“Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
The idea that established facts are not, in fact, facts, has exploded with the growth of social media. Often it is paired with the idea that somehow “they” (the establishment, government, doctors, scientists) have conspired to give us false information or advice.
We see it on emotive topics such as climate change, fluoridation and vaccination. And we see it about food and health.
These are all areas where the basic scientific facts are established and there is wide scientific consensus, even when it’s acknowledged that science is always moving.
The alternative facts tend to be presented in emotional, although often plausible, language.
Sometimes the media plays into this, in a phenomenon known as false balance, which is when someone with true expertise – say a climate scientist – is given the same weight in a media report as a tinfoil-hat wearing, unqualified climate change sceptic.
This gives the false impression their views are equally valid and accurate.
In the world of nutrition, a prominent online source of alternative facts is Dr Joseph Mercola.
Of all the links I am sent from people who have taken issue with something I’ve written, most come from his site.
Mercola is outspokenly against vaccination and fluoridation.
He believes diet can cure a wide range of diseases. He claims microwave ovens and pasteurised milk are dangerous. He says vitamin D can cure cancer and that sunscreen can cause it.
Much of the nutrition information on his site is presented in “science-ish”, if sensational, fashion. It sounds plausible and quotes research studies.
And despite being critical of government health organisations – which he says are motivated by greed – he sells a vast array of Mercola-branded products, earning him millions of dollars a year.
When someone advocates a supplement or diet and also sells that supplement and diet-related food products, it’s worth asking: What am I really being offered here?
Facts? Or their alternatives?