Everything wrong with the American enchantment with “natural” in one simple image


A picture is worth a thousand words.

People (myself included) have devoted tens of thousands of words to debunking the American love affair with the naturalistic fallacy, but none of us has come close to the unwitting brilliance Briana Santoro* of The Naked Label. Using a quote from Diane Sanfilippo, Santoro created an image that encapsulates what’s wrong with everything from “natural” food to natural childbirth.

What is the naturalistic fallacy, sometimes known as the is-ought problem? It is the fallacy that if something is a certain way in nature, that’s the way it ought to be. It is widely beloved of anti-vaxxers, organic food advocates, and natural childbirth advocates among others.

Why does Santoro’s image perfectly capture what’s wrong with our obsession with “natural”?

Because it is a picture of amanita muscaria, a poisonous mushroom!

How does this illustrate the many deficiencies of the naturalistic fallacy? Let me count the ways:

1. First and most obvious, just because it is natural, doesn’t mean that something is good or even safe. Rattlesnakes are natural, earthquakes are natural and untimely death from eating poison mushrooms is entirely natural.

2. Being pretty is entirely compatible with being deadly. Santoro had thousands of pictures of mushrooms available to her to illustrate her meme, but she chose amanita because it is attractive and conveys the impression of purity. Advocates of the natural are often fooled by appearances. Natural childbirth advocates are dazzled by images of natural birth but it never crosses their mind that something that looks so beautiful can easily and routinely be deadly. Antivaxxers are distressed by images of injections and it never crosses their mind that something that looks so unpleasant could easily and routinely be lifesaving.

3. Advocates of the “natural” routinely privilege intuitive thinking over analytical thinking without realizing that intuitive thinking is very often wrong. Intuitively, amanita muscaria looks like it’s good for you. Analytically, it’s deadly.

4. Advocates of the “natural,” particularly those who shill for it like celebrity food activists, celebrity antivaxxers and celebrity natural childbirth advocates are startlingly stupid. The depth and breadth of their ignorance is exceeded only by their unmerited self-regard. They are walking, talking, illustrations of the Dunning Kruger effect whereby the least competent are entirely unable to recognize their own incompetence.

Santoro’s meme mishap has important implications for those enchanted by the natural. I’ve created an acronym to remind you if you are tempted to fall for the naturalistic fallacy: S.P.I.N.

S = Safety. Just because it is natural does not mean it is safe.

P = Pretty. Just because it is pretty does not mean it is safe.

I = Intuition. Intuition cannot distinguish between safe and deadly.

N = Nitwits. Purveyors of the natural are often nitwits, utterly ignorant and dangerous.

The next time someone tries to convince you that something is good for you because it is natural, think about S.P.I.N. If you don’t, you might just end up eating a poison mushroom because a clown like Briana Santoro told you it was not merely safe, but better for you because it’s natural.

*N. B.: Attribution corrected. Although the quote comes from Diane Sanfilippo, the meme was created by Briana Santoro of The Naked Label.