The validity of alternative facts in science


I’ve been intrigued by the recent interest in “alternative facts.” For there to be a set of alternative facts, there must be another set of facts from which it is altered. The interesting question is who gets to say which of the two facts is the alternative set and which is the alternative set. No, you read that right. When there are two sets of facts, they are both alternative. 

Alternative facts have been the bane of my existence. It seems like whenever everything is finally clear, I get more information. Further information always makes me question my first decision, so I set off to get even more information. More facts usually confuse me more. It’s a wonder I ever published a scientific paper at all. 

I think the only decision I ever made, where I didn’t think I needed more information, was when I married my wife. I decided to marry her right after she first smiled at me. On the other hand, she hadn’t heard about alternative boyfriends yet, so she was easily duped.

In recent discussions, it is assumed that the first people to report a fact have the “real” fact and that others have the alternative facts. However, being first to present facts does not always make first facts true. Quite often, further information sheds new light on a subject, and later facts prove more true.

I think the problem is that people confuse the word “fact” with “true.” I sometimes have that problem in writing this column. Some of the stuff I say is true, although it may not be totally factual. The fact is that the earth is not perfectly round. The earth is an oblate spheroid—a sphere that is squashed at its poles and swollen at the equator. Or maybe that’s a fact, but it’s not true. It gets confusing. 

Surprisingly, there are almost always two sets of facts. I once had a polite disagreement with a colleague about how badly infected one of our sheep was. I ran some tests and thought the infection was high. His tests suggested it was just normal. We never did determine what we were doing differently to achieve different results. However, both sets of results were facts. Shortly thereafter, the sheep died. That made his data the alternate fact. 

Alternative facts are valid components of science. If two different people do similar experiments, they almost always get slightly different results. Both sets of results, usually quantified in the form of some number, are facts. The truth is, it doesn’t even need to be two different people. The same person, repeating an experiment, will often get dissimilar results. Yet each result is a fact.

The challenge comes in deciding such things as whether the differences are significant or not. If the difference is significant, why? Is there a way to reconcile the two sets of data? Can we do further tests to shed light on a more reliable outcome? This is the way science advances. 

However, in our modern culture, we are generally not interested in reconciliation, understanding or truth. Gathering further information, replicating data, and attempting different analyses are not standard operating procedures in politics and news. 

I see that scientists are now clamoring to hold a march to insist on political recognition and influence. The problem with this is, when one introduces science into politics, one gets political science. Then you can’t believe anything anyone says. I think scientists should be careful what we wish for. Science has already caused a lot of problems. Making it politically too-influential could be a disaster. It is safe to say that most of my colleagues disagree. Money is at stake. 

Well, I guess this column is the alternative set of facts to the alternative set of facts since it is arriving after the alternative set of facts to the first set of alternative facts. I think that makes this true. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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