The Delusion of Alternative Facts

How science can guide the search for “actual” truth in our post-truth era

This past weekend marked the swearing-in of Donald Trump as US president, and the moment in which the phrase ‘alternative facts’ joined ‘post-truth’ (the Oxford Dictionary’s most recent word of the year) and ‘fake news’ in our growing lexicon of Orwellian doublespeak. The occasion was the first clash of President Trump with the press, which had a bizarrely petty focus: the size of the crowds at his inauguration on Friday.

President Trump’s first speech at the CIA, on Saturday, attacked reporters and television networks for “lying” about the inauguration crowds and showing “an empty field” at the National Mall. “I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people,” Trump said. Later, press secretary Sean Spicer went on to defend Trump’s statement while chastising the media. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” The proclamation was remarkable for its stark contradiction with verifiable data: birds-eye photographs showing considerably larger crowds at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration in 2009. On Sunday, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway added fuel to the fire by insisting that Spicer had been truthful. “Sean Spicer gave ‘alternative facts,’” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary later weighed in on Twitter, reminding Conway that “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” But, if Donald Trump’s electoral campaign and incipient presidency are any indication, the debate of what constitutes objective versus subjective reality is likely to endure.

We, the authors of this article, are neuroscientists specialized in the study of misperception and illusion. Our research focuses on the perceptual and cognitive errors that we make in everyday life, and on the clever tricks devised by painters and magicians to make us experience something other than what’s there. You could say that we study deception and misdirection for a living, two concepts that have become unexpectedly relevant to the political scene.

We have seen in the lab, over and over, that our senses are not to be trusted: no matter how assured we may feel in our perception of the events around us, we still may be dead wrong. A main part of the problem is that nobody experiences reality directly. Every sight, every sound, every feeling any of us has ever had has been filtered through the biological hardware and software of our brains—information processing machines made from tiny sacks of salt-water and protein. You have never experienced the world directly—only your brain’s simulation of it. This simulation may or may not match reality.

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