Safety First?




Look before you leap

Better safe than sorry


These two expressions sum up a kind of popular folk wisdom that seems pretty reasonable. In the last few years, however, a new dogma – the Precautionary Principle – has emerged. It states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.  It is believed to come from an expression coined by German lawyers in the 1970s -Vorsorgeprinzip (foresight principle). It can be applied to medicines, the environment. GM foods, nanotechnology and unfortunately it can be taken to ridiculous lengths.


The Precautionary Principle is not be a basis for rational decision-making: it wants to replace traditional cost–benefit analyses with a more vague calculation that focuses on potential negative effects. The problem is that seems to be a charter for pessimism. There is a kind of hysteria about the negative effects and a tendency  to ignore the benefits. There are these annoying things called trade-offs. If you delay introducing a medicine for twenty years, you can guarantee that no one will suffer side effects from that medicine. What you will not see is all those people who have died because that medicine was available. Many times in life we are not choosing between taking a risk and playing safe but between one or other risk. 


A classic example was the  MMR scare. The irresponsible media coverage about the the alleged links with autism led many parents to not give their child the vaccine. They merely substituted one risk for another. If they gave their children no vaccine there was an increased risk of infection. Even if their children had separate vaccinations, the gaps between each jab left longer windows of opportunity for infection anyway.


In another area GMOs (genetically modified organisms) we can see similar attitudes. In 1999 Lord Melchett appeared before a House of Lords Select Committee investigating GM crops. The exchange is very illuminating about the mindset of these people.

Question: Your oposition to the release of GMOs, that is an absolute and definite opposition …. Not one that is dependent on further scientific research?

Answer. It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition.


In his article Precautionary Tale  Ronald Bailey shows the fallacy of the Precautionary Principle

    The result: Anything new is guilty until proven innocent. It’s like demanding that a newborn baby prove that it will never grow up to be a serial killer, or even just a schoolyard bully, before the baby is allowed to leave the hospital. Under this corollary, inventors, scientists, and manufacturers would have to prove that their creations wouldn’t cause harm–ever–to the environment or human health before they would be allowed to offer them to the public. This is asking them to prove a negative. How can someone prove that a new plastic will never, ever interact with any metabolic pathway in any plant, animal, microbe, or person? There is simply no way to test for all possible effects given the millions of different species living on the earth.


            I’m just glad that the people who espoused these ideas were not around when humans discovered fire.. For me this is a denial of what makes humans special. Maybe one day we will leap too far but what a series of jumps it’s been.



Further Reading


Precautionary Tale  Ronald Bailey


Check out this Wikipedia entry on the Rachel Carson book denouncing DDT. The restrictions placed on it have caused needless deaths from malaria.



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