Is the Naturalistic Fallacy Always Bad?

I am certainly not one to buy a product simply based on its claim to be “all-natural” or “organic.” I also don’t buy into the notion that because something is natural it is necessarily inherently good. In many cases, whether something is harmful or not comes down to the amount or the dose. Lead is a natural substance, and simply handling a lead bar is not going to harm you. But recent studies have shown reducing our lead exposure overall seems to have had an effect on crime. With any substance, it is important not to judge it solely on its closeness to nature, but on its interaction with biology. However, there is something to be said for being more diligent on things that do not appear in nature or have not been well-studied.

One such substance is the set flame-retardant chemicals known as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and related similar compounds. These compounds have been around since the 1970s as a way to slow the ignition and burn rate of most fabrics such as bedding, baby clothes, furniture, and other household items. Applying PBDEs is a quick and inexpensive way to meet flammability standards for these items.The National Association of State Fire Marshals estimates that 360 deaths and 740 injuries per year could be prevented if all furniture were to meet current flammability standards. More recently, there is some evidence the combustion of these chemicals might actually make fires more deadly.

PBDEs and related compounds are getting more press as they begin to show up in humans  and pretty much everything humans ingest. Studies on their effects are less clear. There are correlations between levels of PBDEs found in people and their horomone levels, sperm  quality, and thyroid functions in babies. There are also rodent studies on neurotransmitter levels, neurobehavioral function, carcinogenesis, thyroid dysfunction, etc. The limited number of human studies and the short amount of time the studies have been proceeding make it difficult to make a determination as to the safety of PBDEs. Most of the articles translating these studies seem to fall into one of two camps; either don’t worry about it because the effects are overblown or people panicked these chemicals will destroy human civilization. There isn’t much info in places I would normally look to find reasonable analysis of these early studies.

It seems the people concerned are getting their voices heard the loudest. Europe and a couple of states in the U.S. are banning the use of most forms of PBDEs in most instances. I personally don’t like having policy set based on weak data and the idea of something not being “natural,” but it happens quite often. BPA is a perfect example of a substance being banned without sufficient evidence that it was unsafe at the levels of exposure normally experienced.

This leads to my idea that perhaps the naturalistic fallacy can serve some purpose. In the case of BPA, other substances took its place, often chemicals that we know less about because they haven’t been produced for as long and have not been studied as thoroughly. Because the substances offer some property that is desired, they are brought to market. And perhaps that is the problem – we are not often informed by the manufacturer of what materials are being used and what properties they impart on our products so that we as consumers can make a more informed decision. Perhaps it is better to use well known substances, especially when the properties are nearly as good as newer, less studied products.

For example, for my children I have chosen to use either glass bottles or polypropylene bottles and cups. Glass is more or less inert, and is made up of the same constituents as sand. Polypropylene is a great plastic. It is durable, light, and easily identifiable. It also emits less smoke and no toxic halogens when it burns, making it less toxic even when it is disposed of by incineration. Environmental groups mostly give polypropylene a pass, even groups that normally overreact to other studies on various plastics. I might be employing a “gut-feeling” or a “naturalistic fallacy” in making my choice, but it isn’t as if I am sacrificing any quality or anything necessary or even increasing any known risk to make such a decision.

I am starting to take the same thinking with PBDEs. My biggest concern is PBDEs are found to be very persistent in the environment. Even though the evidence of harm is somewhat limited at this point, if there is harm the impact could be long-lasting. However, there is always a trade-off of risk versus benefit. As we understand more about the process of structure fires, policy is being changed from using specific products to a more reasonable approach of meeting an ignition and burning standard. Kellyn Betts interviewed Richard Gann, a senior research scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Building and Fire Research Laboratory about these new standards. He states:

Two new standards from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are opening the door for innovative approaches for protecting consumer goods containing polyurethane foam from fire. The first took effect last year for mattresses. This standard is innovative in being the first in the United States to focus on the rate of heat release, which fire safety experts recognize is the main determinant of how quickly a fire can spread out of control to the flashover point.

There are more “natural” ways of meeting this standard. As an article in Yale’s Environment 360 points out, some companies are meeting strict standards without any flame-retardant chemicals.

Two companies that manufacture children’s products are working to eliminate the need for flame-retardant chemicals by using fabrics whose density and composition enable them to meet flammability standards without chemical additives. Joseph Hei, president and founder of OrbitBaby, said his company has commissioned the milling of its own patented, organic cotton-wool blend fabrics that are fire-resistant. The safety of the products is certified to the Oeko-Tex 100 standard, administered by the Zurich-based Oeko-Tex Institute, which conducts tests to ensure the safety of textiles. “We verify and do our own follow-up screening of these fabrics,” Hei said in an interview.

Andreas Zandren, vice-president for sales, marketing, and product development for BabyBjorn, said his company has found a similar solution by using a densely woven cotton in some products and thinner foams that don’t require use of flame retardants. BabyBjorn does in-house testing of all fabrics to make sure they are free of hazardous flame retardants, Zandren said.

My application of the “naturalistic fallacy” or natural approach is this: if there is a cost-effective solution to a known problem that is already well studied or something natural we know is relatively safe, then that is probably the better solution. Scientific study can show this. For example, my doctor’s first treatment for any of my ailments is usually a medicine  that has been around for decades, because he knows it is cheap, has a long safety record, and its efficacy is well-studied.  I also look at persistence in the environment, and if I can find solutions to a problem that are also recyclable or have a specific process for breaking them down into known substances, that is the choice I will make. In some instances, it makes sense to look around in nature for solutions, especially ones that are less complex. I know I will look for alternatives to PBDEs, because there are alternatives that still mitigate the risk of injury or death, and yet do not have possible long-term effects on the environment and human biology. I am not willing to give up safety on account of inconclusive studies on some harm or out of fear of something unknown, but I will switch my risk reduction method if the other method has less downside. Perhaps my application in this instance isn’t a fallacy, but instead it is a reasonable position.

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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14 Responses to Is the Naturalistic Fallacy Always Bad?

  1. Wordwizard says:

    My father was a biochemist, and he told me that if you use something [medicine] that hasn’t been around for 30 years, you are the guinea pig. Of course, he died before the rate of change was as fast as it is now, long before microwaves or cellphones or even personal computers became commonplaces. I wonder how he would have taken having so much around that has no long-term studies of safety. I don’t think he or you are wrong.

    • Stephen Propatier says:

      Agree on the regulation. In medicine I say from FDA approval 7-8 years is the normal time frame that we have a pretty good idea what the real problems are with the medicines. Before that the medication data is what I would call the best case scenario.

  2. Freke1 says:

    If the population are to be healthy (without levels of plastic softener phthalates – DEHP, DBP and BBP, medicine from cow/pork meat, flame retardant, mad cow disease prions, pestisides from fruit, vegetables, lead from petrol in the blood) the government really needs to control and regulate the industries heavily.

    • Wordwizard says:

      These industries are not nearly as heavily regulated as needed for public safety, and with industry’s deep pockets, unlikely to be any time in the near future, either.

  3. Stephen Propatier says:

    “if there is a cost-effective solution to a known problem that is already well studied or something natural we know is relatively safe, then that is probably the better solution.”

    If you leave out the “or something natural” part I would agree. I am still not certain what part of “Natural” is more desirable. Natural borders on the term organic as useless. It is a marketing term not really a factor that has any basis in benefit.

    @ Freke 1
    Those industries ARE heavily regulated a least in the US. It would also be good to remember that our life expectancy is much greater now than it was before those things were invented/discovered. Developing evidence about those issues needs to be continued and updated. Some of the things you have listed have been studied, and so far no impact Overall the impact of your listed issues, on our general health, is statistically negligible. Atmosphere particulate levels since the industrial age and heavy metal exposure are the greatest real health threats on your list. Smoking, inactivity, high fat/calorie diets, morbid obesity, and secondary illnesses you develop due those factors creates more illness than any other external factor. At least in the so called 1st world.
    FYI being morbidly obese 100% natural.

    • Freke1 says:

      I know, they don’t kill ya, they just give hormone disturbances, deform genitals, low IQ, aggression, Alzheimers, poor sperm and allergies from what I know.

    • Eric Hall says:

      I guess I was using natural to mean something that occurs in nature without any influence – because these things in general have less of a problem with persistence. That is my biggest concern with some of the engineered chemicals is that we do not have knowledge of how long they will last in the environment. The examples I gave such as the different weaves of wool/cotton – we know the wool and cotton can be incinerated at a hot enough temperature, can compost (although very slowly) without any harm to humans, or it can be recycled in some instances.

      I also say “natural” because I like the idea of using things that nature can create as it means, in general, less energy input into getting the product ready for use. This isn’t always the case, but my casual research shows this is generally the case.

      This was a hard post to write – I wanted to clearly identify that not every man-made chemical is bad, but there are times where seeking a less processed route is preferable.

      • Stephen Propatier says:

        Eric I still think that something quantified as natural give absolutely no indication about safety one way or another. Items need to be considered individually on their own merit and evidence. It is why I think it is useless as a decision tool. In my opinion there is an equal distribution between issues of natural and chemically produced items. Is uranium more degradable and less toxic than plutonium. Yes. Is it better to have radiation poisoning from one or the other? Does the difference in half life make a difference to us individually? Is Lead and mercury safer than stainless steel. No. Synthetically produced penicillin is more effective and has fewer allergic responses than the traditional fungal vat method. Just a few examples. Meaning there are many examples of one being superior to the other. Which means, to me, it is a push not a tiebreaker.The modern term “natural” give it a suggestive bias that it is better. The assumption of “better” is individual and not reliable. Again, not useful in my decision making process.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The naturalistic fallacy is still bad, as it says that something “natural” must be automatically better, a dangerous falsehood. You’re not committing the fallacy though-you just said that for this one instance a more natural substance is better. This would only be an example of the fallacy if you said it was “always” better.

  5. The naturalistic fallacy is still bad, as it says that something “natural” must be automatically better, a dangerous falsehood. You’re not committing the fallacy though-you just said that for this one instance a more natural substance is better. This would only be an example of the fallacy if you said it was “always” better.

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