Fighting back against ‘alternative facts’: Experts share their secrets

Feb 19, 2018

By Dan Ferber

Days after President Donald Trump took office, his spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway coined a term that ricocheted around the world. Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, confronted her about an overinflated White House estimate of the crowd size at the president’s inauguration. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” she shot back. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. [But] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.”

The exchange became fodder for a thousand late-night TV monologues, and it seemed to launch a new era of degraded public discourse, in which falsehoods become “alternative truths,” and unwelcome news for politicians becomes “fake news.” At a lively brainstorming session here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, approximately five dozen researchers, teachers, journalists, students, and science advocates brainstormed ways to push back.

Session leader Mark Bayer, an Arlington, Virginia-based consultant and former longtime aide to Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), opened up with some cold water for the crowd. “Facts were never enough” to make a convincing case to people, he said, “so let’s just get over that.” Even Aristotle, in his classic Rhetoric, writes about the need to persuade the audience that you’re credible (ethos) and appeal to their emotions (pathos), as well as using logical arguments (logos), Bayer said.

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