Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Natural Fallacy and the language of Alt Med

I have a general rule of thumb. If something is called alternative medicine it doesn't work, because if it worked we would just call it medicine. Its a good rule of thumb, but it isn't always true because some alternative medicines actually do have active ingredients. This exact issue was addressed in a recent Forbes article: There's Nothing Special About Alternative Medicine. The article pointed out that when an alternative medicine cures you or makes you better it is doing so because the chemicals in that alternative drug are having a chemical reaction with molecules in your body just like what happens with real medicine. The only difference is that the alternative medicine hasn't been tested and shown to work, otherwise it would be medicine. As the author stated
But it’s important to know that if [alternative meds] are having an effect, when it comes to your body, they’re no different from industrial pharmaceuticals. The meds interact with some molecules and change the way something works, regardless of what you call them. It’s just that with the alt-meds, we often don’t know anything else. By their ‘natural’, usually untested nature, they leave us uninformed.
This is a good summation of the fact that for an alternative medicine to work it must have some sort of chemical effect on the body. However, one commentor took issue with this and dove head first into the natural fallacy my topic for today.
The natural fallacy is the idea that "natural" things are healthier than "un-natural." This is an interesting idea that we could think about and wonder if it is true. First, we need to define what is "natural" vs. "un-natural" a task that is not as easy as it might seem. Google gives us this definition of natural:
Natural: Existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
Although this seems fairly straight forward, its not as simple as it seems. First, nature created humans, thus, in one sense anything created by humans was also created by nature, thus everything is natural. If that idea doesn't settle well with you then lets move to this idea slowly.

When humans plant seeds in the ground in rows and grow food that is something caused by humankind, not nature. Thus, food produced by even the simplest of agriculture is technically un-natural. The only way to eat natural food would be living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Under this definition any food grown by humans is un-natural. Maybe you disagree and say: "the seeds were produced by nature and humans just moved them around a little so basic agriculture is natural." If you think that then lets move on...

Nearly all foods today are vastly different than their "natural" state because of changes humans made to that food. Since the beginning of agriculture humans have used selective breeding with animals and plants to produce better plants for food and better animals. If you look to the right you can see our modern banana on the top and a wild banana on the bottom. Humans created modern banana from wild banana through selective breeding. As I stated before, bananas are not alone, almost all of our food today is vastly different from the wild versions because of selective breeding. Thus, all of our foods today are un-natural because they were changed by human hands. We bred food to be what we wanted it to be. Maybe you disagree and say: "breeding occurs in nature and humans just guided the breeding so selective breeding is natural." If you think that then lets move on...

Today new foods are produced through many different techniques. Sometimes the DNA of a food is hit with a large dose of radiation to change its genetic structure. We then select the best results from this process and produce those. Other times we may take the DNA out of one plant and place it in a different plant. I think most of us would say that this is un-natural. But, we could disagree just as we did above. Radiation occurs naturally from the sun and many other sources on earth. This radiation has changed the DNA of things on earth in the past, so when humans do it we are just guiding the radiation (like our guiding hand in selective breeding). With genetic engineering humans are just taking the DNA that nature created and moving it around (just like the seeds we moved into rows).

Even chemicals that are produced in a laboratory could be said to be "natural" in some sense. Chemical reactions are constantly happening in nature, our stomachs convert the food we eat into energy we can use by changing the chemical structure of the food we eat, the sun fuses hydrogen into helium, and the photosynthesis in plants is a chemical reaction that uses the suns rays to create energy for the plant. We could argue that laboratories just use human hands to guide completely natural chemical reactions just the same as we said selective breeding was human hands guiding the process of natural breeding.

The point I am moving toward is that its hard to determine what is natural and what is un-natural. There isn't a bright line that clearly marks when something becomes un-natural. The problem is that humans are a part of nature and everything we do is simply a manipulation of nature. It is strange that at some certain point we suddenly say that our manipulations of nature are no longer natural. We don't do this for any other species. No-one argues that a bird nest, a termite mound, or a monkey using sticks to fish termites out of that mound is un-natural. It seems odd to also say that human manipulation of nature is un-natural.

This is one of the reasons I think the term Natural is so worthless, it doesn't really tell us much useful. But there are other reasons that I think the the word "natural" isn't helpful. People often use the word "natural" to mean "healthy." As if the fact that something is natural somehow instantly makes it healthy. But, as I pointed out above, its hard to even determine when something suddenly becomes un-natural.

And we all know most of nature is actually extremely dangerous to us. Natural sunlight will burn our skin if we stay out in it too long. Most plants in the wild we cannot eat because they contain natural poisons that will make us sick or kill us. Natural animals and parasites roam the wild that are just waiting to kill us or invade our bodies so they can eat us.

Even worse, dangerous chemicals exist all around us. The B.P. oil spill in the gulf released natural oil into the gulf. Would you replace your cup of coffee with a cup of all-natural oil? The all natural metals we use to produce our buildings were pulled out of the ground where they natural occur but I wouldn't want to sit down to a meal of iron ore. Or take a look at the beautiful ocean in front of us, but don't drink because the natural salt water in the ocean is unhealthy.

Of course there are also many dangerous things made by humans as well. But, the point I am making is that just because something says "natural" does not mean it is safe. And many things we would consider to be un-natural actually are safe. Would you rather drink synthetic water produced in a laboratory by combining oxygen atoms with hydrogen atoms or drink a cup full of natural oil from the B.P. oil spill? The answer is obvious, we prefer water and we know that water produced in the lab is identical to water occurring in nature. Water is always the chemical H20. All of the water we see in nature was created by chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen that produced H20. There is no difference between whether we made it in the lab or nature created it when hydrogen and oxygen bumped into each other.

Now with that introduction I want to delve into the poetic rhetoric of the natural fallacy.

The Natural Fallacy: Romanticism and poetic rhetoric
The natural fallacy is the idea that natural things are inherently better than un-natural. As I discussed above, it is hard to determine what things are actually un-natural and I also pointed out that many natural things are dangerous. The natural fallacy ignores these facts and holds to a romantic view of nature and uses romantic poetic language to perpetuate the view that natural is better for us. This poetic language is a form of rhetoric used to convince people that natural is better and it is what I want to discuss next. To discuss this further I want to quote portions of the comment that I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Granted, herbs and supplements interact on molecules and cells in the body just as do pharmaceuticals. However, they present to the body more like old friends than like highly specialized, concentrated entities. Our bodies prefer “whole” substances to refined.
This is the perfect example of romanticized notions of natural herbs. The idea that natural substances "present to the body like old friends" is simply nonsense hidden behind poetic language. First off, why in the world would we believe natural herbs would be like "old friends" to the chemicals in our bodies. Remember, half of nature is trying to kill us to eat us and the other half is trying to prevent us from eating it. That is why so many plants have toxic chemicals in them, they are trying to stop us from eating them. From this perspective natural chemicals are more like old enemies than old friends. But, that doesn't fit well into the romanticized version of nature that many people hold so they choose to ignore it.

I also have to wonder how these herbs and the body "recognize" each other. I picture the chemicals in my body saying to the chemicals in an herb:

My body: "hi joe herb, good to see you again"
The Herb: "hi Bob body, watch out for Jean Medicine, I don't recognize him, I think he's from France."
The Medicine: "Hey, I might be from France but I'm just a chemical like you two!"

All of our synthetic chemicals were produced from natural chemicals and many synthetic chemicals are identical to chemicals occurring in nature. There is no good reason to believe natural ones are any better than un-natural. But, using poetic language like "old friends" can trick people into believing there is some difference.

The comment continues with the natural fallacy stating:
The question is a difference with biochemical approach overall. Pharmaceutical drugs are much more toxic than herbs and supplements and people know this. They do not represent a coordiated approach to the body systems. They often don’t recognize each other biochemically in the body like foods and herbs.
Again the commentor is using poetic rhetoric to obscure the fact that her words are nonsense. She says Pharmaceuticals "do not represent a coordinated approach to the body systems." What in the world is a "coordinated approach" and is a "coordinated approach" actually good for us? And why would natural herbs and alternative medicine give us this "coordinated approach" where real medicine does not. This is simply nonsense language that sounds nice and flowery.

Next the commentor tells us:
The educated use of herbs can, just like diet and lifestyle adjustments, heal a person from pharmaceutical dependencies and prevent same. The word healing implies promotion of adaptive physiological processes. Curing is something you do to prevent the spoilage of meat.
Here is where the flowery language gets really crazy. First the author tells us herbs can heal us from pharmaceutical dependency, a completely unfounded claim. The author seems to imply that herbs heal while pharmaceuticals cure. Then she states this nonsense "Curing is something you do to prevent the spoilage of meat." This is a clear demonstration that the commentor does not understand how language works. Curing has multiple meanings. One definition of curing is a process designed to prevent the spoilage of meat. But, this is very different from the medical definition of the word. In medical terms curing is the process of stopping a disease. The commentor is confusing these definitions but trying to make some poetic connection between these to very different things.

Here is a perfect example of poetic language and appealing to our innate ideas that natural is better.
Using nature in our healing just makes sense.
This is the natural fallacy in full force. It just assumes that natural is better but as I already discussed nature is in fact very dangerous. Then the poetic natural nonsense continues in her next comment:
Science is the study of nature. Nature holds the key to understanding through science. Nature is always right. Science, sometimes, is wrong.
Nature holds the hologram onto which all things are manifest; animate and inanimate. Nature is the set of everything, known and unknown. Science is the set of the known. This does not mean that unknown things are not true. Especially things which have a long history of use.
Natural remedies come from nature. They come directly from life or are simple life promoting elements.
This comment shows a vast lack of understanding of science. She is right, that science is the study of nature. But she is wrong, nature is not always "right," nature just exists and science is our method for learning about nature. That nature is always "correct" is simply a poetic way of looking at nature and doesn't actually mean anything. Science of course may not give us the correct interpretation of nature, but the only way to find out science is wrong is with more better science. Because if science is the study of nature the only way to find out if we are wrong about nature is with more science.

The commentor then runs into her biggest fallacy stating "Science is the set of the known. This does not mean that unknown things are not true." She is of course right, unknown things may be true. But at the same time unknown things may also be false. The unknown is simply unknown and we don't know if it is true or false. Somehow she wants to jump from the fact that we don't know if some alternative treatment works to stating that she knows it does work. Her excuse that it has been used for a long time. This is a ridiculous idea that length of use somehow means something works. It is a poetic notion that alternative medicines are natural and have been used forever so they probably do work. Well, lets set her up with some blood letting next time she gets sick.

The word "natural" tells us very little about health. Everything around us is a chemical and any chemical made by humans comes from nature. The only difference is the process by which we have changed it. People who believe that natural = good ignore the fact that most of nature is trying to fight us while on the other hand  most human made (aka un-natural) things have been designed to benefit us. Instead they believe romantic notions that nature is pure and beautiful and only works to protect us. If you really believe this I say why not trade out your morning cup of coffee for a big cup of all natural oil from the B.P. oil spill.

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