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The Precautionary Principle bites the dust

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 23 August 2013


I've written about the Precautionary Principle before. With that title it was adopted at the 1992 Rio conference on climate, and it has been used a great deal by proponents of the need to 'combat climate change' internationally. Built into it is Pascal's Wager about the correctness of believing in God, and it has analogies in the medical precept 'first do no harm'. I didn't like it when I first came across it, partly because it was dressed up as a 'principle' and partly because of the capital letters, which suggested importance and longevity.

I've come across a most interesting paper by Max More, an English philosopher and futurist, which offers instead a 'proactionary principle'. There's a lot in it, and it's well worth reading. I'll discuss his alternative in a later post, but use this one to show his demolition of the precautionary principle. It is clear and accessible.

'The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:

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  • assuming worst-case scenarios
  • distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
  • assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
  • ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
  • illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
  • conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.

First, the precautionary principle always assumes worst-case scenarios. Any release of chemicals into the environment might initiate a chain of events leading to a disaster. Genetically modified organisms might cause unanticipated, serious, and irreversible problems. By imagining the proposed technology or project primarily in a worst-case scenario, while assuming that refraining from action will have no disastrous consequences, the adherents of the principle immediately tilt the playing field in their favor.

Second, the precautionary principle ignores background risk, distracting our attention from established dangers to health. Nature itself brings with it a risk of harms such as infection, hunger, famine, and environmental disruption. We should apply our limited resources first to major risks that we know are real, not merely hypothetical. The more we attend to merely hypothetical threats to health and environment, the less money, time, and effort will remain to deal with substantial health problems that are highly probable or thoroughly established. The principle errs in focusing on future technological harms that might occur, while ignoring natural risks that are actually occurring.

Third, adherents of the precautionary principle assume that proposed regulations and restrictions will cause no harm to health. Yet the very application of the principle itself can endanger our health. Consider, for instance, the consistent correlation between the health of a nation's citizens and their standard of living. Widespread application of the precautionary principle, by hampering economic activity, will tend to reduce living standards and thereby worsen health. In addition, major efforts to eliminate small, speculative risks can unleash far greater and more likely harms.

Fourth, the precautionary principle fails to treat natural and human threats on the same basis. Users of the principle routinely ignore the potential benefits of technology, in effect favoring nature over humanity. The principle does not account for the fact that the risks created by technological stagnation are at least as real as those of technological advancement. As biochemist Bruce Ames of UCLA has demonstrated, almost all of our exposure to dangerous chemicals comes in the form of natural chemicals. Yet fear and attention are primarily directed toward synthetic chemicals. A particular chemical has the same effects regardless of whether its source is natural or synthetic. Despite this, scientifically unsound activists treat human-derived chemicals as guilty until proven innocent, and naturally occurring chemicals as innocent or insignificant.

Fifth, the precautionary principle illegitimately shifts the burden of proof by positioning advocates of proposed activities or new technologies as reckless, in contrast with the 'responsible' advocates of 'precaution'. The content - even the very name - of the precautionary principle positions environmental activists and Luddites as friends and protectors of the common person. The innovators are made to prove safety, having already been portrayed as indifferent to the common good and interested only in profiting.

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Having illegitimately shifted the burden of proof, activists can impose their values without troubling themselves with evidence and without taking responsibility for the results of overly-precautious policies. For example, the Environmental Working Group opposed the use of pesticides, speculating about possible carcinogenic effects of trace amounts of their residues. They do not seem to have taken into account the probability that restricting pesticides would increase cancer rates.

Activists get away with the burden of proof trick by managing perceptions of risk instead of examining the real risks. This move is particularly dangerous because we have limited resources to address a multitude of risks. We cannot afford to make decisions driven by manipulated perceptions. It's crucial that we rely on a comprehensive, scientifically grounded perspective when choosing which risks have the strongest claim on our attention.

Sixth, and finally, the precautionary principle conflicts with the more balanced approach to risk and harm derived from common law. Common law holds us liable for injuries we cause, our liability being proportionate with the degree of foreseeable risk. By contrast, the precautionary principle dismisses liability and acts like a preliminary injunction, but without the involvement of a court, without the burden of proof, and without taking responsibility for harm caused by the injunction.'

When I read this summary, I offered the ultimate compliment: I wish I'd written that!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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