?


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