An appeal to nature is a type of logical fallacy. It’s a very popular argument just now as well as being a huge pet peeve of mine…And it can also be dangerous.
What is an appeal to nature?
An appeal to nature argument is made on the basis of how natural something is, in the belief that natural equates to good and synthetic or man-made must mean bad. This type of logical fallacy is usually used in discussions of food and medicine with the belief being that natural options are better and safer. It’s illogical because whether something is synthetic or natural has nothing to do with it’s positive and negative attributes. Many natural things are quite dangerous. Take, for example, a bacteria called Bacillus Anthracis. This is a naturally occurring bacteria found in soil. This bacteria can infect animals and even humans with a potentially fatal disease you may have heard of. It’s called Anthrax and I don’t care how natural it is, I certainly don’t want to catch it!
Food in it’s most natural state is highly fashionable right now and for that reason, organic products have probably never been so popular (except perhaps when they were the only options!). People buy organic for a number of reasons, like ethical treatment of farmed animals or because they prefer the taste of organic produce. Others have different reasons, such as a belief that they are getting chemical-free and, therefore, more natural produce. It’s an incorrect assumption- organic food does contain chemicals. And it again goes back to the idea that natural equals good.
Chemical-Free Food? Bollocks.
“Chemical” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in these arguments, but it really isn’t a dirty word. Chemicals can be either natural or synthetic but neither of those things give an indication of good or bad characteristics. Take sodium chloride. You can make it in a lab and you’ll have salt- the same stuff we mine from the ground or extract from the ocean. Is there a difference? Possibly- the stuff you mine or extract may have contaminants (unless purified) whereas your lab specimen is probably a lot more pure. But salt itself is just that- salt.
A great example is the ever-popular Himalayan salt. I admit- I’ve bought some. Why? Because it’s pink and pretty. The hype says that it’s mined in the Himalayas and it’s full of all these amazing trace elements and minerals, direct from Mother Nature to you. However, it’s actually mined in Pakistan, in the Punjab region, some 300 kms from the Himalayas. Perhaps Pakistani Salt doesn’t have the same marketing appeal? It’s pink colouring is because it’s contaminated with iron oxide. It’s about 95% or so sodium chloride, 2-3% polyhalite and the rest is made up of a some other minerals- but nowhere near enough to make a difference to your health unless you’re going to start eating bucket loads of it. I don’t suggest you do that though, or you could end up pretty sick, even though salt is natural. A million internet memes say it contains somewhere between 50-90+ other minerals however there isn’t any quality evidence to support this claim and the available evidence put it at about 10 other minerals.Simply put, chemical free food doesn’t exist. Organic or not. There is probably no better way to illustrate that than something like this: Like all the food we eat, we are also made of chemicals. Primarily, we are made of water. Water is a chemical and you’ll die without it. You’ll also die from too much of it. It’s always the dose that makes the poison. What people who refer to chemical-free food are usually getting at is food free from harmful chemicals. And that is a very important distinction. If we say chemical-free instead of being specific about harmful chemicals, people become paranoid and frightened of chemical-sounding names. It’s why dihydrogen monoxide pranks got so popular for a while there- listing all the dangers and freaking people out:
Many who choose organic are doing so in the belief that their food has not been exposed to pesticides- pesticides are often the “harmful” chemicals people are referring to when they describe their organic food as chemical-free. If you grow your own food, you can achieve this (assuming you know for sure there are no residues etc in your soil). Commercially, it’s a different story. Farmers can use pesticides on organic produce- naturally derived pesticides. Like sulfur, pyrethrins, copper etc. These are called biopesticides and although they are of natural origins, they are still chemicals.
Biopesticides, like conventional pesticides, still require safety precautions for farmers even though they have natural origins. Australian Certified Organics Standards dictate that biopesticides must not be applied by anyone under the age of 18; anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding; persons with intellectual disabilities; persons with chronic, hepatic or renal diseases; and persons with respiratory diseases. This, of course, doesn’t mean they render our food unsafe. In fact, in Australia, even conventionally farmed foods using synthetic pesticide are highly regulated to ensure maximum safety. Organic produce generally has less pesticide used than other produce- but does that carry significant health benefits? Some say so but other research says no, not really. Even so, if you want to spend your money on organic produce, I’m not judging. People buy it for all kinds of reasons. If you’d rather not, just be sure to wash your fruit and veg well and you’ll be fine.
The dangers of the appeal to nature argument are very real. Have you heard of Orthrexia Nervosa? This condition is not yet recognised as an eating disorder. The term was first coined back in 1996 by Dr Steve Bratman after his experience in a 1970’s New York commune. It left him obsessed with eating a natural and pure diet. Othrexia is a fixation on eating food that is deemed pure. Processed foods are off-limits as is any other food deemed not clean. Eating the ‘right’ thing rewards sufferers with positive, proud feelings. In fact, Dr Bratman described it as “a disease disguised as a virtue.” This can take over a person’s life to the point where eating out is impossible, unplanned meals cause enormous anxiety and stress and entire food groups are cut out. It has lead some people to the point of malnutrition because they have restricted their diet so intensely.
However, the danger isn’t just in diets. How many anti-vaccine proponents cite the fact that vaccination is not natural as a reason against it? How many say that natural immunity is superior to being vaccinated? How many, by extension of that, intentionally expose their children to illnesses? Have you heard of chicken pox parties? I’ve even read about people sending lollipops licked by infected kids to other parents, with the idea being they can pass on the lollipop (and the illness) to their own kids.
Parents in general are often targeted by appeal to nature arguments. How many of us has seen or maybe even used a natural product in the belief that it is safer, better than or even equal to a conventional treatment? Maybe a homeopathic remedy for wind or an amber teething necklace? The reality is that there is absolutely no evidence to support either of those things and some come with their own dangers. Amber necklaces in particular have been deemed a choking hazard and had warnings issued about them after a ruling from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Homeopathy has been disproved many times over- the danger being that parents could use it to treat a condition that actually requires medication.
While striving for a natural lifestyle, some people actively reject modern medicine in favour of natural alternative therapies and the results can be disastrous. Jess Ainscough is a well-known example of someone who rejected modern cancer treatment in favour of an alternative natural therapy involving an organic diet and frequent coffee enemas. If you haven’t heard of her, this treatment did not work out for Jess. She’s dead. And she is just one in a long list of people who have died because they opted for a natural treatment in place of a conventional one. Penelope Dingle also comes to mind- a woman who died a drawn-out and painful death from what may well have been treatable bowel cancer under the care of a homeopath.
The Take-Home Message.
I could go on and on about the risks people take seeking all natural foods and treatments and whatever else- everything from raw milk to restricted diets to refusing appropriate medical care. I could write pages about what the world was like when humans relied only on nature; how short our lives were, how many babies we lost, how limited our diets.
The main point I want to make is that natural is just a word, generally meaning existing in, or derived from, nature. Even the definition is vague. It has no bearing on whether or not something has positive or negative effects on anything, let alone on your health. Don’t fall for the hype.
#FYBF @ With Some Grace
#WWU @ Melting Moments