by Tim Harding
How often do we see the word ‘natural’ on product labels ranging from breakfast cereals to cosmetics? It has become one of the most common consumer ‘hooks’ used in marketing today. ‘Natural’ is also a keyword in many herbal remedies and other alternatives to medicine that skeptics are skeptical about.
The logical fallacy known as ‘Appeal to Nature’ or the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ usually takes the following form of argument:
Premise: N is natural.
Conclusion: Therefore, N is good, safe or right.
Premise: U is unnatural.
Conclusion: Therefore, U is bad, unsafe or wrong.
Like all logical fallacies, these arguments are invalid because the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. In other words, the premises can be true but the conclusion can be false.
For instance, there are hundreds of naturally occurring plants, fungi and animals that are poisonous – not to mention naturally venomous spiders, snakes and jellyfish. Even some parts of common ‘natural’ foods can be toxic in small doses. These include green potatoes; the seeds of apples, cherries, apricots, peaches and plums; and the leaves of rhubarb and tomatoes. There are few reported deaths as a result of eating these foods; but we have all heard of deaths from eating poisonous naturally occurring mushrooms and Fugu fish. There have also been deaths from drinking ‘natural’ raw milk. Recent research has demonstrated risks of neurodegenerative illness from the ‘natural’ dietary supplement Spirulina.
The Appeal to Nature Fallacy is probably behind much of the opposition to genetically modified foods, despite the fact that humans have been genetically modifying food species by breeding for over 11,000 years since the dawn of civilisation. More extreme forms of this fallacy can manifest themselves as Chemophobia – fear of chemicals, Pharmacophobia – fear of medicines and Technophobia – fear of new technologies. Such phobias are thought to stem from incomplete knowledge of science, or a misunderstanding of science, or a general fear of the unknown.
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