“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean better

If there’s one fallacy that grips the brains of proponents of “natural healing,” “holistic medicine,” or, as the vast majority of it is, quackery, it’s an appeal to nature. Basically, the idea that underlies the appeal to nature is a profane worship of nature as being, in essence, perfect, with anything humans do that is perceived as somehow being “unnatural” being viewed as, at the very least, inferior and at the very worst pure evil. We see it in the pseudoscientific stylings of cranks like The Food Babe, whose epic appeals to nature are legendary in their stupidity, particularly her demonization of any chemical perceived as synthetic to the point where she actually says thinks like, “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it” and “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”

That’s just one example. The appeal to nature undergirds so much of alternative medicine that it’s hard to think of an example of alternative medicine that doesn’t to some extent embrace the this fallacy. Now, I hate to go back to the same well twice in less than a week, given that I just laid a little not-so-Respectful Insolence on the living embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the arrogance of ignorance, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, but this time I must, because I’ve just seen there what is perhaps the most potently concentrated distillation of this in one place that I can recall ever having seen. I almost have to admire its awesome simple-mindedness, but its simplemindedness serves to illustrate my point. It’s an article by Amy L. Lansky, entitled On Mother’s Day — A Message from Mother Earth: Don’t Mess with Gaia!

Amy Lansky, as you might recall is a homeopath whom we’ve met before on Joe Mercola’s site laying down the same old pseudoscientific justifications for homeopathy that we’ve all come to know and love. Let’s just say that she has a penchant for calling homeopathy “the impossible cure,” thinking she’s being ironic and not knowing how correct she is to characterize homeopathy that way because it is pretty much impossible. Be that as it may, she starts out her post with, in essence, a message that says, “You can’t fool Mother Nature!” She then can’t resist expounding upon it. Her message is delivered early on:

Every time we try to control the inherent flow and wisdom of nature itself, especially in a dramatic and large-scale way, things always seem to backfire. Inevitably, we find ourselves feverishly trying to repair the damage we have done, often foolishly wreaking even more havoc. And the more severe our intrusion into Gaia’s domain, the more irreparable and severe the consequences have become.

It’s the theme of many 1950s science fiction and horror films that portrayed scientists tampering with nature in a way that human beings shouldn’t tamper with nature, with disastrous results. Heck, it’s a theme that goes at least as far back as Frankenstein, the idea that there are some things that humans just aren’t meant to know and some aspects of nature that human beings are just not meant to control. It’s a great idea for fiction, but it’s a horrible idea as a medical philosophy.

Lansky starts with a couple of examples that aren’t entirely unreasonable, first anthropogenic global climate change due to our addiction to fossil fuels and the subsequent rise of CO2 in the atmosphere over the last century. I’m not sure that I’d necessarily call that “messing with nature” in that fossil fuels are quite natural, being the end result of the decomposition of dead organisms from millions of years ago. Then she brings up invasive species; i.e. species moved out of their habitat and into another by humans, which, if there are no natural predators or other species that can compete with them, can result in the invasive species outcompeting native species and, in essence, taking over. Of course, I’m not sure that either of these examples are due to humans “messing with Gaia” more than just being careless, as human beings have been wont to do ever since they started forming civilizations. There’s a reason why archeology is sometimes referred to as ancient garbage picking.

From there, the examples get less science-based. Lansky easily conflates problems with monoculture farming with—of course—GMOs, blaming both for “the growth of super-weeds, depletion of soils, pollution of fresh water, rampant deleterious effects on human health, and more.” After that, Lansky gets to medicine, and that’s when the real fun begins:

A more controversial and less acknowledged area of “messing with Gaia” has been perpetrated by modern medicine. The primary modus operandi of conventional medicine is to either to suppress the body’s natural responses to disease, or to kill viruses, bacteria, cancer, etc. through the introduction of killing or suppressive agents — for example, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and chemotherapy poisons. Unfortunately, we are finding that profligate use of such medicines can ultimately backfire or be even worse than the original disease itself. Don’t forget: Mother Nature knows how to fight back.

Consider this. The medical world, even if it isn’t talking about it openly, is currently bracing for a firestorm. Overuse of antibiotics — for every cough and cold (even though most are viral and not affected by antibiotics), in hand soaps and other household products, and especially when given prophylactically to animals on large monoculture feedlots (because such farms are perfect breeding grounds for disease)—has led to the evolution of deadly super-bacteria that can no longer be easily controlled. The only solution conventional medicine will have for us will be more of the same: stronger antibiotics. But that will only delay and perhaps even aggravate the inevitable.

Yes, the overuse of antibiotics is a problem. It’s been a problem for a long time. However, it’s not just medicine that is the biggest contributor to the problem of resistant bugs, although, make no mistake, we doctors do contribute to the problem. It’s the routine use of antibiotics in farming that could well contribute just as much to the evolution of multidrug resistant bacterial species and their introduction into human populations.

Be that as it may, Lantz doesn’t seem to understand that the body’s “natural response to disease” is often a major problem, the major cause of the complications of various “natural” diseases. One good example of that is influenza, which, depending on the strain, can have a tendency to kill younger, “fitter” people because the inflammatory and immune response in these people is stronger. There’s a reason why the pandemic of Spanish flu in 1918 disproportionately killed younger, healthier people. Another example is sepsis, where the body’s “natural” reaction endotoxin released by bacteria is deadly, consisting of a vasodilatation that drops the blood pressure and a hyperdynamic state. Yes, Lansky is correct that humans and animals can recover from bacterial infections, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily will, and antibiotics, appropriately prescribed for the appropriate bug and disease, greatly increase the chances of survival.

Think of it this way. Human beings can survive Yersinia pestis infection. It’s a bacteria that causes a disease known as the plague, or, more colloquially, the Black Death. Let’s see. What happened in the age before antibiotics when the Black Death took hold. For instance, the Plague of Justinian, which began in the 6th century produced millions of deaths. Procopius reported that at its height, the plague was killing 10,000 a day in Constantinople, with bodies left stacked in the open because there was no room to bury them. Then, in the 14th century, there occurred the most famous pandemic of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, which, or so it’s estimated, killed one third of the population of Europe and might have reduced the world population from 450 million to 350 to 375 million.

Ah, natural living! There’s nothing more natural than dying of infectious disease in huge numbers. That Gaia, she’s a harsh mistress, and, personally, I’m all for keeping her from killing me and large numbers of my fellow humans through her indifference. Oh, sure, Lansky claims that there are “much safer” medical alternatives, including herbalism, homeopathy, and other systems that can “heal serious infectious diseases.” Not surprisingly, she provides no evidence to support this contention, but goes so far as to claim:

Hundreds of years of successful experience with these medical alternatives, all over the world, has proven their efficacy. In fact, these medicines may end up saving humanity — if we allow them to coexist and thrive. Not only do they generally work with the body and help to enhance its ability to fight disease naturally, but they also do not lead to bacterial or viral mutation and resistance.

Which is, of course, a load of fetid dingos’ kidneys. We saw the results of “natural” treatments. We’ve had hundreds—nay, thousands—of years to see the results of “natural treatments.” Those results are epitomized by epidemics of bubonic plague, cholera, and all manner of diseases that are now treatable or preventable.

Speaking of preventable, you know where this is heading, of course. After the diatribes against invasive species, anthropogenic global climate change, and GMOs, you just knew Lansky would end up here:

Unfortunately, there is one more looming “mistake” brewing on the medical horizon: our ever-increasing use of vaccines. Just as the indiscriminate use of antibiotics was considered perfectly harmless for most of the past century, vaccines are currently considered by most of the general public (thanks to very effective media campaigns) as no more dangerous than candies, to be applied liberally and without consequence. The truth, however, may surprise you.

The vaccine schedule has exploded in the past 60 years and continues to grow. In the 1950s, children received seven doses of vaccines in the first six years of life. Children today receive 49 doses of 14 vaccines by the time they are six years old, and 69 doses of 16 vaccines by the time they are 18! And hundreds of new vaccines are currently in the development pipeline.

Gee, you say that as though it were a bad thing!

Of course, I always wonder how antivaccinationists like Lansky come up with these numbers. I’ve looked at the vaccine schedules for 0-6 years old and 7-18 years old. I get 34 doses, but only if you include a yearly flu vaccine. Otherwise it’s 28. As for ages 7-18, I get only five recommended for everyone, plus three doses of HPV and 12 doses of flu vaccine if the child gets the flu vaccine every year. In any case, I have a hard time coming up with more than 51. In any case, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the “too many too soon” fallacy, the claim that the current vaccine schedule somehow “unnaturally” stresses the immune system. It doesn’t. Lansky claims that viral shedding from vaccinated children is dangerous. It’s not.

Lansky trots out the usual antivaccine tropes, such as “too many too soon,” the claim that because of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, vaccine makers are somehow “indemnified” against claims, and, of course, the Brady Bunch fallacy, which is the claim that measles was harmless childhood disease without consequence, so much so that sitcom writers used it for laughs. It isn’t, of course. Measles is dangerous, as was acknowledged even back in the 1960s in the New York Times article about the licensing of the vaccine and was accepted decades ago. Not surprisingly, Lansky claims that “natural” immunity is better. Of course, “natural” immunity carries with it the distinct disadvantage of having to suffer through the actual disease. It also neglects the observation that, in the case of measles at least, it’s the disease that damages the immune system, not the vaccine.

All of this leads to a crescendo of woo:

Ultimately, however, I believe that our overreliance on vaccination to achieve health will fail, just as surely as the overuse of antibiotics has failed — because the only way to stay healthy is to work with the natural functions of the body, not to trick or subjugate them. You can’t fool Mother Nature!

Although the practice of vaccination may seem as if it is mimicking a natural body process, it is not. Vaccines provide a poor imitation of true immunity that is incomplete and never permanent. Here is something that most people do not realize: the practice of vaccination over-stimulates one part of the immune system (humoral immunity—which triggers a response to a specific disease antigen), while leaving another part of the immune system unexercised (cell-mediated immunity—which provides a generalized mechanism that fights all disease). As a result, our immune systems are becoming unnaturally skewed and exaggerated in one direction, while becoming weaker in the other. That is why people are developing more and more autoimmune diseases (overstimulation of humoral immunity), and have become less and less able to naturally fight disease in general. The result has been widespread chronic disease among the young and old — including diseases like diabetes, asthma, autism, and cancer that were unheard of or extremely rare among children in the 1950s.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, there is no good evidence that vaccination is associated with autoimmune disease, including asthma. As has also been pointed out before, in the case of one disease, measles, it’s the virus that causes problems with the immune system, not the vaccine. In any case, looking at this discussion, I couldn’t help but think that Lansky thinks she understands the immune system, but does not, which is not surprising, given that she’s a homeopath. I’ll give her credit for realizing that there are two main divisions: cellular immunity and humoral immunity. But that’s about it. Again, there’s no good evidence that vacines are responsible for any of the chronic diseases that antivaccinationists attribute to vaccines.

None of this stops Lansky from ramping up to a grand finale of an appeal to nature:

I’m sure that many who read this article will rankle at what I am saying. Many people accept that humanity has triggered climate change and acknowledge the danger of pesticides, but scoff at those who point to the dangers of GMOs and vaccines. Others accept the dangers of vaccines, but think that climate change is a hoax.

But consider this: all of these problems are the result of humans trying to control or work against Mother Nature instead of cooperating with her. In the end, such misguided efforts are futile, because we are not outside of nature — we are part of it. We are all part of the body of Gaia — a living system that is larger than all of us put together, and that has many feedback loops and corrective mechanisms. If we mess things up too much, we may find ourselves thrown out of the system, eaten up like so many microbes devoured by a horde of white blood cells. Hopefully, Gaia isn’t terminally ill and humanity can finally learn its lesson: that we must cooperate with our fellow organisms and learn to coexist in a state of sustainable health.

I love “logic” (if you can call it that) here: If you accept that humans are causing potentially catastrophic climate change on this planet, then you must accept that vaccines are evil affronts to Gaia. If you don’t, then you must be either a hypocrite or only seeing half the story. Or a sheeple. I particularly like the implication that, “if we mess things up too much,” maybe Gaia will destroy us, sending her white blood cells to eliminate us like an infection.

If you want to see the naturalistic fallacy in all its “glory,” you need look no further than Amy Lansky’s ramblings.