Documentaries used to be the Sunday night household event where families gathered around the TV to watch informative, fact-filled shows.

Our modern lives have changed our viewing habits with it now being rare that the whole family watches the same programme at the same time. To keep up with this changing trend, more documentaries are now being produced for on-demand platforms like Netflix and competition in the sector is heating up.

As they fight for online attention and commercial viability, modern documentaries are becoming much more sensational as they try to keep our ever-shortening attention spans.

In the same way that fictional movies can take us on a journey, documentaries also have the power to suspend our assumptions and persuade us to believe new things without having to leave our own reality behind.


These same documentaries also have the power to be dangerous, feeding us stories that cherry-pick the science and eliminate any evidence that doesn't support their narrative.

Most recently the pro-vegan documentary What The Health made some serious health claims including one that said consuming meat, fish, poultry and dairy fattens us up and gives us cancer and Type 2 diabetes while poisoning us with toxins.

The filmmakers who had previously made a similar themed documentary called Cowspiracy are part of a growing group that, in my view, selectively analyse and exaggerate scientific research to help drive home their case.

Their statement that drinking milk causes cancer is not only a pretty bold claim but also confusing to parents who are trying to make the right nutritional decisions for their children.

Searching the scientific literature is not easy if you aren't a scientific researcher as many articles are held behind paywalls and use specialised jargon and field specific techniques making comparing different studies difficult.

Analysing the scientific data for links between cancer and milk does bring up a few papers that show evidence for a connection but also a few that show no connection.

That's the challenge with science; it's not about drawing conclusions from single studies, but instead about reviewing the overall data set which in the case of dairy finds no consistent link to cancer.

The documentary also fails to mention the large amount of scientific evidence which shows that consuming dairy products like yoghurt can reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease and prevent weight gain.

They are not the only ones manipulating the science for their agenda. The slickly produced documentary Vaxxed has been convincing new parents around the world not to vaccinate their children thanks to its compelling and emotionally charged storyline.

Using Andrew Wakefield's white coat-wearing "experts" the documentary is designed to imply that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is leading to an epidemic of autism.

In my view, documentaries like this are not only dangerous for herd immunity in the Western world, but they also promote the views of a man who was struck off the medical register for his fraudulent MMR research.

Documentaries are designed to distort reality through a lens deemed important and worthy by the filmmaker. These filmmakers are storytellers, out to create beautiful, emotionally connecting narratives by injecting cinematic elements that make them much more interesting that anything us lab-based scientists could ever make.

The landscape of documentaries is changing though, from one where the content was built to be fair and representative to one where they are now more truthful to the vision of their filmmaker.

With more access to media than ever before, the challenge around how scientific evidence is presented is an important one. Without it, documentaries that claim to be based on science may end up becoming hazardous to our health.