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The Alt Fact Trap



In her piece, "Unfactoids" (Jan. 26), Marcy Bustiner has inadvertently fallen right into the "alternative fact" trap. In her attempt to proffer a response to the "alternative facts" of the day, Ms. Bustiner winds up recommending a misguided "see it to believe it" approach to fact verification. Unfortunately, this leaves us right back with the geocentrists of Galileo's 16th century.

A person in a crowd is actually in a horrible position to judge its size: she has no visual perspective and is subject to the emotional pull of how big the crowd "felt." No need for personal assessment when overhead views and photographic evidence exist that can generate unbiased estimates of crowd size. Similarly, one's anecdotal experience with a doctor is no way to evaluate the state of a health care system writ large. It is simply an anecdote; the grand sum of which could become a statistic that, after analysis by an uninvolved party, could become (with appropriate margins of error) what until recently has been known as, a fact. Relying on personal observation to evaluate facts is what leads to headlines and thinking such as "Snow Storm of the Century Means Earth Not Warming," "94-year-old Smoker Proves Smoking Does Not Shorten Life" and "Track of Sun Across the Sky Shows Earth Not in Motion." In fact, personal observation is generally a very poor way to determine reality of larger phenomena.

To encourage each person to create their own reality based on personal life experience will only lead to the chaos the alternative fact crowd is trying to foment. Instead, we need to reaffirm a shared commitment to allowing scientific processes and apolitical statistics to generate facts. This will start with unwavering support and enhancement of an educational system that teaches the difference between personal experience and larger trends, encourages critical thinking and makes the generation of new facts something to be encouraged, not questioned.

Ted Weller, Arcata

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