Thebastidge: The Precautionary Principle is crap
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    Saturday, June 02, 2007

    The Precautionary Principle is crap

    Again, I'm mining yesterday's comments for posting material- thanks! :)

    The "Precautionary Principle" is not scientific.

    A rational approach to risk management assesses the likelihood of the risk, and the potential damage of the risk, and the cost of mitigation. Using these three factors, one decides on a course of action.

    The "Precautionary Principle" would have us do nothing that cannot be absolutely and 100% proven to do no harm whatsoever.

    It is a theoretical impossibliity to prove a negative, so the "precautionary principle" is impossible to achieve, because even doing nothing might potentially cause harm.

    There are entire fields of study devoted to this, and you will not find one professional risk manager who subscribes to this so-called principle.

    The "Precautionary Principle" is most often associated with "junk science" and particularly with the crowd which protests genetically modified organisms (GMO). This is essentially superstition with modern pop culture trappings to disguise it.


    Blogger Another Bratcher said...

    Exactly. The Precautionary Principle is necessarily non scientific. It is a method for political debate in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence.

    The Precautionary Principle is often cited as the primary reason for the ban on CFCs and other haloalkanes during the 80s-90s. Some science had linked them to the widening gap in the Ozone layer, and though the evidence (at the time) was not conclusive, the recommendation was still to institute a ban.

    I agree with your identification of the interim steps: Risk,Cost of mitigation etc...but these are not exclusive and can be employed under the precept of the precautionary principal.

    Sometimes all that needs to happen is a readily available alternative, in the case of the CFC example, several other less toxic propellants were used.

    "First, do no harm..."

    1:20 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    The problem is that infinite security is infinitely expensive.

    I mean this in the literal sense. You cannot guarantee perfection because you don't have the resources. They don't exist, and to be perfect in one aspect wold necessarily detract from another, so you never acheive perfection- only a reasonable compromise.

    The Precautionary Principle is a tool of demagogues, not serious people seeking solutions to real problems.

    How much better to say "what can we do with what we've got, or can reasonably expect to have in the near future?"

    3:13 AM  
    Blogger bobvis said...

    I largely agree. (I would say "not a good argument" rather than "not scientific" though. I don't know in what sense any principle can be scientific.)

    You have to admit though that in certain conditions the Precautionary Principle can be good advice. If you do something and things don't work out, you will get blamed. On a personal level, you might be better off avoiding that responsibility from a purely selfish point of view.

    7:01 AM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    I think a principle can be considered scientific or not based on whether it is falsifiable.

    7:14 AM  
    Blogger bobvis said...

    Maybe I'm unclear on what the Precautionary Principle is. Isn't it just a conservative disposition? How would you falsify that?

    5:44 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    well, the wikipedia article has it it close enough for a mutual starting point. "In the absence of scientific consensus of safety" most often turns out to be "in the absense of absolute proof no harm could possibly ensue". It's used even when there IS a consensus of experts that there is no problem. (There's another whole disucssion about science not being about consensus, but about truth, but I'll save that for another time.)

    The Precautionary Principle is most often cited in relation to GMO, but also to environmental and health concerns.

    The Precautionary Principle makes drug therapy very expensive. It costs on average $500 million dollars to bring new drugs to market. The majority of that is administrative costs not related to the actual development itself.(The number is disputed here.)

    One might argue that is okay because safety is the primary concern- but that's because we're not all on the front line of needing these drugs. It's easy to say 'safety first' when you're already safe. It's much harder when you have no other options.

    The precautionary principle has the FDA limiting experimental drug trial for people who are already considered terminal, or who are not responding to other treatments- a rational perspective would be that a well-informed patient could consent to anything if it might save their life. The difference is on the margins- people on the margins should be making the call to try it or not, not people on the sidelines with no stake in it.

    When people use the precautionary principle as a debate tactic, they typically have already decided and no amount of "proof" will be acceptable. It's an argument of last resort precisely because they have no proof against it.

    If they did, they would use the stronger argument. GM corn has been around for many years, there is not ONE documented case of adverse reaction to it, and yet the PP crowd still claims it might be harmful to humans. It's unfalsifiable- an article of faith, not science.

    BTW, this whole thread is not really meant to be an attack on the original commenter- I just have a pet peeve about the "precautionary principle."

    9:52 PM  

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