The ‘Appeal to Nature’ Fallacy: Why Natural Isn’t Always Better

The ‘Appeal to Nature’ Fallacy


An appeal to nature is an argument that claims that something is either good because it is considered ‘natural’, or bad because it is considered ‘unnatural’.

Because this kind of fallacious thinking frequently plays a role in debates on various topics, it is important to fully understand it. The following article will explain how this fallacy works, highlight the flaws in this type of reasoning, and show you how to successfully counter people who use appeal to nature arguments to support their stance.


Understanding appeal to nature arguments

An appeal to nature argument can be used to demonstrate support for something, by arguing that:

X is natural (and natural is good), so therefore X is good.

For example:

Herbal medicine is natural, so it is good for you.

Conversely, it can also be used to argue against something, by stating that:

Y is unnatural (and unnatural is bad), so therefore Y is bad.

For example:

Antibiotics are unnatural, so they are bad for you.

As you can see, there are some gaping holes in this reasoning process. This is because the appeal to nature is an informal logical fallacy, which means that the content of the argument fails to support its proposed conclusion. In the next section, we will see why that is, by examining the issues which are inherent in this reasoning, and seeing how you can focus on these issues in order to counter appeal to nature arguments.


Countering appeal to nature arguments

There are two main issues that you can focus on when countering appeal to nature arguments. These are:

  • The difficulty of defining what ‘natural’ means.
  • The fact that ‘natural’ isn’t always good.

You should generally pick one flaw and focus on that. If necessary, you can expand later on, and attack the other flaw in the opponent’s argument too.


‘Natural’ is hard to define

There is no clear way to classify something as ‘natural’, and people are often incorrect about believing that something is natural, even by their own standards. For example, people often use generic terms like “chemicals” to denote that something is unnatural (and therefore bad).

However, this distinction is meaningless, since it is difficult to define what “chemical” means exactly, and most people who use this term won’t be able to do so if you ask them. Furthermore, there are plenty of “chemicals” which are naturally occurring, such as ammonia, and which these people often won’t perceive as ‘natural’ under their own definition.

Therefore, one way in which you can counter these arguments is to ask your opponent to explain what they mean by ‘natural’. Then, you can give examples of things that will be classified as natural under their definition, but which contradict the point that they are trying to make about something being natural.

Another thing you can do is point out the fact that some things which people assume are unnatural are actually more natural than they think. Antibiotics, for example, were first derived from molds, and today plants still serve as a source for many antimicrobial drugs.

Finally, you can also point out the fact that the definition of what is ‘natural’ changes over time. This is especially helpful when the argument revolves around social conventions, such as the acceptability of same-sex marriage.

You can do this by juxtaposing your opponent’s current beliefs against older societal beliefs, such as the idea that it is unnatural for members of two different races to marry. By doing this, you are demonstrating the problem with the idea of defining certain social practices as ‘natural’ or as ‘unnatural’, while highlighting the bigotry in your opponent’s argument.


‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’

You can also point out the fact that just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean that it’s good, and that just because something is unnatural, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. The best way to do this is by using specific counterexamples, as you can see in the following cases:

  • Cyanide is also natural (it can be found in cherry, apple, and peach pits), so natural clearly isn’t always good for you.”
  • “Cars and planes are also unnatural, so does that mean we should never use them again, and just stick to walking?”
  • Steve Jobs also relied on ‘natural’ medicine to treat his cancer, and it likely cost him his life.”


Accounting for the backfire effect

When arguing against people who use appeals to nature, you should keep in mind the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that sometimes causes people to cling more strongly to their beliefs when they are presented with information that contradicts them.

Because of this effect, pointing out the logical flaws in an appeal to nature argument might cause an adverse reaction, and lead your opponent to cling even more strongly to their fallacious reasoning. To mitigate this, you should avoid being too confrontational when pointing out the issues with this type of reasoning. Specifically, this means that if you actually want to change the other person’s mind, the best course of action is to help them see the gap in their logic themselves, by introducing your counterarguments slowly, and helping them internalize the issue with their original stance.

For example, if you want to point out that just because something is natural that doesn’t mean that it’s good, you can help the other person reach that conclusion themself, by presenting them with relevant information, rather than by stating this directly. That is, if someone says that a certain herbal medication is safe because it’s plant-based and therefore ‘natural’, your first instinct might be to say something like:

Well, cyanide is plant-based and natural too, so I guess natural doesn’t always mean that it’s safe.

However, if your goal is to get them to change their mind, you can often benefit more from saying:

I understand where you’re coming from, but I still think you need to make sure that it’s been tested and shown to be safe. I read about some cases where simple herbal teas caused pretty severe medical complications, and apparently one of the issues is that these teas are often unregulated, so manufacturers aren’t required to list their potential side effects on the package, unlike with regular medication.

Again, your approach depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by discussing the topic. Specifically, ask yourself whether you just want to point out that the other person is wrong (which is perfectly fine in some situations), or whether you want them to truly understand and internalize the issue with their reasoning.


Using appeal to nature arguments yourself

It’s important to consider the fact that you might be using this type of reasoning yourself, unintentionally. If so, try to be more critical of your thought process in areas where this might be the case. Essentially, if your only argument in favor or against something is that it is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’, try to question your own reasoning, by using the techniques that we saw above for countering these arguments. This will allow you to look at things in a more rational way, and to make better, more-informed decisions.


Summary and conclusions

  • An ‘appeal to nature’ is a logically-fallacious argument, which involves claiming that something is either good because it’s considered ‘natural’, or bad because it’s considered ‘unnatural’.
  • This type of reasoning has two main flaws, which you can focus on to counter people who use it.
  • The first flaw in this reasoning is that it’s difficult to classify something as ‘natural’, and people are often wrong about it even by their own standards. You can point this out by asking your opponent to define what is ‘natural’, and by giving examples for things which are natural under their definition, but which they clearly wouldn’t think of as such.
  • The second flaw in this reasoning is that just because something is ‘natural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s good, and just because something is ‘unnatural’, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. You can point this out by giving specific counterexamples for ‘natural’ things which are bad, and for ‘unnatural’ things which are good.
  • When you point out the flaws in this logic, your opponent might experience the backfire effect, which will cause them to support their original stance more strongly in the face of evidence that they’re wrong. To avoid this, you can point out the flaws in their reasoning in an indirect, non-confrontational manner, which will help them come to the right conclusions by themself.


Don’t Just Think Outside the Box: Ignore It

Don't just think outside the box: ignore it


A Stanford professor once gave her class the following assignment: using a $5 investment as seed money, earn the largest amount of money you can, in just two hours. Each of the fourteen teams in the class was given a few days to plan what they would do, with the rule being that once they open the envelope with the cash, they have only two hours to run their scheme. Afterwards, the money would be tallied, and they would have to present their project to the class.

If you want, you can take a few minutes to think what you would do in this scenario before continuing. Otherwise, read on to see what happened.


The winning projects

When this assignment is presented, people’s first instincts usually fall under two categories. The first is to suggest something along the lines of “buy a lottery ticket” or “go to a casino”. While this could work in theory, the odds are inherently against you, and you’ll just be relying on dumb luck.

The second thing people often do is suggest traditional business ideas, such as setting up a lemonade stand or a car wash, using the $5 as seed money in order to purchase the necessary supplies. While this method is less risky, the problem is that it only has a low potential for success.

However, after giving it some thought, the teams often manage to come up with more creative solutions, which allow them to make much more money than they would otherwise, without having to take on any additional risks.

One team identified a common problem in college towns: the frustratingly long lines at popular restaurants on Saturday night. Their idea was to help people solve this problem, for a fee. First, they walked around and made reservations at several restaurants. Once the time for their reservation approached, they went to customers waiting in line, and sold each reservation for up to $20, to people who were happy to pay in order to avoid the long wait.

As the night went on, this team also noticed that they had an easier time selling their reservations in restaurants that use a pager to let customers know that their table is ready. They attributed this to people being more comfortable paying when they receive something tangible in exchange, which led them to focus on this type of restaurants.

This new focus also offered an additional benefit: after switching the original pager with the new one which had a reservation for a later time, the team could wait a bit and then sell the newly-acquired pager to a new customer, who gave them a new pager in return, thus creating a profitable cycle.

Another team set up a stand in front of the student-union building, where they offered to measure the tire pressure on people’s bikes for free. Then, if the tires needed to be refilled, they offered to do so for the price of $1. Initially, they were worried that they were taking advantage of their fellow students, who could fill their tires for free at a nearby gas station.

However, after serving a few people, the team realized that the students were grateful, because this service offered them a valuable degree of convenience, for which they were happy to pay a small price. Like the first team, this team also adjusted halfway through the two-hour period, and started asking for donations, instead of a fixed payment. Because students were grateful for this service, the team’s income soared.

The team that made the most money took a completely different approach. They realized that the most valuable asset that they have isn’t the $5 or the two hours dedicated to running their scheme, but rather the three-minute class presentation, where they hold the attention of all the students in their class. This group sold their presentation time to a company that wanted to recruit students from the class, and spent the three minutes pitching the company to their fellow students.

All these teams had one thing in common: instead of trying to solve the solution within the constraining $5 framework, they took a completely different approach, and managed to make much more money than they would have otherwise.


Summary and conclusions

  • Students were given a simple task: using $5 and two hours, make the largest amount of money possible.
  • The winning teams were those who ignored the $5 completely, and who were therefore not constrained by this limiting amount.
  • One team made reservations to restaurants during peak times, and then sold them to people waiting in line. Another team offered to add air to people’s bicycle tires, for a fee. The team that made the most money was the one who sold the time allotted for their class presentation to a company that wanted to recruit students from their class.
  • The lesson here is that sometimes, when trying to find a solution to a problem, you can benefit from attacking the problem from a completely new angle that bypasses any limiting constraints, rather than trying to work within the framework of these constraints.
  • Another lesson from the winning teams is that you should adjust your solution as you go along. For example, the team selling the reservations realized that their scheme works better at restaurants which use a pager to alert customers about their reservations, while the team filling tires realized that they can make more money by asking for a donation, instead of a fixed-fee payment.


The Handicap Principle: Why Accepting a Disadvantage is a Show of Strength

The Handicap Principle


The handicap principle is the idea that in order to guarantee honesty in communication, the signals that you make must be costly in some way. Therefore, if you want to showcase your strength, you must be willing to pay a price, and the greater the price, the more reliable your show of strength will be.

For example, think of a peacock’s tail. Aside from looking pretty, it serves little to no functional purpose. At the same time, it takes a considerable amount of resources to grow and to carry around, and makes it harder for the peacock to escape predators. Because of this, the bigger the tail, the more impressive it is, since it signals to other peacocks that the individual walking around with it is fit enough to find food and evade predators, despite his handicap.

In this article, you will learn more about the handicap principle and about the theory behind it, and see how understanding it can benefit you in practice.


Theory of the handicap principle

The basic idea behind the handicap principle is that reliable signals must incur a cost to the signaler, and the heavier the cost, the more reliable the signal is.

For example, let’s go back to the peacock’s tail. A large tail serves as a reliable signal, because the cost of carrying it is high, in terms of the resources the peacock must consume, and in terms of the difficulty of avoiding predators. The female peacocks therefore trust it as a signal, because a male that is not fit enough to carry his big tail around, generally won’t be able to survive for long.

Humans are no different, and showcase their strength through their willingness to pay a price in some way. Often, this price is monetary, as people buy expensive products in order to demonstrate their financial strength. For example, a person might buy a luxury watch as a signal that they are wealthy, since buying the watch shows that they can afford to spend a large amount of money on something that serves mostly as a status symbol.

However, the price that a person pays doesn’t always have to do with money. In sports, for example, there is the concept of a golf handicap, which refers to the number of golf strokes that a player is limited to during a game. Under this context, the better the player is, the greater the handicap that they play with.

Since a player’s handicap is determined based on their past performance in golf matches, it serves as a direct indicator of their golfing ability. If a weak player claims to be better than they are in reality, they will have to prove it by playing with a significant handicap. Because they’re not actually good enough to play at that level, they will simply end up losing most of their matches, until they accept a handicap that matches their true abilities.


Signal inflation

The value of a signal can degrade over time, because once a signal becomes affordable to everyone, its value shrinks, in a process of inflation.

For example, in a park where food is plentiful and there are no natural predators, a peacock’s extravagant tail might not serve as a good indicator of fitness, since even weak males could afford to carry a tail like that around.

The same is true with cars. Once, simply owning a car was a status symbol by itself. Eventually however, cars became ubiquitous, and owning a luxury car became the new status symbol.

Now, thanks to leasing and loans, even this signal degraded, since people can drive around in relatively expensive cars, without being wealthy enough to own them in a responsible manner. This makes such a signal less reliable, and means that people have to either buy more expensive cars, or turn to other status symbols in order to demonstrate their wealth.


Altruism and prestige

The handicap principle can explain a lot of altruistic behavior, since altruism, or the willingness to care for others, serves as a signal of personal ability, which increases the prestige of the signaler in the eyes of others.

For example, when a male bird gives some of his food to weak members of his flock, he is demonstrating his ability to easily get food, which increases his prestige in the eyes of other members of the flock.

This can be so beneficial to one’s social standing, that sometimes competitive altruism develops. When this happens, different members of the group will fight for the opportunity to show others how altruistic they are, and how much they can help others, in order to improve their standing within the group hierarchy.


The value of understanding the handicap principle

You can use the handicap principle to make your signals and communication appear more honest. Understand that the greater the cost you incur when signaling others, the more reliable your communication will appear. Cost can be anything of value, including your willingness to spend time, money, or effort.

You can also use the handicap principle in order to interpret other people’s signals. If you’re unsure about how honest someone is, ask yourself what cost they are incurring by signaling whatever they are signaling, and what price they will have to pay if they are being dishonest.

Key points to remember:

  • A high cost does not ensure honesty, but it does contribute to the signal’s reliability.
  • Cost is relative to the situation and to the signaler’s ability. A $100 donation from a poor college student can be a much stronger signal than a $1,000 donation from a large corporation.
  • The cost must be relevant to the signal, and of interest to whomever you are signaling to. For example, if someone wants to see that you care about them through your willingness to spend time and effort, spending all the money in the world might not help.


Summary and conclusions

  • The handicap principle denotes that in order to guarantee honesty in communication, the signals that you make must be costly in some way.
  • Therefore, if you want to display your strength, you must be willing to pay a price, and the greater the price, the more reliable your show of strength will be.
  • For example, a peacock’s tail serves no functional purpose, and requires a lot of resources to carry around, while also making it difficult for the peacock to escape predators. Because of this, it serves as a good signal of fitness, since weak males who grow a big tail likely won’t survive for long.
  • A common way for people to display their strength is by buying expensive things, which signal others that they are strong from a financial perspective.
  • When communicating with others, always keep in mind that the greater the cost of the signal, the more reliable it is. This is important both when you try to get others to trust your signals, as well as when you consider the honesty of other people’s communication.


If you want to learn more about the handicap principle, beyond the basic information outlined in this article, take a look at the original book on the topic “The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle“.