Friday, April 19, 2013

Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle is the idea that new things should be forbidden until they are proven to be safe. It is opposed to our traditions of freedom, which say that people are innocent until proven guilty and should be allowed to do what they want unless the state can prove that they are harming others. It is also opposed to cost-benefit analysis, which says that things should only be forbidden if the likely harm is greater than the likely benefits.

The precautionary principle is closely tied to the human instincts of repugnance and disgust. People are far more likely to apply it to things that seem 'wrong' or 'bad'. Once something flips a mental switch, people enter a new mode of thinking where tolerance disappears and they become extremely conservative and suspicious. Rather than thinking about the new thing in a balanced way, they decide that the new thing is bad and demand impossible proof that it is harmless.

People are especially likely to apply the precautionary principle to food. There are good evolutionary reasons for this. The natural world is full of toxic substances that will kill or sicken someone who eats them. People who ate everything without question were less likely to pass on their genes than people who waited to make sure that the thing was safe before eating it.

Like many instinctive behaviors, the precautionary principle leads to bad results in the modern world. The benefits of modern civilization that have allowed us to escape from the nasty, brutish, and short lives of our ancestors come from scientific innovation. The precautionary principle makes this innovation much harder. Most of the good things of civilization have some kind of associated harm. Sometimes the harm is small, and sometimes the harm is significant, but it is usually much smaller than the benefits. If our ancestors had applied the precautionary principle to every innovation, we would still be in the dark ages.

Sometimes the benefits are hard to see, and the harms are obvious. For example, agricultural chemicals make fresh vegetables cheaper, which allows more people to eat vegetables more often, which improves the diet and delivers small health benefits to large numbers of people. However, those same chemicals cause some people to get cancer. The health benefits from the cheaper vegetables are several orders of magnitude larger than the harm done by the cancer, but the cancer is much more visible, so people pay more attention to it.

The tools of science can give us good estimates of how much harm something is likely to cause. Because all good science deals with probabilities and not certainties, it is impossible to prove that something will have zero harm. Even if we predict some harm, we may also predict that the benefits are likely to be much larger than the harm. In both of these situations, a scientific cost-benefit analysis will say to do something, while the precautionary principle will say not to.

However, the precautionary principle makes better stories and narratives than science, because it is closer to human instincts. It feels more moral for people to apply the precautionary principle than to crunch numbers. Often, these feelings are what drive policy. People trust their instincts instead of the scientific method, and stop or delay new technologies. The end result of this is that we are stuck with old and inefficient ways of doing things, wasting valuable resources that could be used to improve our lives and our society.

No comments:

Post a Comment