The appeal to nature fallacy and a growing distrust of the authority of science

Our society seems to be losing its trust with scientific knowledge. This degeneration is present in the market, media, and online, particularly regarding the health industry.

Why is this? There seems to be a large gap between the preconceived ideas ingrained in our society and scientific truths. Perhaps the most visible example of this is the abuse of the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, and the positive and negative connotations that they are packaged with. The word ‘natural’ is plastered all over product labels by marketers, and clearly, they are onto something. The extensive use of the word ‘natural’ must be to address a large consumer demand for goods that are ‘natural’, or made with ‘natural’ ingredients. It appears that Australian consumers hold a strong preconceived view about the world: mother nature and natural products are inherently good, or at least superior to their human-made counterparts. However, this statement is not consistent with our scientific knowledge, or with reality for that matter.

The scientific method is impartial. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that there has been a lot of damage caused by errors in scientific analysis and thinking  – the temporary approval of thalidomide, asbestos, and nuclear waste just to name a few. But these are mainly failings of technology, and of political administration. Scientists may discover a powerful chemical; however, it is up to society to insist that it is safe to use. Failings to do so seem to have led many to believe that all science and technology is suspect, and that all natural things are good.

Indeed, there are many undesirable however perfectly natural events that we ask the scientific community to alleviate us of, such as mental struggle or genetic diseases. Conversely, there are many unnatural interventions in our lives that are blatantly ignored by pseudo-scientists who, like us all, find them convenient, such as cars and phones. It makes little sense that these pseudo-scientists are picking on the industries of food and agriculture.

In its simplest form, the appeal to nature fallacy follows that what is natural is good, and what is unnatural is bad. Its application to the food and agriculture industry presents a fundamental misunderstanding of how practices such as artificial selection work. As far as we know, it does not matter if new organisms are made in a laboratory, as opposed to farmers using selective breeding. The joining of two genes in a laboratory is merely an extension of what farmers have been practicing for millennia; it is plain common sense. If the ends are the same, that the consumers can access decent quality produce, then there is no rational debate to be had. It is the means by which ‘unnatural’ food comes about that makes some consumers uneasy, and their unease is emotionally driven, not rational.

Those preferring ‘natural’ remedies or products, such as food, are not a trivial part of the consumer population. A quick walk through your local supermarket will show that many consumers are on the lookout for goods marketed as natural, especially ones that promise vague, mystical powers such as an ‘energy boost’, a ‘detox’ or a ‘cleanse’.

The search for ‘natural’ goods and services can be seen in the realm of medicine too. This branches off into categories such as ‘natural medicine’, ‘naturopathy’, ‘homeopathy’ or ‘alternative medicine’. If these treatments actually worked so well, then they probably would not be regarded as ‘alternative’, rather they would be widespread.

It is important to note that this article could have focused on many different pseudo-scientific trends. Chemophobia, childbirth without available medical assistance, raw foodism, spiritual therapy, anti-vax, organics products, and climate denialism are all part of a network of folk beliefs. All of these practices tend to rely on poorly interpreted science to support themselves.

Humans are inclined to be attracted to emotional stories. Our intuitions tend to tell us to clutch onto anecdotes and emotionally driven arguments rather than rational ones. This part of our psychology is prevalent all throughout our culture. Just look at our advertising, or the political success of Trump.

The main problem comes about when the general public start to disregard the authority of science. When this happens, our culture of evidence-based theory is at risk of being challenged by an emotional herd. Ultimately, that’s when unjustified and unscientific thinking begins to pose a threat to the greater good of the public.


Tomo McKinnon

The author Tomo McKinnon

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