Nature knows best
You know the scene. Lulled by David Attenborough dulcet tones, you watch as a pack of wildebeest graze peacefully in the Serengeti grasslands, blissfully ignorant of the five hungry cheetahs studying their every move from afar. The tension builds as the cheetahs patiently hold back, waiting for the opportune moment to present itself. Finally, in a thrilling rush, the cheetahs spring into action. Chaos ensues. One unlucky wildebeest has been picked out from the pack and cornered. After a dramatic struggle, the hapless wildebeest goes down. Blood and guts stain the grass beneath its still body.

Nature is cruel. You can’t help but feel bad for the poor wildebeest. But at the same time, you know that the cheetahs must hunt to survive. It’s the circle of life, you tell yourself. Animals must kill and consume other animals.

The following day you happen to meet up with a vegan friend for lunch. Eventually, the conversation turns to his veganism and you ask him why he doesn’t eat meat. He relays a sob story about animal suffering and environmental harm. “But isn’t it natural?” you ask. You tell him about the cheetahs and the wildebeest, the circle of life. “Ah”, he says, “I used to think like that too.” He proceeds to explain how factory farming is actually quite unnatural. If we hunted to survive it would be one thing, he insists. But raising, fattening, and killing animals on a massive scale is bad for us, the animals, and the environment, case closed.

While your friend did make some interesting points, what he neglected to tell you was that your argument relied on what is called an ‘appeal to nature’. You claimed that we should eat meat because it is the natural thing to do. You also committed the ‘naturalistic fallacy’; you equated “natural” with “morally good”. Interestingly, in his rebuttal, your friend also made an appeal to nature. Rather than questioning your definition of ‘natural’ and its relevance to our meat-eating habits, he tacitly agreed with your premise and made the case that factory farming is in fact unnatural, and therefore wrong.

Appeal to nature in the wild
The appeal to nature fallacy often affects our decision-making and motivates our behaviour without us noticing. We may be dimly aware that we have a preference for the more “natural” choice or product but we rarely question that preference, or even ask ourselves whether we have a consistent definition for ‘natural’ in the first place. Worse, as with many fallacies and biases, knowledge of the appeal to nature fallacy does not mean we are immune to its influence. Whether it is food or medicine, I for one am often still a sucker for the more ‘natural’ option. It just feels better. Of course, advertisers have no qualms exploiting this preference by insisting that our products are natural, handpicked, and fresh off the farm. Take for example the packaging for the Chobani yogurt below:

So, in the spirit of debunking the appeal to nature fallacy, I did the most unnatural thing imaginable and consulted my dear friend ChatGPT (an AI generated chatbox that has been making waves in the media) for some examples of the appeal to nature fallacy in our everyday decision-making. While reading through these examples, ask yourself whether your gut is insisting you discredit the information due to its ‘unnatural’ source:

Appeal to nature in healthcare
As behavioural scientists working in healthcare, the Shift team at HRW regularly find the appeal to nature fallacy meddling with patient and physician perception and decision-making. For example, in one project we examined womens’ perception of a variety of contraception methods, focusing on IUDs (intrauterine devices). For those who aren’t up to speed, IUDs are small T-shaped contraceptive devices implanted into the uterus. They boast efficacy rates close to 100% and can prevent pregnancy for up to 12 years. There are two types of IUDs: Copper IUDs, which use copper to accomplish their task, and Hormonal IUDs, which use progesterone.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that many women are not especially fond of the idea of implanting a foreign device into their bodies. But interestingly, many see the hormonal coil as more ‘unnatural’ and therefore less appealing than the copper coil. One reason for this is that hormonal coils tend to reduce the frequency and intensity of periods, whereas copper coils tend to intensify periods. Because periods are considered to be natural, lighter periods are seen as unnatural and therefore more alarming than heavy periods (which are just a stronger version of a natural phenomenon). Some women even voice concerns that hormonal coils will rob them of their femininity.

Another common finding in healthcare is that lifestyle changes (think diet, exercise, sleep, or meditation) are often preferred to pharmacological intervention. Lifestyle changes are perceived as less invasive and more natural and are therefore thought to be the better, safer option. Often physicians will recommend lifestyle changes to patients instead of or in tandem with other forms of treatment. Of course, there is nothing wrong with lifestyle changes per se, healthier habits are something we should all strive towards. The problem arises when we substitute less effective lifestyle changes for more effective treatment options and suffer in the name of ‘nature’.

While the preference for natural interventions over ‘unnatural’ treatment has come up in a number of projects, I’ll recount instead how it has affected me on a personal level. I have been prone to chronic migraines since I was 10, but for most of my life have had no real treatment for them. One reason for this is that over the years I discovered one moderately effective, natural remedy: exercise. Often if I exercise at the right intensity at the right time, my migraine will recede. And why would I seek out pharmacological intervention when I have a natural treatment that forces me to stay in shape!

Well, there are plenty of reasons, the most pressing being that exercise does not always work, and that many situations are not conducive to exercise; I have exercised in some weird places, but still haven’t found a solution to exercising on a long flight (I can do pushups at the terminal before the flight and only attract a few curious glances, but there isn’t quite enough space in the airplane aisle to pump them out). The natural solution is not always best, but it can take a while to learn that.

The takeaway
In this article I’ve done my best to expose the pitfalls of relying on appeals to nature when making decisions. The point here is not that the natural option is never the correct one, but rather that ‘natural’ is a slippery concept to pin down and define, and the simple heuristic that ‘natural is always better’ is a faulty and misleading one. When making decisions you should always ask yourself: Am I doing this because I believe it to be natural? If that answer is yes, try to define what natural means to you in this scenario and whether it really is a good basis for your decision-making. And don’t blame yourself for your faulty reasoning—after all, it’s only natural!

By Jeremy Koloski

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