In the Trump administration era of ‘alternative facts,’ what happens to government data?

During the first 24 hours of the Trump administration, the new White House took a clear, firm stand against publicly available information. President Trump spoke twice during that period about the crowd size at his inauguration on Friday, twice claiming — falsely — that the spectators stretched down the Mall to the Washington Monument.

While speaking in front of the CIA’s memorial wall on Saturday, Trump spent much of his time assailing the media for what he called dishonest reporting about the crowd, claiming that “it looked like a million, a million-and-a-half people.” (There were not that many people.) He also railed against journalists, claiming that “they made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence people,” which he portrayed as untrue. (Ten days earlier, Trump compared intelligence agencies to Nazis.)

During the long, dyspeptic presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump regularly made false, easily disproved claims, a trend that has not gone away during the transition or his first days in office. This has also not been limited to the president. After his remarks at the CIA, the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, called a press briefing to deliver a stream of misinformation in a remarkably brief period. (As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler put it, referring to a rating system used to assess accuracy, “Spicer earns Four Pinocchios, but seriously, we wish we could give five.”) Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump and a regular presence on news shows, claimed Sunday morning that Spicer had not delivered falsehoods but had instead offered “alternative facts.”

Spicer continued to press his case on Monday, not backing down from his earlier assertions during his first press briefing where he took questions from reporters. These inaccuracies, though, raised the question about what this means for the young administration going forward as it becomes responsible for disseminating — and, in some cases, analyzing — information collected across the government.

President Trump spoke at the CIA during the weekend. (Olivier Douliery via Bloomberg)

“Will they just make up the facts?” Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview Monday. “It sounds like they’re capable of doing that. [And] when there are facts, will they distort what they mean?”

Berk added: “If there is no truth, why should they listen to you or me versus everybody else?”

False statements, lies and evasions are not unique to any one politician or political operative, nor are they the province solely of those who work in politics. But they take on an unmistakably different tenor when delivered with the imprimatur of the federal government, something that remains true even given the times government agencies and officials have been dishonest with the American people.

The government is responsible for collecting and releasing a host of data on everything from climate change to crime trends. Our reliance on that data was highlighted in a series of tweets over the weekend by J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror.”

The government is a repository for all manner of data, ranging from the comparatively carefree (the Social Security Administration’s list of popular baby names) to the broadly important (the FBI’s annual collection of crime statistics nationwide). It is, as Berger puts it, “the gold standard for basic information.”

“I think people will be surprised just how much government-collected, government-analyzed and government-aggregated data matters,” Berger wrote in an email Monday following up on his tweets.

There is no shortage of topics, large and small, for which the government collects some form of data. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pulls together global temperature data. The National Weather Service reports how many people are struck by lightning. The Justice Department can tell you how many people were in prison in 2015 (1.5 million), while the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows how many llamas there were nationwide in 2012 (76,086).

“Virtually every federal agency collects information,” said Berk, the University of Pennsylvania professor. “That’s part of how they do their job.”

Even cases where the government doesn’t keep data are notable in their absence, like the lack of a federal database tracking how often police officers use deadly force or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s inability to conduct firearms research.

Questions about the Trump administration’s handling of factual information could lead to more of what has already happened in the past when there have been gaps in the government’s data: outside groups, including news organizations, trying their best to find answers.

“[If] we can’t assume good faith and good practices in government data, it’s going to be a lot more work for everyone,” Berger said. “Government data isn’t always reliable or complete, and journalists and academics have filled in the gaps before, but if we have to question and vet everything on a consistent basis, it’s going to command a lot of our resources and make it harder to do new and important research.”

The comments from Trump, Spicer and Conway got the new administration off on a very specific note regarding how it will handle accuracy going forward, Berk said.

“This weekend is a perfect example,” he said. “There are ‘alternative facts?’ If there are alternative facts that anybody can just kind of assert with impunity, what are you supposed to do? … Nothing is safe if there are alternative facts that anybody can pose. Where do you stop?”

Further reading:

Trump wages war against the media as demonstrators protest his presidency

Kellyanne Conway is wrong: Trump’s election doesn’t prove America agrees with his positions

This story has been updated. It briefly identified Berger as a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, but it has been updated to reflect his current affiliation. 

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