Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Fallacy, Naturally

Volcanic eruptions must be good, right?

If I could reverse one trend in the year ahead, it would be the use of the word "natural" in advertising. Our legal system spent too many resources in 2012 wrestling with whether products like Sobe® lifewater® or Dreyer's ice cream could legally claim to be "all natural" (the lifewater suite was dismissed, the Dreyer's suit was allowed to continue).
   Even if we could agree on what is natural, all-natural, unnatural or not-in-the-least-bit-natural, nothing can be ascertained from such information. British philosopher Julian Baggini says "There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse)."
   The idea that chemicals are artificial and necessarily bad is absurd. Everything including our own bodies are made of the same basic building blocks. Living things, both plant and animal, require the same ~30 elements to live and be healthy. We would be much better served by reading the calorie and fat content of that ice cream instead of trying to figure out if the chocolate is natural.
   Most biologists denounce an appeal to nature (also known as a naturalistic fallacy) because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without extracting morals about how we ought to behave. Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker explains "If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK. The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary." I could not agree more.
   Maybe I'm just more sensitive to crass marketing than most—I don't know. It could be because I work in the industry, so bad marketing hits a nerve with me. Or maybe it just bothers me that these sort of tactics work so well—a sign of a generally uneducated public, at least as far as science is concerned. I borrow from the Irish comedian Dara O Briain: "Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you." 
   Don't even get me started on what marketers have done with the word "organic".

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