Alternative reality — or “alternative facts” — used to be the stuff of science fiction. Now it’s the stuff of everyday fiction. Among recent examples of patently false “alternative facts” are 3–5 million illegal votes cast in the presidential election, the size of the inaugural crowd on the Washington Mall, lame excuses for the bankrupt Kansas economy, and the anti-science views of members of the U.S. House Science Committee.
“Alternative facts” weren’t invented in 2016. They’ve been with us for thousands of years — mythical beliefs people formed to explain natural phenomena. Eventually, these “alternative facts” were trumped by the evidence of “true facts.” So, attributing disease to “angry spirits” gave way to viruses, bacteria and other natural causes. And the notion that the sun, moon, stars and planets revolve around the Earth was nixed by Copernicus and by Galileo’s telescope.
Well, apparently not. Check out fixedearth.com and its banner claim: “The Earth is not rotating … nor is it going around the sun.” Preposterous? Sure. But not any more preposterous than the current industry in fabricating “alternative facts.”
One can’t be polite about this. “Alternative facts” are doublespeak for baloney. At best, they are cheap, childish political spin. At worst, they are willful, comforting delusions in a personal fantasyland that undermine truth, reason and the common good.
Real leaders face real facts. They don’t excoriate the press for exposing “alternative fact” whoppers. They don’t have hired sycophants concocting “alternative facts” to soft-pedal pernicious racial and religious prejudice; or deny the hard-won findings of science; or paper over the failure of Laffer, supply-side, voodoo economics; or accuse the EPA, NOAA, the Department of Energy and NASA of being enemies of the state — particularly when these agencies have discovered and applied true facts that have made America freer, healthier, happier and more prosperous than at any time in history.
Perhaps the last remaining sanctuary of true facts is the museum. Surveys indicate that people trust what they see, read, hear and touch in museum galleries more than any other information source, including traditional newspapers, television, textbooks and online media. The monstrous skeleton of the mosasaur, still partly embedded in the 80-million-year-old Kansas chalk, is a true fact. So are the millions of animals and plants that tell us about the diversity of life on Earth and why sustaining it matters for the air we breathe, food we eat and diseases we cure.
Message to the Science Committee: Museums record how upheavals in the environment and climate force massive extinctions, whether caused by nature — no more dinosaurs, mastodons, and sabre-tooth cats, to name only a few — or by us. Museum specimens document our bloody hand in yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s destruction of habitats and species. Already gone are African black rhinos, the Great Auk, Tasmanian tiger, Passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, Stellers sea cow, the Chinese river dolphin and many more. Not long for this world are leopards, tigers the rhinoceroses of Java and Sumatra, and the species of Indian and Sumatran elephants. And we’ll bid goodbye soon to orangutans and gorillas, our kin with whom, along with chimps, we share most of our genes.
Museum paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, and artifacts tell us the true facts of our being, how we are driven to discover and understand and depict and respond to what we experience. They show us how we love and hate, bring joy and suffering, cause death and birth, make war, make peace, worship deities and divas, and how we see color and light and black and white.
The Washington Mall is crammed end to end with true facts, all more important than the size of a crowd. Memorials of wars and presidents. Airplanes and rockets lifting off in air and space. The life of the planet evolving in natural history. Art revealing our world and sensibilities in the National Gallery. Artifacts in three museums relating the triumphs and tragedies of Americans, American Indians and African Americans. There, for all to know, are the histories and “alternative facts” that we should never repeat.
— Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.