Naturalness – analysis paper – full details of our work and findings
Watch a video of Steering Group member Dr Tom Shakespeare talking about our findings
Summary of findings
When people describe science, technology or medicine as natural, unnatural or linked to nature, they can be making moral claims about it being good or bad, or right or wrong. We hear these terms every day and they appear when new technologies are being discussed in the media and in Parliament. People’s ideas about naturalness may influence the degree to which advances in science, technology and medicine are embraced or opposed by the UK public.
In 2015, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics decided to delve deeper into what people really mean when they talk about naturalness. We enlisted poets to help us to explore these ideas in a creative way.
We found many examples of the terms natural, unnatural and nature being used by journalists, Parliamentarians, campaigning organisations, manufacturers and members of the public to convey something good or bad about science, technology and medicine.
These examples are found in discussions about genetically modified food, assisted reproduction, cosmetic procedures, cloning, stem cell research, mitochondrial donation, sports science, alternative medicine and death and dying, and in descriptions of food, cosmetics and other products.
Many other words are used to convey ideas about naturalness, such as normal, pure, real, organic, unadulterated and unprocessed, and artificial, fake, abnormal and synthetic.
What is considered to be natural or unnatural can change over time. Things that were criticised for being unnatural in the past, such as heart transplants, are now widely seen as normal and acceptable.
It is not easy to define exactly what is a natural or unnatural thing or process. Equally it’s not obvious we should classify natural things as good and unnatural things as bad For example, vaccines and contraception – arguably unnatural, man-made interventions – are thought by many to be good, and there are plenty of examples of poisonous or dangerous natural plants and diseases.
Some believe that the terms natural or unnatural do not carry any real meaning or value and tend not to use them. Organisations representing scientists, for example, rarely use these terms to convey a moral judgment.
However, we found the terms natural, unnatural and nature are often used as placeholders for a range of different values or beliefs that are meaningful and important to people.
Accounts of naturalness
Many different ideas, associations, anxieties, hopes and fears underlie different people’s uses of the terms natural, unnatural and nature. In the diagram below we set out five broad understandings of naturalness.
People don’t necessarily fall into one category or another, and we do not say which, if any, might be a correct understanding of naturalness. Our aim is to show the different ways that these terms are used.
Conclusions and recommendations
The diverse values and beliefs associated with naturalness may mean that people are talking at cross-purposes when discussing science, technology and medicine.
It is important that policy makers understand these values and beliefs if they are genuinely to take account of the views of the public when developing policies for science, technology and medicine.
The use of the terms natural, unnatural and nature to express values and beliefs, for example in the media and in advertising, can be ambiguous and potentially confusing.
- To avoid us speaking at cross-purposes, we should all be aware that people can use the terms natural, unnatural and nature as placeholders for a range of different important values or beliefs in relation to science, technology and medicine.
For organisations representing scientists and other sectors of society
- Organisations that contribute to public and political debates about science, technology and medicine should avoid using the terms natural, unnatural and nature without conveying the values or beliefs that underlie them.
- Such organisations should explore and engage with the values and beliefs underlying use of the terms natural, unnatural and nature in debates about science, technology and medicine to ensure the views of different people are fully understood, debated and taken into account.
For policy makers
- Policy makers, including Parliamentarians, should avoid using the terms natural, unnatural and nature when talking about science, medicine and technology without conveying the values or beliefs that underlie them.
- Policy makers should explore fully what people mean when they use the terms natural, unnatural and nature when engaging with the general public to inform the development of science or health policy.
- Journalists should avoid using the terms natural, unnatural and nature when talking about science, medicine and technology without conveying the values or beliefs that underlie them.
For manufacturers and advertisers
- Manufacturers and advertisers of, for example, food, cosmetics and health products should be cautious about describing a product as natural given the ambiguity of this term and that it is unlawful to mislead consumers, and should follow relevant guidance on advertising and labelling.