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.


  1. nature good, chemicals bad .... EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS!

  2. Oh yes! I forgot to mention the whole "chemicals" thing. Indeed!

  3. Still rolling my eyes. It's not about that, it's about what do you have access to when you need something. There are so many holes in your argument - no time now to fight properly.

    Michael Jackson had vitligo (which is also natural).

    What's the benefit of having standard doses of anything when human bodies don't conform to standards (other than to cover your ass legally within laboratory - prescribed safety measures)? All dosage guidelines are suggestions anyway, because of variations in patient's biochemistry and physiognomy.

    You are unwittingly stumbling through the bad-lands of a belief.

    1. Standard doses exist so that the doctor knows exactly how much you're getting and doesn't under- or over-dose you, but keeps it within the safe margin. That margin may be broad in some cases, but it's still much easier to hit when the dose is, say, 10 units rather than "somewhere between 0.01 and 15 units." The value of precision, even in partially uncertain conditions, should be obvious.

  4. OK, got a bit of time. The details here are not the important thing, it is the blind spot in the premises. If empiricism is the way to find the real facts, then take it to its extreme - beyond the scientific method. That means that all claims, all processes, all institutions are questionable. And the only true test is what one sees with one's own eyes, experiences with one's own senses. Otherwise we are always outsourcing to others ("experts" - one born every minute) our understanding of verity and reality. And otherwise we will always be arguing about whose snake-oil doctor is the best. And until proven otherwise, to me they are ALL snake-oil doctors. Until I hypothesise, test and receive a result for myself, I cannot hold any data as verity. No PHD, PTY (Ltd) or legalese will convince me of a verity. Reality and verity are to me an entirely subjective judgement based on my own rigorous interrogation.

    Having done marketing work for technology, pharma, alternative therapies and many others, I know what goes into designing a marketing campaign. None is a greater liar than another. Nothing that is written down is in itself trust-worthy (yes, including this). Beyond self-verified fact, the choice of whose expertise to trust becomes an arbitrary choice based on personal preference, perhaps a trick of personality or indigestion-driven mood.

  5. "And the only true test is what one sees with one's own eyes, experiences with one's own senses"

    Senses and feelings are by far the easiest to fool. Personal experience is another way to say "anecdotal evidence" and there are methods for removing them when evaluating something.

    1. In some, but in clever people, the shininess of an idea can have them behaving quite foolishly.

    2. Indeed. No one person can have complete knowledge, or even a decent working knowledge of all the fields of science. For that reason we have no choice but to defer to people who know more than we do.

      It's not a trivial problem - finding reputable and trustworthy sources of information to base our decisions on - but it's not insurmountable either.

      With a modicum of scientific literacy, and some Internet savvy, we can identify good places to start from to build an empirically-based picture of the world, to allocate respective weight to different sources of information and to eliminate sources that are of little or no value.

      We needn't, and couldn't, test every hypothesis ourselves. The human life-span isn't long enough, nor are extenuating circumstances controllable enough to do it. At some point we have to set aside our fallible, subjective perspectives and start looking to processes bigger than ourselves to draw reliable conclusions about the world. In that regard science is the only game in town.

    3. I'm all for research - finding materials on which to base a working hypotheses. And once I have seen results (my senses being comparable to any scientist), by all means then I can act with certainty. The rest of the time most of us live and act based on assumptions (like: the wheels on my car have not become unscrewed overnight even though I have not checked them, so I will attempt to drive to work regardless), because, as you say, we can't be checking every fact all the time, and people who do end up in mental institutions. And, thankfully, it it only really necessary to have a working hypothesis dealing with the phenomena that actually impact my life, not every one in the universe.

      I do think, though, that it is important to sort out what you know for sure, and what your assumptions are. And then, also to realise that all facts are relative, as are all systems of measurement used in science; there are no absolute premises anywhere.

      The saner working hypothesis is the one that yields consistent results within acceptable parameters (as in, perhaps a sign of sanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting similar results). I'll do that when I want to verify a hypothesis. Otherwise, it's all hypotheses and fair game for question.

  6. caro...

    By that reasoning, please go and infect yourself with anthrax and HIV. I mean all the so-called "experts" say it's wrong, you may even have seen it kill animals and other people, but reality is a lie and you can't truly KNOW that they died of either of those unless you try it out yourself. And who knows, maybe with that particular combination you might become immortal if your physiognomy allows it. And don't forget that you can't know which medicines work unless you try them out yourself. I suggest a concurrent course of St. James' Wort, radiotherapy and a dose of Valium. However, you may want to play around with sulphur and acid. I hear experts say that those are also NOT the way to treat any of those diseases.

    1. Stefan, your wishes for me are most ungenerous, and your tactics derisive. You are not being helpful. In addition you are making a whole bunch of assumptions about me and what you think I'm "into". Please try again.

  7. My gripe is with advertisers that are putting this "natural" label on foods whether natural is better or not. They are exploiting our good natures to make buck. I feel used, lied to and just in most cases angry. This article pretty much has nothing to do with experts and everything to do with what’s on your shelves in the shops. All of which have been through a marketing campaign at some point. Where the product that you pick isn’t the one that’s best for you, but the one with the better marketing campaign. I can’t even trust my own feelings anymore because advertisers know how to manipulate them so well.

    Can’t remember where, but I read that Coca-cola spends more on advertising than it does on the product. That means they spend more money trying to sell me something that is in no way healthy for me than they do on actually making the drink. I’m sure if that much money and effort was put into something like cancer research then we would be so much closer to a cure. But hey why cure something when you make more money off treating it.

  8. Farming with the facilities of modern science and technology increases the production. So, modern farming methods are must to get better farming production. To learn more about modern agriculture and farming please visit the site listed bellow.
    Methods of Modern Farming