Friday, May 11, 2012


I've touched on this one before, but I think it probably deserves a post all to itself: the appeal to nature.

This is the notion that things that are perceived as "natural" are somehow superior to other things (presumably unnatural things), simply by virtue of them being natural.

You'll most likely come across this argument when discussing food, health and clothing. I imagine because it's normal to feel a bit cautious about the things you put in and on your body - wanting to use only the best available things. And when presented with two options (of, let's say, face cream) most people would probably prefer the one branded as "natural" than the one that isn't.

Or you could end up looking like this.

And that's the key here: branding. Like "organic" and "free range", when you're using "natural" like this, it's essentially a meaningless marketing label. The implication is that 'natural' products are made with little to no human intervention.

But Things From Nature Are Good For You

Bullshit. I'll resort to the standard sceptical response to this one, because I enjoy hearing it every time. Here's a list of things found in nature (as in, not created through human intervention) that are not good for you:

This is not an exhaustive list. I think I need go no further to demonstrate that because something exists without human intervention, that it's somehow good for you.

Murder kitteh is not good for you either.

But What About Things That Are Good For You?

Well, sure. What about food and medicine that is known to be good for you? Is there a correlation between the amount of human intervention in their production and their quality?

Take two and call me in the morning
Another common example of this is Aspirin. Its benefits are well-established, both as an analgesic and as a blood-pressure management aid. Although it does have a few known side effects, they're rare and relatively minor. All in all, Aspirin is an amazing drug.

In it's "natural" state, it's found in the spiraea shrub and the bark of the willow tree. Would it be better to walk down to the river, strip off some bark and gnaw on that, rather than taking a pill for it?

In short, no. Reason being that in willow bark the salicylic acid (the bit that makes it work) has a variable distribution. In any given piece of bark, you might not get enough of the good stuff to sort out your headache, or you might have too much and overdose. There's no way of predicting the concentration of the acid with any degree of reliability.

But if chemists can isolate the active ingredient, synthesise it, and put it into a form where the dosage is constant and known (like a pill, for example), we can control the precise amount we take in, and make informed decisions about it. Hence modern pharmacology trumps herbalism.

What About Food?

In food the argument is slightly different. Here it's about using modern farming methods to produce crops with the highest nutritional content, best appearance and flavour, while keeping costs down using the least possible amount of land, fertilisers and pesticides. Conventional farmers will look to just about any practice that's been shown to be safe and cost effective so they can produce the highest possible yield of product that people will actually buy. Not only that, but they have to manage the environment of their farms - doing damage to the soil, surrounding flora and fauna or the water table would hurt them just as much as it would anyone else.

Those methods include, but aren't limited to, irrigation, selective breeding and hybridisation, genetic manipulation, chemical pesticides and fertilisers. 

Contrast that with so called "organic" farming methods, where efficiency and quality are frankly irrelevant - they take a back seat to the philosophy of it. The efficacy of the methods are unregulated and have usually been tested and found to be sub-par (as a rule, organic farmers use the same methods and tools conventional farmers were using half a century ago - you know, when there were half as many humans on the planet).

Test after test after test shows that conventional farming methods produce crops that are as good if not better than organic ones (which are usually branded as being more "natural"). That quality is measured in nutritional content, flavour and looks. There's no meaningful metric where organic farming wins.

Wild banana. Yum.
Add to that the fact that even the products made on organic farms are hardly free from human intervention. Human agriculture has been around for millennia, and over that time farmers have bred better and better food crops and livestock through selective breeding and hybridisation. Almost nothing on your plate, in your fridge or in the organic section at your supermarket bears any resemblance to the wild forms of those creatures. Our food is as much a product of our civilisation as smartphones and skyscrapers.

So Should I Avoid Buying Things Labelled "Natural"?

No. Not unless you particularly want to. I usually do avoid it, because I resent being lied to so transparently by advertisers. But in reality those products probably aren't any worse than the ones that aren't similarly labelled. "Natural" shampoo is the same as regular shampoo, but in a green bottle. If you like the product, buy it.

The notable exception here would be medicine. If it's labelled "natural", odds are it's unregulated and hasn't been properly tested. It probably wouldn't kill you but your money is likely better spent on something else.