Doctor SpinMedia & PsychologyMedia Issues & Public AffairsAlternative Facts and the Science Behind What People Believe

Alternative Facts and the Science Behind What People Believe

Why is it so dangerous with ‘alternative facts’?

The term’ alternative facts’ was coined by US President Donald Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway. She was trying to explain why a lie wasn’t a lie when told by the administration.

It’s a dangerous turn of phrase bordering on fascism.

George Orwell described a new language favoured by the minions of the totalitarian powers as Newspeak in 1984. And we’re already discussing ‘fake news’ as something real and tangible.

The US presidency under Donald Trump sure has made its mark in more than one way:

“If you use history and philosophy as a guide, it’s easy to see parallels between Trump’s words and those of the most reviled fascists in history. That scares me, and it should scare you too,” says Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University.

It’s dangerous because it works

People tend to believe in whatever version of a story benefits themselves the most—or the version that’s coherent with their current view of the world (they are often the same).

Facts don’t change people’s minds.

Perception Quote - Anais Nin
We’re all biased.

Oxford Dictionaries even named ‘post-truth’ Word of the Year in 2016, so there’s that.

‘Alternative facts’ aren’t dangerous because they aren’t true. They are dangerous because they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How can ‘alternative facts’ work?

Cognitive biases

Studies have shown that people tend to absorb facts that support their view of the world while at the same time disregarding or dismissing facts that threaten their held beliefs.

This is what’s known as cognitive dissonance.

“We cannot fully understand the acts of other people until we know what they think they know, then to do justice we have to appraise not only the information which has been at their disposal, but the minds through which they have filtered it.”
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

Walter Lippmann - Perception of Reality
Walter Lippmann on our perceptions of reality.

Studies have also shown that people will be more “successful” when seeking out information and perspectives supporting their already held beliefs.

People with strong opinions on a specific issue also tend to believe that the media is biased towards their opposition.

This hostile media effect will be even more substantial if the individual believes that the stupid majority out there are particularly susceptible to erroneous or misleading media coverage.

Interestingly, individuals with opposite beliefs will often think that the same article favours their opposition.

The mediium is the message

Media logic isn’t a single theory but rather a concept with several science-backed ideas on how the contents of the media are affected by external and internal factors.

Professor Marshall McLuhan went so far as to conclude that “the media is the message”—meaning that any medium’s inherent media logic is affecting us more than any single message ever could.

Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980).

One such problem is how news organizations, in an attempt to report the news in a balanced way while at the same time highlighting conflict, offer airtime and editorial space to both sides of the spectrum.

Napoleon, the Sun-God

Studies have shown that we are susceptible to information presented in fragments that seem to support one specific position while at the same time leaving out contradictory evidence.

This is often referred to as cherry-picking.

The French author Rupert Furneaux demonstrated how to cast doubt on the existence of Napoleon Buonaparte, one of the most famous characters in history:

“1. The name Napoleon is just a variation of Apoleon or Apollo, and as God of the Sun, he was named Buonaparte, which means “the good part of the day” (when the sun shines).

2. Just as Apollo was born on the Mediterranean island Delos, Napoleon was born on the Mediterranean island Corsica.

3. Napoleon’s mother Letitia can be identified as Leto, Apollo’s mother. Both names mean joy and happiness, signalling the sun keeping the night at bay.

4. Letitia had three daughters—as did Leto, Apollo’s mother.

5. Napoleon’s four brothers represent the four seasons. Three brothers became kings, except for one brother who became Prince of Canino (derived from ‘cani,’ white, winter, ageing).

6. Napoleon was driven out of France by Northern armies, as Appolo, the Sun God, was driven away by the North Wind.

7. Napoleon had two wives, as did Apollo. They represent the Earth and the Moon. Apollo never had any children with the Moon, but the Earth gave him a son, representing the fertilization of all green plants on Earth. Napoleon’s son was allegedly born on the 21st of March, the equinox in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun (the Summer Solstice).

8. Apollo saved Greece from the dragon Python, and Napoleon saved France from the horrors of revolution (derived from ‘revolvo,’ something that crawls).

9. Napoleon’s twelve generals are symbols for the twelve creatures of the zodiac, and his four generals represent North, West, South, and East.

10. Napoleon, the Sun Myth, always conquered in the South but was always defeated by the cold winds of the North. Like the Sun, Napoleon rose in the East—he was born on Corsica) — and dawned in the West — he died on St. Helena.”

Now, please don’t get any tin-foil-hat ideas; Napoleon Buonaparte is one of the most documented figures in history; there are numerous accounts of him throughout Europe.

With all of these potential fallacies and biases, how should we think instead?


In 1907, the horse industry was booming in the United States. Most experts would reasonably believe that horses were a growth business at this time.

But with the disruptive introduction of the car by Henry Ford in 1908, it wasn’t.

The assumption that the demand for horses would increase was not a correct analysis based on the facts. The accurate analysis was that the need for personal transportation would continue to grow.

Few human beings are capable of this kind of sophisticated extrapolation.

Why is this kind of thinking so difficult?

First principles

I think it’s safe to assume that Elon Musk, one of the boldest entrepreneurs around, had he been a young man in 1907, would have invested in horses.

How does Elon Musk think? He has explained his use of first principles in an interview with podcaster Kevin Rose:

Elon Musk: “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing—slight iterations on a theme.

‘First principles’ is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?”… and then reason up from there. Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be. Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”

With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?” It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?” It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour.

So, clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Don’t buy ‘alternative facts’

In poker, there’s a fitting saying to paraphrase:

If you can’t spot the sucker in a media story, you are the sucker.

When push comes to shove, it’s always up to each individual to apply critical thinking. There are different versions, different perspectives, different explanatory models, different frameworks, different philosophies.

Most of what you hear authority figures say in the media are just their opinions. It doesn’t matter if the view belongs to an expert—it’s still just an opinion.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Correlation (A happens, and B happens) is not the same as causality (A makes B happen).

Either something’s a fact—or it isn’t. 
But facts are just facts.

There will never be such a thing as ‘alternative facts’.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Buy PR Merch

Grab a free subscription before you go.

Get notified of new blog posts & new PR courses

🔒 Please read my integrity- and cookie policy.

Social media companies like Google and Facebook are powerful, but that doesn't make them evil. Paradoxically, they're too good for us to handle.
Most popular