A Trump staffer recently used the words “alternative fact” when defending her comments on the size of crowds attending the inauguration of the President. Her words triggered a fire storm of discussion! She did not appreciate that she could not minimize a dispute about such a straight forward factual issue by using the qualifier “alternative”.
Perhaps she adopted this word having heard it used in debates over climate change. Identification of physical conditions that evidenced climate change was often challenged by others who wished to raise doubts about the strength of the inference to be drawn from these conditions.
For example: if a reduction in Arctic ice coverage was presented as circumstantial evidence of global warming, sceptics responded by referring to an increase in Antarctic ice coverage, which they claimed could not happen in a period of global warming. This increase was an alternative fact that sustained continued scepticism towards climate change.
“Alternative” is a qualifier that can be used to minimize the exposure of dubious facts easily slipped into a discussion by politicians. Only if these facts were more than inaccurate – if they were downright wrong – would a politician be caught out. For example, the TV interview in which Sarah Palin dismissed climate change as “changes in the weather”.
Yet many savvy politicians don’t worry about “facts”. Their objective is to use words potentially sympathetic to listeners, knowing that such listeners generally do not expect or care for further substantiation.
Accurate facts could be ignored by many when the proponent is identified as a member of an “elite”. A qualified speaker, such as a scientist, would be classified by some listeners as an elitist out of touch with the real world. So listeners could regard references to the risks of climate change as nothing more than special interest pleading.
The ostracization of “elites” is not new. Think of the history of the aristocracy, the clergy, lawyers, business tycoons, Washington politicians . . . and now the press. At one time admired, some of these elites are no longer respected by a majority of citizens. That may happens to others. If so, their views will generally no longer trusted.
We have to be realists: these so-called elites can reasonably project the future of our planet. They cannot be dismissed as “out of touch”.
Go back to the logo at the top of this page which emphasizes that the impacts of climate change will fall most heavily upon our grandchildren. We cannot let politicians ignore recommendations by scientists necessary to avoid serious climate change!