Parallax describes the phenomenon by which the perceived position of an object differs depending on the perspective of the viewer. Mostly it crops up when discussing astronomy, because the principle assists scientists in determining the position or course of distant extra-terrestrial objects. Lately, however, it could as well be an analogy for our political system.
This last weekend, when Kellyanne Conway endorsed “alternative facts,” she was defending a sort of parallax. In the face of photographic evidence, she was insisting that truth depended on the viewer’s perspective. Under different circumstances there’s actually a reasonable argument to be made there, at least insofar as people’s opinions on ethics, mores, and broader policy judgements are attached to the unknowable minutiae of lived experiences which form individual worldviews.
It is true, for example, that police disproportionately victimize minority populations, just as it is true that police do their best at a difficult job without any particular malice. That both can be true reflects the nature of truth: it is interpretive. Regarding the debate about police in American society, there are facts enough to support many different opinions, and the view that any individual hews too will depend upon which facts they value. If two opposing sides attempt to debate each other without first recognizing the perspective that makes those two statements true to the other, then they won’t get very far at all.
However, when it comes to one’s perception of complex issues, acknowledging that individual experience can act as a hand on the scale of truthfulness does not amount to surrendering the possibility of objective fact. It’s just that there are very few important issues which can be decided by fact alone, since facts are not arranged by nature to suit our analytical needs. They don’t spring from nothing ready for use.
Rather, those facts that we apply to most important discussions are those which we searched for. They are those which were discovered with purpose in mind, even if they do not always conform to the assumptions which motivated the search. It is, after all, impossible to discover or catalogue every fact that ever was, so it is necessary instead to prioritize depending on individual interest. Overtime every individual will compile a core of facts that they think are more important than others, and they will use those facts as the referent by which they most often make decisions. Invariably that same core of facts will also be different by degrees, whether large or small, from every other similarly compiled grouping, and it is that difference which accounts for the diversity of individual worldviews.
In turn, the thing which keeps all these different, personal compilations of facts from spinning into mutually incomprehensible chaos is the ill-defined concept of reasonability. Underlying it is the idea that are some facts which are so apparent, and so widely accepted, that we can simply assume every reasonable person (or at least a substantial portion of humanity) has incorporated them into their worldview. The blueness of our sky, the necessity of food and water, the observable action of gravity, the inexorable passage of time. These are the most basic facts which, along with uncountable others, form the shared reality which enables the mutual understanding from which conversation can begin. In short, our ability to engage with each other depends on trusting that the person across the table is there in good faith.
What’s so insidious about Kellyanne Conway’s lies, and those of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus as well, is that they are actively seeking to erode the mutual trust which binds us. They seek, instead, to challenge the shared reality through which conversant of radically different backgrounds are able to engage each other. We’ve seen this before, to a degree, in American politics. The assault on the science of climate change at times bordered on the absurd, as the denunciations thereof constantly shifted rhetorical focus whenever previous positions were made untenable by the weight of newly discovered data. But, even then, at least there was some credence given to the validity of facts in themselves. Those who argued against the science of climate change did so by cherry picking and abusing facts, but so doing they at least acknowledged the primacy of the same.
On the other hand, when they defended the lie that his inauguration was the most viewed of all time, Donald Trump’s sycophants transcended proof. When Shaun Spicer said that Donald Trump drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” when Kellyanne Conway defended the lie as “alternative facts”, and when Reince Priebus tried to shift the conversation away from the patent lie towards “honesty in media,” they did so as a declaration that it is not the interpretations of facts which are partisan, but the facts themselves. They would have their audience believe that what someone says is of lesser importance compared to who says it. They would have their audience believe that the truth within a message is derived from the speaker, rather than from the message itself. They would make themselves prophets, should we allow them.
The size of crowds is not an important subject, but it is also not one in which there is room for the studied disagreements that attach to more complex issues. It is in fact known how large the inaugural crowd was, and it was not large at all. What might once have been pedantry therefore now seems necessary, as it is newly apparent that even basic facts require active defense, lest facts themselves fall by the wayside. And, for that reason, we turn again to parallax.
The photo taken of Trump’s inauguration crowd from atop the Washington Monument looks different than the one Sean Spicer presented to the press because it was taken from a different perspective. It was not doctored, and contrary to conspiratorial claims, it was not taken at a different time.
Seen from directly above, the Washington Mall is a little more than two kilometers of flat land stretching between the Capitol Building in the East to the Washington Monument in the West. If you were to stand on the Capitol steps and look towards the distant monument, you would see a series of pathways and streets which cross the grass lawn, each about 200 meters apart.
However, because of the nature of perspective, the paths which are most distant appear to be closer together than the paths which are nearest, despite being relatively evenly spaced. This is due to the way in which humans perceive depth. Even perfectly parallel lines will appear to converge on a single vanishing point if they are sufficiently long, despite remaining the same distance apart. Therefore, while the space they occupy remains constant, the apparent space between them decreases with distance.
Anyone who has watched football will have seen this phenomenon in action when the referees are trying to determine whether the ball crossed the first down line or not. If the runner is being filmed running toward the camera, then they will appear to be closer to the line to gain than if they are running away from the camera.
[Click here for a breakdown of the Ohio State-Michigan 4th and 1 spot which demonstrates this concept.]
Another famous example is that of “The Tackle,” when Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans was brought down one yard short of the end-zone on the final play of the game. Depending on what angle you look at the play from, he will appear to have been further away or closer to his goal.
Or, if you want to observe the phenomenon in real time, you need only walk out to a long, straight street on level ground, or else find a railway and stare down it. The width of the street remains constant, as does the distance between the rails, but the parallel lines will appear to converge upon a single point as they approach the horizon.
And then, if on that same road there are many cars, the cars that are furthest away will appear to be bunched closer together. This happens not only because they occupy an apparently smaller space due to distance, but also because the cars that are nearer to the point of view will partly occlude those cars behind them, thereby creating an apparent bunching effect.
All this effort to explain that depth perception exists. It is an explanation that is so boring and obvious that it would be unnecessary and even burdensome were it not for the fact that representatives of the most powerful official in the world have been insisting that the laws of physics serve partisan masters. It was a disagreement with reality itself which propelled Sean Spicer behind that podium so that he could hector the press for reporting facts.
Absent any real argument, he brought a photo with him which actually distorts reality. It’s taken from the perspective of the Capitol building with a wide angle lens which serves to enhance the foreground and blur the background. It does not, however, show the crowd size that Trump’s ego requires.
The far better, more representative photo is that which was taken from atop the Washington Monument. It’s better not only because it is taken with a lens that lends less spatial distortion, but also because photos which are taken from higher angles have better fields of view, and are therefore less prone to problems of perceiving the number of clustered objects.
A comparison of the available photos absolutely refutes the most common lies about the inaugural crowd size.
They are as follow:
1. The crowd reached all the way back to the Washington Monument.
2. The shot from on top the Washington Monument is not representative of the crowd at the time when Trump was speaking.
To demonstrate this, I have marked static reference points in the multiple photos so that they can be easily compared. Throughout the crowd, there are tall speaker towers which are visible every 100 meters or so, and there are a number of distinct tents that are easily visible from both angles.
The are as follow:
1: From the Inquisitor from the Capitol, facing the Washington Monument.
2: CNN’s Gigapixel, taken while Trump is speaking, from the Capitol, facing the Washington Monument.
3: Through ABC, a still taken from the Washington Monument, facing the Capitol.
In each photo, I’ve marked the speaker towers by pairs, with the furthest colored a dark red. The crowd ends in front of that furthest speaker tower, and I have marked the approximate end with an orange line. In every photo it is clear that the crowd ends before the furthest speaker tower because the crowd occludes the speaker tower rather than vice versa.
The furthest television board is also marked by a yellow/green X as another landmark which is useful for orientation.
The last speaker towers, which the crowd is in front of, are still hundreds of meters away from the Washington Monument.
The photo from atop the Washington Monument is representative of the size of the crowd at the time that Trump was speaking, as evidenced by the crowd’s position relative to the furthest speaker towers.
It’s a lot of words to say something very simple, and I wish they weren’t needed.