Fallacies 3: The naturalistic fallacy

With acknowledgements to Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre on twitter) whose book ‘Bad Science’ has heavily influenced my thinking on this topic. Check his website at http://www.badscience.net

The Western world is awash with people claiming that their product or service is ‘healthy’ because it’s ‘natural’. From beauty and skin care products to healthy eating and a range of alternative therapies we are sold the message that natural is somehow ‘better’. Often these advertisements are dressed up in ‘sciencey’ language to add credibility but still the basic message is that natural is best. More significantly for this post the idea is that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘how it ought to be’.

This idea that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘ought to be’ is the essence of the naturalistic fallacy. It has dogged our understanding of the world and spawned entire political movements simply because people haven’t quite grasped the simple truth that describing something isn’t the same as supporting it.

To illustrate this I thought I’d try out a naturalistic advertisement for myself to see if anyone bites……..

Great skin care – the natural way

cowpatIt’s true – you just can’t beat nature. That’s the verdict of our poll. Nine out of ten of the people we asked agreed that natural products are better for your health than synthetic ones.

And who are we to argue?

So we’ve created a range of health and beauty products for you to enjoy. They’re simple to apply and completely biodegradable. They’re also completely natural, harvested without any form of cruelty from free range sources on our organic farms. All our skin creams have been fermented and irrigated inside completely organic chambers using only the biological agents recommended by mother nature herself. They have also been shielded from any light source throughout the preparation process so you can be sure that no photonic contamination has occurred.

Complete with biodegradable cardboard packaging and wooden applicators these skin creams will be available on the shelves soon.

If you’re concerned about your skin and only want to use 100% natural products then Sorensen’s natural horse shit cream is for you. For the more discerning customer try our elite range – the bullshit bottle. Lovingly packaged in reconstituted glassware this range of completely pure cow manure is just the thing for the discerning urban sophisticate.

So what are you waiting for? Spread some shit on your face today.

PS – We also stock a selection of antiseptic supplies and antibiotic preparations (prescription only).

PPS – Strong perfume is recommended when using these products

PPPS – Try our 100% natural perfumes made from purest Emu urine. 10% price reduction for bulk buys.

Of course natural isn’t necessarily best at all. It’s not that simple. There are many natural poisons and a number of naturally occurring bacteria that will happily kill you given half a chance. There is much more to the equation than that. But that’s only one part of the naturalistic fallacy. The really dangerous bit is the idea that natural shows us how things should be.
That’s the fallacy that has created some of the biggest problems in our society.

By way of illustration let’s consider Social Darwinism – a bastardisation of Darwin’s theory of evolution that brought nothing but confusion and ultimately death to many of its victims. This is the result of the naturalistic fallacy that to describe what is, is to determine what should be.

Eugenics posterCharles Darwin (and co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace) brought us the theory of evolution in the mid nineteenth century and demonstrated how via the mechanism of survival of the fittest our species (along with every other modern species) evolved and outlived weaker competitors over unimaginably long periods of time. That’s why human beings exist at all – because the Australopithecines were good at escaping from predators and because Homo habilis learned how to be a little more creative than the next guy.

But Darwin didn’t make any sort of moral or ethical judgement about natural selection and the survival of the fittest. He merely described the reality. Nature doesn’t care about our sensibilities. It doesn’t care about anything. Nature just is. When we follow the evidence of natural history we can understand what has happened and even how it happened but we cannot draw any conclusions about what ought to happen. We particularly can’t use nature as a justification for what we’d like to do next.

And yet that is precisely what the social Darwinists did. They took the knowledge of natural history and natural selection and confused it with the ideal of creating a master race. In its most extreme form it spawned the eugenics movement and inspired much of the thinking behind the holocaust in world war 2. It is the same thinking that underlies the eugenics of Project Prevention in their war on the offspring of people they dislike. And yet it is profoundly ill-informed and ridiculous.

Just because something is a particular way does not mean that it ought to be that way.

The naturalistic fallacy confuses reality with ideology and the results are not only foolish – they’re also extremely dangerous. If you believe that natural is the same as good then I urge you to buy my products (see above) and smear that 100% natural horse shit all over your face and neck. You won’t look any more foolish than you do already, thanks to the naturalistic fallacy

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

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