On Jan 12, 2017, on national television, political pollster and presidential counsel Kellyann Conway uttered a phrase which become an instant classic: alternative facts.
Though Ms. Conway probably now wishes she hadn’t chosen those exact words, the truth is that she did us a favor by calling attention to the fact that we do live and operate in a world of “alternative facts”, especially in the field of health and nutrition. And there’s never been a better time to talk about it than right now.
Alternative facts are the real reason everyone is confused about what’s true and not true in nutrition.
I don’t want to waste time reviewing the many examples of this kind of confusion but here’s a short refresher. We disagree on fat, on calories, on diets, on vegetarianism, on butter, on coffee, on statin drugs, on cholesterol, on the best way to lose weight, on low-carb diets, on the dangers of meat– you name it and there’s a serious scientific dispute about it, and probably some really nasty feelings to boot. And an awful lot of frustrated consumers.
It’s about time that we all understood why,
The best way to illustrate what I’m about to say is with a completely non-partisan example of an industry that everyone who has ever traveled has feelings about—the airlines.
If you’re a traveler, it’s important to you to know the “facts” about the airlines you fly, right? How often are they late? How often do they crash? Do they lose your baggage? How’s their customer service? And which one has the best prices?
Well, it turns out there’s data on every single one of those metrics, just like there’s data on food, medicine, supplements, statin drugs, the Suzuki violin method, interval training, the national debt, and virtually anything else you can think of where things can be measured. But which of these facts you choose to talk about depends completely on your agenda.
Back to the airlines.
If you’re Virgin Airlines, your marketing department is going to make hay out of the fact that Virgin is ranked the best in baggage handling, with the least amount of mishandled baggage. You’d also point out that the number of passengers on Virgin flights that are involuntarily bumped is among the lowest in the industry. (Both are facts.) You will probably not mention the fact that Virgin is ranked one of the worst airlines when it comes to “extreme delays”.
If you’re Delta, on the other hand, you will definitely mention that you have the least number of cancelled flights and the least amount of involuntary bumping. You will leave out the fact that you’re one of the absolute worst for 2-hour tarmac delays. (You won’t say that’s not true—you just won’t mention it.)
If you’re selling alcohol, you’ll probably talk about how moderate drinking lowers the risk for heart disease, and leave out the fact that drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. If you manufacture statin drugs you’ll make a very big deal about how statin drug users have less heart attacks while burying the fact that they have more cancer and diabetes.
If you’re a real estate agent selling a house, you’re going to talk up the 3,000 square feet of space and the gorgeous new kitchen, while minimizing the fact that it’s in a high-crime area.
And if you’re the sugar industry, you’ll spend a lot of marketing dollars to call attention to how little Americans exercise, all to take focus away from the role of sugar in metabolic diseases.
There are plenty of facts to go around, just pick the ones you like that tell the story you want to tell.
The people who are selling you Delta Airlines, alcohol, sugar, tobacco, statin drugs or the beautiful house in the shitty neighborhood are not lying. They’re just using a tried-and-true marketing technique called cherry picking the evidence. Big Pharma has been doing it for….. well, that’s actually all they do.
Reality TV creators are masters of the technique. I play tennis regularly with two very successful producers of reality television, and they tell me that the secret to a good reality show is having a really good editor. The reality shows keep multiple cameras trained on a dozen or more people, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, resulting in literally thousands of hours of video “data”. By carefully selecting what to put on the air and what to leave on the cutting room floor, good editors can literally craft whole characters and storylines as expertly as if they had been scripted by Aaron Sorkin. The producers don’t make anything up —everything the characters do and say is documented on tape—but by selective reporting they can completely control the narrative.
See, everyone likes to say “facts are facts” but the truth is that facts are neutral, impartial, bloodless numbers—and there are zillions of them. They don’t really acquire meaning until someone chooses the “important” ones, and then strings them together to craft an argument.
So the next time someone argues that vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters, or statin drugs save lives, or high-fat diets make you sick and obese, or that raw food is the healthiest way to eat, or that obesity is only about calories and exercise, don’t call them liars.
Instead, ask yourself what facts they’re leaving out.
Very often, the facts they don’t tell you are the most important ones of all.