An alternative view of alternative facts
A view from Andy Nairn

An alternative view of alternative facts

Most problems in the real world stem from technically true data that is simply misleading if viewed in a certain way.

"Alternative facts" have been in the news a lot recently and, with the General Election on the way, we can expect to hear even more about them in the coming weeks.

The phrase was coined by Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway to explain how the new team’s estimates of the presidential inauguration crowds were so much higher than everybody else’s. As such, the term has been widely ridiculed as a classic example of Orwellian doublethink.

The Wikipedia report of the incident even claims that sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four rose by 9,500% in the aftermath (although, ironically, this statistic may well be a classic example of the phrase in question).

Either way, most of us have probably found ourselves scoffing at the expression and agreeing with NBC’s Chuck Todd that "alternative facts are not facts – they are falsehoods". Except that statement’s not quite true either, is it? (Sorry if this is all getting a bit meta.)

Clearly, where facts are simply made up (as with the Capitol Hill attendance stats), they should be disregarded, lampooned and even condemned. But, in most areas of life (including our own industry), there is typically a range of data to choose from, containing statistics that are all essentially truthful and accurate – but which possibly point in diametrically opposed directions.

In such cases, it is indeed our job to compare and contrast "alternative facts" and come to a considered point of view. Good marketers get this intuitively. From their earliest days in the business, they learn to compare sales and share; pull apart volume and value; contrast penetration and frequency.

In most areas of life (including our own industry), there is typically a range of data to choose from, containing statistics that are all essentially truthful and accurate – but which possibly point in diametrically opposed directions.

With time, they learn to use different expressions of profitability, efficiency or lifetime value. Nowadays, they are much more alert to the crazy variability of online metrics too. They are able to recognise alternative depictions of reality and know that they shouldn’t take anything at face value.

Actually, those with a passing understanding of behavioural economics will know that even the very same data can be communicated in wildly different ways. For instance, presenting figures in terms of losses rather than gains tends to give them a more persuasive effect.

Likewise, risks are typically more easily understood when expressed as natural frequencies (X out of 1,000) rather than as percentages. And highlighting levels of social compliance ("90% of people do this") is usually more compelling than focusing on misbehaviour ("10% don’t do this").

So alternative facts aren’t necessarily "falsehoods". And I’d argue that ridiculing the term might, perversely, cause more harm than good. You see, the kind of blatant lies that trip off Trump’s tongue are actually relatively easy to spot. But most problems in the real world stem from technically true data that is simply misleading if viewed in a certain way.

So there might actually be some value in treating all facts as alternatives, rather than elevating some to a pedestal where they might not be questioned.

This is particularly true for organisations that are wedded to a single metric: companies that treat shareholder value as gospel (despite a wealth of evidence that it can lead to poor decision-making); teams who boil everything down to an ad awareness index (without anybody really understanding what it means); businesses that use ROI as the ultimate effectiveness ratio (when, actually, it’s a measure of efficiency).

In these cultures, certain statistics acquire totemic status, but that doesn’t make them unassailable. Just to reiterate, I’m not siding with the kind of nutters who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that various historical atrocities didn’t happen and that climate change doesn’t exist.

Those guys are easy to call out. I’m arguing for more scrutiny of all data. Even when the numbers are spat out by complex models. Especially when they’re presented as incontrovertible.

All facts are alternative. We need to use our judgment more, not less. Interpretation is everything – whether you’re choosing a leader or plotting a marketing strategy.

And that’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Andy Nairn is the founding partner of Lucky Generals.
@andynairn