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Logical Fallacies: Natural Is Not Synonymous with Good

Welcome the first in a debut series, Mondays Musings with Matt. Matt has authored many of our most popular posts (i.e. Fattest People in Paleo, Your Non-Cooperative Spouse, and What It Feels Like to Lose 200lbs, among many) not to mention is also the chef. We mentioned a few weeks ago that in realization that the blog had kind of gotten away from us over time, that we were focusing on bringing you more creative, fresh, engaging content. To that end, I asked my incredibly smart and passionate husband to share some of his thoughts on the movement and community. I hope you’ll find this series to be thought provoking and help you find your own path to health. -Stacy

Monday Musings with Matt, Natural Is Not Synonymous with Good

I feel a lot of cognitive dissonance being involved in paleo. On the one hand, I believe that this is a great way to eat and live and has provided me with a lot of benefits. I think that most people who eat this way will feel great and see lots of health improvements while doing it. But there’s an aspect to the paleo community that has always made me feel uneasy.

Logical Fallacies

When you’re in paleo, you’re, obviously, outside the mainstream. But that will never mean that everything mainstream is wrong. It would be folly to ever reject something just because it’s popular. It’s important to exercise your brain and discover how to weigh competing ideas to find the one that most lines up with your goals. There are thinking tools that are good for weighing ideas, and there are other tools that will invariably lead you to incorrect assumptions. The name for the tools that don’t work is logical fallacies, meaning that they are reasoning techniques that people use to examine the world that won’t lead you to the truth.

I’d like to deconstruct these as they apply to paleo from time to time, and today we’re going to tackle the feared word “Natural”.

Naturalistic Fallacy

The naturalistic fallacy is an attempt to argue that because the world is naturally a certain way, that means that it ought to be that way. By making that connection you are adding an unsupported premise that the way things work without human is always the best way. And it’s pretty clear that that’s not true, and few people think that it is. For example, it’s natural for people to die when they are seriously ill or injured. That doesn’t mean we should avoid life saving medication as a means of intervention.

Some of the biggest names in paleo commit this fallacy without even realizing it. The rule is: just because it’s man-made is not a reason to reject something. You need to show a reason why it’s best to avoid something other than “it’s not natural”. After all, it’s not natural to have crops or livestock to begin with!

When you make an argument referencing something’s naturalness, you’re playing into the strawman that people use to argue against paleo. If you’re rejecting ingredients on the basis of naturalness (“I don’t use almond flour because it’s not natural to grind up nuts into a flour.”) you’re helping people reject paleo with the same logic (“Ha! Caveman diet! Do you wear a loincloth and kill aurochs with your atlatl?”). There are much better reasons to reject things (“I don’t use almond flour because it’s high in Omega 6 and much more calorically dense than other ingredients due to the high fat content of nuts. Also, I don’t feel that making special treats a part of my daily diet is a best choice for my health.”).

Examples to Watch Out For

Ready for some examples? Let’s start off by calling out myself!

Imagine, if you will, a pack of wolves chasing down a cow. They lay in wait in the bushes, stalking their prey. They set up their pack so as to gain the best advantage. They bolt after her, the chase begins. They bring her down and, instead of breaking her neck or ripping her jugular, they pin her down… take turns sucking on her udders? As completely absurd as this is, humans readily acknowledge that they’re the only animals that drink another animal’s milk.

Matthew McCarry, Paleo Parents

Oh my god. I can’t imagine I’ve ever written a more cringe-inducing paragraph in my life and I spent my teens roleplaying 2000 word interviews by fantasy professional wrestlers that I made up! And I was also on LiveJournal!

The fact that other animals don’t drink milk is not a reason to avoid dairy. There are plenty of great reasons to drink dairy: it’s full of healthy nutrients and healthy fats. There are also reasons not to: it’s potentially inflammatory and indigestible to some people. That’s the argument to have, and it doesn’t have anything to do with wolves.

And while we’re at it, lets call out our friends!

Carrageenan is derived from edible red seaweed (that’s sounds okay so far, right?).  The seaweed is dried, ground, sifted and then washed prior to being chemically treated with a hot alkali solution (typically potassium hydroxide, aka caustic potash, also used to make batteries and biodiesel, yum).  The carrageenan is then separated out by centrifugation and filtration, then dehydrated back into a powder.

Sarah Ballantyne, The Paleo Mom

When you tell me that there’s an ingredient in my food that is derived from soaking seaweed in caustic potash, I am absolutely ready to believe you that it is toxic! That doesn’t sound appealing at all! But you have left out a middle step here: is it toxin then remain from something that was treated with a highly alkaline solution? Because in the next sentence, it’s noted they remove the alkali solution through centrifugation, filtration and dehydration so it does not seem like much of the potash is in the final product. This is not a persuasive reason to avoid Carrageenan. (Although, later in the post Sarah does go into detail on the actual harmful effects of Carrageenan.)

It’s Not Natural

I did a search for the phrase “not natural paleo” and came up with quite a lot of stuff trying to claim that various stuff is not natural, often as comments and message board posts. I want to be very clear: we don’t eat a paleo diet because it is a “more natural” human diet. We eat the way we do because it is healthier to eat this way. Imagine a world where we found out that if we processed wheat grains in a dozen different ways (including soaking it in caustic potash and animal urine and somewhere along the way it required that we train wolves to nurse cows). Imagine that we did this because the resulting product was a perfect food that was nutrient dense and not inflammatory  and the whole process was ecologically neutral and economically effective as well. That hunk o’ wheat food would be what I would choose to eat for every meal.

Now that’s not to say that whether something is natural plays no part in your argumentation. It can. We often say that the reason paleo is healthy is because it tries to incorporate foods that are best digested by the human body. That’s another way of saying “natural”, of course, but it’s not a fallacy because we have provided reasoning as to why, in this case, working with how the human body naturally digests is beneficial.

But please be aware of what someone else’s definition of natural is. Surely something could be “natural” to someone else (like mega-food-corporations) that actually is very different from what you’d define as natural. Again, that’s not to say that just because something says natural that it necessarily something to avoid eating (example: citric acid CAN mean just lemon juice). I’m  reminded of John Rock, the Catholic doctor who helped invent the birth control pill. He was confident the Catholic Church would approve of it because, unlike condoms, the pill worked with the natural processes of the body through hormones. As you’re probably aware, the Catholic Church did not see it his way, which broke his heart.

Why UNNATURAL is Just Fine Sometimes

Finally, a little bit of controversy. I’m firmly in favor of medical science. I honestly think that it’s one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind that we know enough to actually cure things. We eradicated smallpox and are close to eliminating polio and guinea worm disease. Recently, and most important in my life as I know a sufferer, we developed a cure for hepatitis C. We went from shortened lifespans with a high chance of needing a liver transplant to cured. Those certain medical practices being not natural are not a concern for me. What matters is effectiveness. Which is why you’ll never, ever hear an anything anti-medical treatment from Paleo Parents – or pro-alternative treatment especially when it comes at the expense of proven medical treatments.

I’m reminded of the woman that died of cancer after following The Secret,  despite the fact that Oprah didn’t intend for that to be used as a replacement for medical treatment when she aired that show. It appears some people in the community jump to the same conclusions for how to treat their own medical issues from information shared with some of the leaders in this movement, and it’s important to us that you do not use the information we share as a replacement for medical treatment. We have extreme confidence that the scientific process works, though it often takes time for the good ideas to win out.

“Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

-Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of what will, hopefully, be a recurring series on how to best argue your position and how to avoid errors in logic! If you have a pet peeve logical fallacy, comment or email me and maybe it will appear as a topic in the future!

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  • Tricia Lee

    This is a great post and solidifies your blog as one of my favorites in the Paleo world. The hyperbole that people enter into when trying to make a point always makes me cringe (as in Sarah Ballantyne’s quote above, despite that she is incredibly well-researched, this quote comes across as trite. Water is used to cool nuclear cores during reactions and in many other caustic reactions, should we then abstain from water?). Indeed, the paleo lifestyle is an intelligent approach built on modern knowledge and there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water when entering into an “alternative” life like this one.

  • I loved this article, Matt! I’ll be honest, I’ve been prey to this fallacy as well. But as far as fallacies are concerned, I always find it helpful to have it pointed out and explained to me so I can then easily identify where its used.
    In my early days of going paleo, I told people who asked about it that “it’s more natural”, but after learning more I quickly switched to telling people I choose to eat this way because I believe it’s healthier for me, which I think is a much better explanation. And you’re totally right that the word “natural” is subjective and not everyone’s definition is the same in the first place!

  • Lisa

    This. Is. Wonderful. Thank you Matt for sharing your thoughts on this! I completely agree. My immediate reaction to any sort of “I am right and those people are wrong” kind of statements is skepticism. I am thankful that the paleo community leaders that I first stumbled across when transitioning to paleo were the likes of you and Stacy. Without critically thinking about these kinds of things, paleo would just be dogma! Ya’lls blog has always been a favorite of mine in terms of not just recipes, but also thought provoking pieces like this one. Rock on!

  • This is a great article to kick off your new musings, thank you for sharing! We also fall prey to using the word ‘natural’ as it’s an easy answer, and one that we base on assuming nature knows best. And indeed, she probably does, but guiding people to healthier living needs more thorough explanations in order for people to understand and apply the bigger picture. What’s more, we don’t exactly live in a natural environment any longer.

    In fact, I recently wrote an article on natural parenting which takes this into mind and questions how we can naturally parent when lacking our natural support system. Would love if you guys could check it out and share your thoughts: http://bit.ly/1Ce41Eu

    Oh and that’s great you were able to critique yourselves – as new bloggers, I’m sure we have many cringeworthy paragraphs coming our way…!

  • leslie

    Excellent! One of the main reasons I love you guys (and there are many main reasons, I admit) is that you don’t follow the “caveman ate it so we eat it” logic. I don’t usually tell people I eat paleo because that fallacy is so pervasive and stereotyped for this way of living. I focus on the nutrient dense/ non-inflammatory part if I do discuss it, and I find it much easier to talk to people about it since they don’t have to follow the caveman ‘logic.’ Having you go through this helps me articulate why I don’t like that logic. Thanks for writing this! I look forward to many more Mondays with Matthew!

  • Jennifer

    LOVE this and am so happy that you wrote this. I keep quiet on a lot of Paleo boards (even though I read a lot) due to being and ER nurse…and *gasp* believing in vaccinations….antibiotics…mammograms when needed…etc. One thing that real irks me with the natural movement is the “blame factor”..that if you get sick/cancer/etc….it is something you “did” or exposed yourself to (John Hopkins just completed a massive amount of research and basically concluded that a lot of cancers are just ‘bad luck”) And to all those “natural” advocates….have some hemlock tea and tell me how it goes 😉