|White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer|
The obvious question is: which science studies? There is more than one version of the discipline. Martin Rudwick would not give the same account of the crowd episode as future Bruno Latour, and Lorraine Daston would perhaps not agree on all points with Sheila Jasanoff. For the sake of variety and realism, I will consider the episode through the eyes of three practitioners of science studies: a sociologist of knowledge, an actor network theorist, and a historical epistomologist. Since all of these practitioners define themselves against old-fashioned internalist historians, I start with the internalist's version of events.
We now know*, thanks to data collected surreptitiously by the National Park Service and released at the end of 2017, that around 200,000 people were standing in the National Mall in the middle of Donald Trump's inaugural address on Friday 20 January, 2017. This is considerably smaller than the 460,000-strong crowd who were (as satellite images show) present at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
In the days after the inauguration, several news outlets reported the 2009 figure. Of course, without the National Park Service data, and without satellite images (which were unavailable due to cloud cover), these outlets could only give rough estimates of the size of the Trump crowd. But a few perceptive journalists recognised that the Trump crowd was smaller than the Obama 2009 crowd. They achieved this remarkable feat with a mixture of photo analysis, video analysis, ticket sale figures, and transport figures. These sources may seem primitive compared those we now possess, but with skilled interpretation they gave a remarkably accurate picture of the difference between the two crowds.
The first persuasive comparison appears to have been published on the CNN website by the reporter Betsy Klein. Her most striking evidence was a side-by-side comparison of photos from the two events. Klein made the shrewd observation that, although the time of the Obama photo was not known, the Trump photo was taken in the middle of his speech, when the crowd was at its largest.
Klein was careful to note that there were differences between the two photos (white plastic on the ground in the Trump photo, no plastic in the Obama photo) and between weather conditions on the two days (cold and clear for Obama, warmer and wetter for Trump). Klein pointed out that these differences did not affect her conclusion that the crowd on National Mall for Trump was (in Klein's words) 'significantly smaller' than that for Obama. In any case, the direct evidence of the photo was backed up by the indirect evidence from a public transport authority, which showed that twice as many people rode the Washington subway on the morning of Obama's speech than on the morning of Trump's.
The difference between Klein's sober and careful analysis, and the response from President Trump and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, cannot be overstated. Trump launched a garbled attack on the CNN comparison during a speech at the CIA on the day after the inauguration. Without naming CNN, Trump stated that 'a network' had broadcast images showing 'an empty field.' Against this report, he insisted that he had 'looked out' during his speech and saw a crowd that 'looked like a million, a million and a half people...[that] went all the way back to the Washington Monument.' He went on to launch one of the sinister and ignorant attacks on the free press for which he was already famous at this early stage of his Presidency. 'So we caught them,' he said of the unnamed network. 'We caught them in a beauty. And I think they're going to pay a big price.'
Spicer's comments later on the same day, during a press briefing at the White House, were no less inflammatory. Spicer's performance was neatly summarised in an article published by the Guardian newspaper on its website the day after the press briefing. According to Spicer, Trump drew 'the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.'
Against this claim, the Guardian reporter (Elle Hunt) presented the CNN photo comparison, a time-lapse video showing that the National Mall was never full at any stage on inauguration day, and more detail on transport figures. The transport figures were especially revealing of Spicer's carelessness and (one suspects) dishonesty. Spicer said that 420,000 people took the Washington metro on Trump's inauguration day, compared to 317,000 on Obama's inauguration day. Hunt calmly pointed out that the former figure applied to the entirety of Trump's inauguration day, whereas the latter only applied to the morning of Obama's inauguration.
Moreover, Spicer's figure for Obama applied to his 2013 inauguration, not to the 2009 event, when an impressive 513,000 people used the Washington subway on the morning of the inauguration. In other words, more people took the Washington metro in the morning of the 2009 inauguration than in the course of the whole day in 2017. Purged of Spicer's confusions, the transport figures show the opposite of what he claimed.
The whole episode was a strange mixture of the sordid and the salutary. On the one hand, two of the most important authorativie sources of information about matters concerning the US government (the President and his Press Secretary) made statements before a national audience that were self-serving and demonstrably false. On the other hand, these falsehoods were quickly exposed by alert journalists, whose reports were widely disseminated by major news outlets within hours of the false statements being made. To quote from Hunt's article, the episode was a triumph of 'evidence' over 'angry claims.'
The affair descended into farce on the evening of Sunday 22 January, when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, defended the Press Secretary on the grounds that he gave 'alternative facts' about the size of the crowd. It is a fact that Trump's crowd was smaller than Obama's, she implied. But it is also a fact that Trump's crowd was bigger than Obama's. The CNN has its facts, and the White House has its facts. These facts might contradict each-other, but they are no less facts for that.
Not content to tear up Obama's Affordable Care Act, the new administration apparently intended to repeal the law of non-contradiction as well. Unfortunately for Trump, and fortunately for almost every one else, logical principles cannot be suspended as easily as political ones.
Even Spicer appears to have conceded this. At a press briefing on the following Monday, the Press Secretary backed down from the claim that Trump's crowd was the largest ever for an inaugural address. He also admitted that ridership figures did not support this claim. His attempts to cloud the issue by deflecting the blame onto a Washington transport authority, and by conflating the physical crowd at Trump's inauguration with the TV and internet audience, could not hide the fact that he was beating a sheepish retreat.
Up next: a sociological take on the Trump crowd
*Footnote for science studies insiders:
My thought experiment is set in the future because much work in science studies is done by scholars who look back on past debates that have since been resolved. For example, they look back on the seventeenth-century debate about the speed of light in the knowledge that we have found many proofs of the finiteness of the speed of light since 1700. Realism demands that the crowd-size debate is a past event from the point of view of my imagined science scholars. It must also be a debate that is resolved by 2050.
A problem looms. As I write this, the debate continues, so we do not know for sure what the 2050 consensus will be about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration. We do not even know whether any new evidence will come to light on the matter. As per the internalist's first paragraph, I am going to assume that new evidence does come to light, and that it shows that Trump's crowd was significantly smaller than the one at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
I could have assumed the opposite. But I am writing for scholars in the present, not for scholars in 2050. Scholars in the present - or at least those who read this post - are probably convinced that Trump's crowd was smaller than Obama's. Now, the role of the internalist has usually been to endorse the current consensus on scientific questions, whereas the role of other practitioners of science studies has usually been to remove the 'aura of self-evidence' that surrounds the current consensus. Accordingly, in my thought experiment, the role of the internalist should be to endorse the current consensus (at least among readers of this post) that Trump's crowd was smaller than Obama's. For this to happen, the current consensus in 2050 must be that Trump's crowd was smaller than Obama's.
Some readers might protest that this stacks the decks in favour of the internalist. They might say that my thought experiment is designed to make my internalist look good (because he will look like an Obama supporter) and everyone else in science studies look bad (because they will look like Trump supporters).
The problem with this complaint is that scholars in science studies usually say that their methods are entirely neutral, ie. they do not take sides in scientific debates, either past or present. If that is right, and if I represent the methods of science studies correctly in my thought experiment, no-one in science studies will look like a Trump supporter because no-one in science studies supports (or undermines) any of the subjects of their studies. Expand post.