Lately I have found myself feeling less and less tolerant of pseudoscientific talk on the subjects of chemistry and consumer materials. Now, I think I’m a pretty good little liberal, and I have great respect for the crunchiest of my liberal compatriots. I also work to respect other cultures and look for value in traditions and accumulated cultural knowledge from around the world. I’d be the first to tell you that there are many good reasons to prefer eating one kind of food over another, or to choose one soap over another, or even a soapless existence if that’s what works for you or saves the puppies. But I’m not talking about making personal choices, or even about what may or may not be a beneficial choice from an ecological or broad social standpoint. I’m talking about the words themselves, about the pseudoscientific framing that informs discourse about how certain things are better or worse for you or society because they are more “natural,” “real,” or, my favorite, “chemical-free” (though I mean, who doesn’t love a good vacuum). These words are used a lot these days, but I especially hear them from people who belong to a particular social class – relatively affluent, generally white, often but not exclusively liberal. This talk sometimes goes hand-in-hand with similarly pseudoscientific advocacy for medicinal treatments that may accomplish something beneficial for a person, but that are not backed up by hard science: things like gall bladder detoxes, fruit juice purges, and yoga positions that heal your pancreas.* Oh, and weight-loss talk.**
There are so many examples of this that I’ll have to limit the topics I can address in a single blog post. But here is a list of topics within which some chemical compounds and substances might be designated as falling into categories such as natural/unnatural, real/fake, or even plain old good/bad:
- Foods and food ingredients
- Soaps and shampoos
- Fertilizers and pesticides
- Frankly, almost anything else.
On its surface, this could sound like a semantic argument put forward by an annoying chemist pedant. And okay, maybe there’s a little of that. But actually, I think these terms, particularly in marketing, really do encourage people into very unscientific thought about the world and our resources. Morality is very tied up with these words. I want to unpack that a little.
In defense of pedantry, I think precise language is important. It’s important in science, and it’s important in general communication. It’s important because, as many smart people have pointed out, words mean things. If your word communicates things you did not intend, that’s not the fault of everyone else for misunderstanding you. And if you choose words that have both precise and less-precise common usages, they can communicate a lot more than you might realize. So first, the word “chemicals”: Wikipedia says a “chemical substance is a material with a specific chemical composition.” Definr, my favorite online dictionary (following links around definr led me to an awareness of the term “screaming meemies,” which I do not say frequently enough), says a chemical is “produced by or used in a reaction involving changes in atoms or molecules.” Chemicals make up matter. Basically everything that isn’t energy or void (this is a simplification and I know it, fyi). You are made of chemicals, every piece of food you put in your mouth is made of chemicals, the air you breathe is made of chemicals, and every living growing thing is made of chemicals. As my friend Sweet Machine said, saying you don’t like something because it has “too many chemicals” is like saying it has “too many atoms.” /pedant rant. pedrant? ahem. sorry.
That brings me to the word “natural.” I want to be annoying for a minute and explore what that word means, too, so this can be very clear. Again, from Wikipedia, the infallible authority on all things: “Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world or material world. ‘Nature’ refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. Manufactured objects and human interaction generally are not considered part of nature, and are referred to as artificial or man-made. Nature is generally distinguished from the supernatural. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the galactic.” (Italics are mine.) There are also about 10 definitions for “natural” from definr, including: in accordance with nature, relating to or concerning nature; existing in or produced by nature, not artificial or imitation; existing in or in conformity with nature or the observable world, neither supernatural nor magical; (biology) functioning or occurring in a natural way, lacking abnormalities or deficiencies; unthinking, prompted by (or as if by) instinct; in the natural unprocessed condition.
Clearly, part of the problem is that the word itself is so imprecise. In its broadest sense, “nature” encompasses everything we encounter (and most things we don’t) in the universe. Personally, I think that’s the best way to use the word – if nothing else, because some of those other meanings are similar but carry very different connotations from each other. For example, there is the usage that distinguishes between “natural” and “artificial/man-made” – a distinction that has some inherent problems, though a word for it is probably necessary. But humans exist within and as a part of nature; it is a mentality that considers everything we do as separate from our environment that has allowed us, for one, to neglect our own impact on that environment until recently. The usage that distinguishes between “natural” and imitation seems useful (the example is “naturally blonde hair”). It even makes sense to use the word when it comes to comparing processed and unprocessed substances derived from the natural world… sort of…
It comes down to a question of degree, I think, and how far you can go with that division. For example, if a raw banana is more natural than a mashed banana or a cooked banana, because the raw banana is unprocessed, then a mashed, cooked banana is arguably more natural than a banana extract for the same reason. Extract of banana might in turn be considered more natural than a completely dissolved banana, which is in turn perhaps more natural than a small group of flavor compounds extracted from the dissolved banana. And maybe one of those flavor compounds, as extracted from a banana, is more natural than the exact same chemical compound produced by a reaction of extracted compounds that originated from a mixture of organic and inorganic substances, which is in turn perhaps more natural than the same compound created by reactions between completely inorganic materials. But then the problems start. At the molecular level, why is an inorganic source more artificial than an organic one? Is it because it’s more imitative of nature than the compound distilled from bananas? Does that depend on purpose (i.e. are we extracting that compound to make things taste like bananas, or are we trying to extract or synthesize a medicinal compound that just happens to exist in bananas)? And stepping back, why is soaking a banana in a solvent for an extended period of time to extract just a few flavorful compounds more “natural” than melting it and extracting those compounds in a test tube? Is it because alcoholic extracts are an older technique, and therefore more “natural” for humans?
For one thing, this line of thought is confusing the different meanings of the word natural. We’ve moved from unnatural by processing to unnatural by imitation to unnatural by perhaps some kind of biological definition – people have been doing it so long that maybe it’s natural for us to do so now. The last one even sounds far-fetched, too. We haven’t been making extracts since the dawn of humanity. Did we eventually evolve to produce extracts, instinctively? (The answer is no.)
And the biological definition of “natural” as lacking abnormalities or deficiencies raises huge social issues. So does the definition of “natural” as biologically instinctive. For one thing, there is an implicit assumption in all of this that more natural = better, that “nature” represents our innate state of being and the way things in the world ought to be, and that humanity’s interference changes things for the worse. There are religious overtones to that idea (in Eden we didn’t have computers, or cancer, or unhappiness!), and a severe skepticism of technological progress. This is not to say that technological progress is 100% a good thing – rather that it’s morally neutral. Technology can be used for very good or very evil reasons; and technology used for good can go awry (presumably, technology used for eviiiiil can also turn out to be beneficial in some way). A lack of understanding of how those technologies work results in severe (and generally uninformed) mistrust among non-specialists.
If we regard things we consider counter to our presumed instincts (and, thus, our “natures”) as deviations from how things are supposed to be, we’re entering dangerous waters. Being gay is bad for society because it doesn’t produce babies and is thus unnatural in animals (and never mind all those penguins. I didn’t mean animals animals, anyway, I meant humans, who totally aren’t animals!). Elevating natural instincts to a level that does not require moral justification also serves as an out for socially unacceptable behavior; please see all of evo psych.
And I’ve come full blog-post-circle: then there’s food, farming, and shampoo. This is where the pseudoscience surrounding the superiority of all things deemed “natural” really has taken off in public discourse lately. Natural: less-processed foods; smaller farms; more “natural” fertilizers and pesticides or none of those at all; bathing and brushing teeth with straight-up baking soda (note: sodium bicarbonate as sold in stores is inorganic and fairly processed for public use); no vaccinations; eating herbs as opposed to taking medications. Unnatural: Flours; cooked things; extracts (arguably; see above); pesticides; fertilizers; toothpaste; soap (that is some crazy chemistry in action!); vaccinations and pharmaceuticals. The problem with this is that it sets up a fundamentally false dichotomy. There are advantages and disadvantages to using shampoo, and to flour, and to preservatives (example: things can be preserved) and pesticides (example: bugs don’t eat your crops). And by saying this, I have had people get very angry and start arguing with me about the disadvantages of politically subsidized farming monocultures, and how more “natural” soaps are less irritating for many people’s skin. Which is not the point. I know those things! I am moderately a hippie myself! The point is that this isn’t the fault of chemicals being unnatural, that it’s not about nature at all, that technology isn’t the enemy, and that making the “natural” argument using one meaning of the word (i.e. artificial) is nonetheless very close to that other meaning of the word (biologically NOT MEANT TO BE).
Calling all manmade substances “unnatural” assigns them moral value and suggests that preservative salts are as harmful as DDT. And it simultaneously puts saltpetre and DDT, together, in the same category as being gay or (gasp!) a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother – because those things are unnatural. See also, being: fat, a man who demonstrates emotions, a working woman, or a man who has no problem controlling his libido. To name a few.
* Qualifiers: I have some cred here. I have personally benefited from eliminating from my regular diet those foods which I cannot properly digest; I love yoga; and I even think that in the absence of scientific study, patient testimony for the efficacy of a traditional technique can have at least some value. I’m happy to acknowledge that herbs and vitamins can have medicinal value. I also recognize that even if a treatment is beneficial purely because it generates a placebo effect, there is a great deal of power in placebos. But that doesn’t mean I need to avoid lactose because it creates an imbalance in my fire humours, which would of course be a problem for a body type that is overly airy and in tune with Io. I probably actually have a damaged and scarred enough intestinal wall due to chronic illness that my body fails to produce sufficient enzymes to digest lactose.
** If you’re new here, this is a fat acceptance space as much as it is a feminist, anti-racist, and generally pro-social justice one. Please read up before blowing up about weight loss here. And if you’re interested in how weight loss talk intersects with social class, boy do I have some good reading material for you!