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Alternative facts – skeptics have been dealing with this for years

Last updated on November 27th, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Alternative facts, what most of us would call outright lies or misinformation, are the new standard of truthfulness coming out of the Donald Trump administration. It started when Kellyanne Conway, one of the numerous Trump talking heads who think Americans are stupid, said, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving … alternative facts.”

Alternative facts seem to be pretty close to the Nazi propaganda technique, called the Big Lie. It is about the use of a lie so colossal that the public would not believe that someone would have the audacity to distort the truth so impressively. Except, I’m going to reiterate most Americans (an non-Americans) aren’t that stupid. And sorry for going Godwin so early in the article, but sometimes, it is necessary to point out the obvious.

I’ve been fighting alternative facts as skeptic for nearly three decades. It started when I got into an argument with a school board candidate in California who said that “evolution is just a theory.” Now, those of you with scientific understanding accept that a theory, at least in science, is approximately equal to a fact. What he should have said is, “evolution is just a fact,” but instead he was making “theory” a pejorative which implied evolution wasn’t a fact.

He and I must have argued for 20 minutes, when he finally claimed that science was a religion that required faith, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what science represents. I told him that he apparently lacked any education in science, so why should he be on the school board. He lost, though I take no credit for it.

Over the years, I have evolved (pun intended) into other areas of scientific skepticism, like GMOs, vaccines, and alternative medicine. See, even the junk medicine quacks grasped that “alternative” label long before Donald Trump walked into the national spotlight.

Let’s look at my favorite alternative facts of science.

Alternative facts of vaccines

I know most of you come to this blog to read about vaccines, which saves the lives of millions children across the world. Of course, you also come here for some snarky real facts about science. But for any of us who deal with vaccine world, we hear the same old alternative facts every single day.

Alternative fact – vaccines cause autism. Scientific fact – no it doesn’t.

Alternative fact – Gardasil kills children. Gardasil causes neurological damage. Scientific fact – nope.

Alternative fact – vaccines contain dangerous aluminum, mercury and formaldehyde. Scientific facts – no, if you have any understanding of simple math and toxicology.

Alternative fact – vaccines are unnecessary and haven’t saved any lives. Scientific fact – are you serious?

Alternative fact – flu vaccine causes the flu. Scientific fact – just a bunch of dumbasses.

I mean there are dozens more, and each one of those alternative facts is refuted by science. Science isn’t some magical thinking ability, it’s a logical method to gather evidence to support or refute a hypothesis. It isn’t an opinion. It isn’t generally subject to debate. Either the evidence is there or it isn’t. And the more evidence that is accumulated eventually builds a scientific consensus.

Alternative facts are based on wishful thinking at best, and outright lies at worst. They aren’t science. And they should be dismissed immediately, unless there is credible and repeated evidence supporting the alternative hypothesis.

As Jef Rouner wrote in the Houston Press,

There’s nothing wrong with an opinion on those things. The problem comes from people whose opinions are actually misconceptions. If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion. The fact that you may still believe that vaccines cause autism does not move your misconception into the realm of valid opinion. Nor does the fact that many others share this opinion give it any more validity.



Alternative medicine – the original alternative fact

Alternative medicine, also called fringe medicine, junk medicine, or quackery, has been tagged with the “alternative” label since at least 1974. We use the term to describe therapies that are claimed to have real medical effects, but are disproven, unproven, impossible to prove, harmful, or some combination of them all. To real science, “alternative medicine” is pejorative, because, as many of us say over and over, alternative medicine that’s supported by science based evidence is just called medicine.

So, let’s look at science of alternative medicine. Most of them truly are nothing more than alternative facts, not real medicine. They don’t work, except if you reject real science.

Acupuncture – no, it doesn’t work. Really, it doesn’t work. It truly is an alternative fact.

Chiropractic – nope. And it’s seriously dangerous. It is not medicine.

Homeopathy – just water, and very expensive water at that.

Naturopathy – pure quackery.

And there are dozens of other types of alternative medicine like Traditional Chinese Medicine (not really traditional nor medicine), herbalism, supplements, and dozens of others. It’s hard to summarize the lack of evidence, but let me rely upon Carl Sagan – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In other words, it’s not really my job to refute every dumb alternative medicine claim, it’s the responsibility of those asserting the medical usefulness of alternative medicine to provide evidence of their claims. Unfortunately, the standard of evidence for alternative medicine is usually anecdotes, appeal to antiquity or special pleading.

In other words, the purveyors of this junk medicine want to rely upon anything but real scientific evidence. They want to sell their beliefs to you based on faith and hopefulness, which are quite the opposite of real science. People will claim that some of these work (these are anecdotes, and anecdotes are not data) because they improve immediately after the fringe therapy, perfect examples of the post hoc fallacy.

Alternative medicine is a lie. It’s as simple as that.


Alternative facts of science

Well, there’s more than just alternative facts than I presented in vaccines and medicine. The rest of science is filled with these false facts in an attempt to discredit real science. Like I mentioned above, my first real foray into the world of fringe science was dealing with creationists who thought that evolution was false because of…lots of things.

Evolution is a scientific fact and a scientific theory. Evolution is a fact, as shown by the data that has been gathered to such a degree that it would be almost ridiculous to withhold agreement that it is a fact. On the other hand, the scientific theory of evolution describes the mechanism and explanation of those facts. (Note – I added a more clear explanation of fact and theory as a result of discussions elsewhere.)

To refute either the fact or theory of evolution, you will need evidence in the same quantity and quality that supports the scientific fact of evolution. That is literally a mountain (maybe several mountains) of accumulated evidence. You would need overwhelming and irrefutable evidence to get rid of evolution – the famous one is finding the fossil of a rabbit in Precambrian rocks. And even then, I’m not sure I could support that as evidence to discredit evolution. Scientific research would probably determine the fossil was a fake or could be explained by any number of credible, scientific data that would show it really isn’t a rabbit in Precambrian rocks.

On the other hand, science is not dogmatic, so if it really was shown to be a real rabbit fossil in real Precambrian rocks (and other similar fossils were found), we’d have to rethink both the data that supports evolution, and the mechanism of it. But the only reason we should reject evolution as a fact (or theory) is contradictory evidence, pure and simple. It’s not my opinion that evolution is a fact. It’s the science.

Climate change is another area that is filled with alternative facts, especially recently. Trump is trying to suppress all evidence of climate change in the Federal Government, which is one of the more insane moves (amongst so many) by this administration. Climate change is also a scientific fact and an accepted theory, with nearly as much supporting and extraordinary evidence as we find with evolution and vaccines.

Here are some of my personal favorite alternative facts on climate change (with many thanks to my favorite climate change denialism debunking website, Skeptical Science):

And there are dozens of other alternative facts about climate change, all debunked by real science from real scientists. People, some legitimate scientists, have claimed “alternative facts” about HIV and AIDS. There are others who have their own facts about GMOs. There are people who push their own facts about sasquatch, a flat earth, or the moon is made of cheese.

And then there’s the whole world of alternative cancer treatments that do absolutely nothing, but possibly lead to a very sad outcome for the patient.

Denial of the facts of science, with the invention of alternate reality,  can be deadly for humans. Climate change could lead to the destruction of our species, as we run out of food, face diseases that are unknown to the industrialized world, and lose precious lands to a rising sea. The fact of climate change and the facts of its consequences are not a matter of belief or opinion – they are truths supported by a vast wealth of scientific evidence.


Enough with this alternative bullshit

John Oliver, on an episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight, referenced a Gallup poll that showed that one in four Americans believe climate change isn’t real:

Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”

Or as Sam Harris, a real scientist, once wrote (and I often quote),

Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water.”? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

Water is simply two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. That is a scientific fact, and you either accept that fact or bring robust evidence that it isn’t. Otherwise, we have nothing to discuss, at least without depending on magic.

Here’s the thing. Science is rather black and white. When it says “evolution is an observed fact,” that’s not an opinion of a bunch of scientists pontificating at Harvard, though, I’m sure there are a bunch of scientists at Harvard who do pontificate that evolution is a fact. It is a fact, until such time someone refutes it as a fact. I’m not actually holding my breath for that Precambrian rabbit.

Yes, there are debates in science, mostly in areas where evidence is rather light. For example, we don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, and basically, it appears that we hear about a new hypothesis every month. But we’re accumulating evidence, and in a year, maybe even a few decades, someone will look at all the evidence and, through intelligence and inspiration, figure out the puzzle. That’s how science works.

But there are no debates in science about whether GMOs are safe or whether vaccines are critical to lives of children or whether climate change is real. You can invent debates that make it appear that the science isn’t settled. You can express your uninformed opinion about GMOs, vaccines and climate change, but that just makes you plain wrong. Your opinion on these things does not overcome the body of evidence gathered in a scientific manner that support the scientific facts. And please, cherry picking one or even a handful of articles to “prove” that the scientific consensus (read, fact) is wrong? It is a laughable method of argument.

Alternative facts, whether presented through ignorance or through callous disregard of the truth, are simply not facts in the scientific world. You can believe in them. You can believe in these fake facts from the President. But that’s on you, and the consequences for your embracing these alternative facts will lead to our downfall.

Michael Simpson

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