What Are Facts Anyway?

Joel B. Stronberg
6 min readOct 28, 2022

Joe Friday, the archetypal police detective made famous in the 1950 police procedural Dragnet, will forever be remembered by the catchphrase — just the facts, ma’am. It’s an easy enough proposition — or so it seems.

In the world of politics, the request for the facts is as often a prelude to prevarication as it is an entrée to enlightenment. What are facts, anyway?

If many of the day’s politicians are to be believed, facts are anything they say they are — truth need not apply. Facts have been very much in the news since another catchphrase was coined. The moneyer this time was Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. She gave every politician the gift that keeps on giving — the infamous and capacious term alternative fact. It’s not as if politicians haven’t played fast and loose with the truth since…well, since politicians started moving their lips.

Yet, somehow, Kellyanne’s euphemism for the word(s) lie [and truth] jolted the often-jaded community of Capitol City journalists in a way few other phrases have. Is the utter absurdity of the term the reason it’s been mocked so mercilessly?

Perhaps it’s how former President Trump has wielded his saber of lies against politicians of every ilk and even the very foundation of the Republic for which we all stand. Maybe it’s the Mouth of Manhattan’s forcing presumably sane, sensible, and ethical people wanting his praise to swallow their dignity and vouchsafe the truth of so easily a disprovable alternative fact as his winning the 2020 presidential election.

Like many media outlets, the Washington Post (WaPo) routinely checks the truth of statements made by politicians, patricians, and partisans and com-pares them to verifiable facts. In some cases, the truth is found in peer-reviewed scientific studies; in other instances, the paper pulls the record, e.g., a court transcript. WaPo’s award-winning Fact Checker then awards Pinocchios on a sliding scale of 0 to 4, with 4 being the domain of the blackest lies of all.

Hands down, the holder of the most Woodies — short for the wooden boy awards — is former president Trump. However, the ex-president is hardly the only one spouting alternative facts when referring to previous elections they’ve won or lost.

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Joel B. Stronberg

Stronberg is a thought leader in the climate community with over 40 years of experience covering environmental and sustainability issues as a freelancer.