The Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the application of the precautionary principle has been made a statutory requirement.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases in honey bees, fish, amphibians, bats and birds in the past two decades have coincided with the  increasing use of systemic insecticides, notably the neonicotinoids and fipronil.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases in honey bees, fish, amphibians, bats and birds in the past two decades have coincided with the
increasing use of systemic insecticides, notably the neonicotinoids and fipronil.

To watch the documentary go here.  It is free-to-watch at the time of this posting. [It no longer is as of March 2018.] It documents the serious effects of allowing chemicals to be introduced into the environment without prior testing.  And shows the clear benefits of the Precautionary Principle when applied to environmental or health issues.  And it makes a lot of sense at that level.

But is the Precautionary Principle always a good thing?  In America, we have had the concept “innocent until proven guilty” as the basis of our Common Law.  The Precautionary Principle says “guilty until proven innocent”.  Should we at least consider the ramifications before we leap headfirst into accepting it?

The Cato Institute has lot to say about it.:

In 1982, the United Nations World Charter for Nature apparently gave the first international recognition to the strong version of the principle, suggesting that when “potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.” The widely publicized Wingspread Declaration, from a meeting of environmentalists in 1998, is another example of the strong version:
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically. In this context the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

Further on they say:


It might be tempting to defend the Precautionary Principle on distributional grounds. The Clean Air Act takes a precautionary approach, requiring an “adequate margin of safety” and hence regulation in the face of scientific uncertainty. At the same time, the Clean Air Act appears to be giving disproportionate benefits to poor people and members of minority groups.
Aggressive action to combat climate change might be more beneficial to poor countries than to wealthy ones. That is partly because wealthy countries are better able to adapt; it is partly because agriculture (potentially vulnerable to climate change) is responsible for a small percentage of the economy of wealthy nations but a large percentage of the economy of poor nations. It is also because one of the most serious health risks posed by climate change consists of an increased incidence of malaria, a non-problem for wealthy countries. In the context of global warming, at least, the Precautionary Principle might be invoked to prevent especially severe burdens on those in the worst position to bear them.

Of course, it makes sense to be concerned with the distribution of domestic or international risks. The problem of global warming owes its origin to the actions of wealthy nations, and hence it makes special sense to ask those nations to bear a disproportionate cost of correction if poor nations are likely to be hit hardest. The distributional effects of global warming are among the strongest points in favor of aggressive regulation of greenhouse gases – at least if (and it is a big if) that regulation does not hit poor countries economically. But in too many cases, the Precautionary Principle, as applied, would have unfortunate distributional effects. The case of genetic modification of food is an example; here the benefits are likely to be enjoyed by poor people, not the wealthy.

So where would the Precautionary Principle be most wisely used?  Back to Wikipedia:

Fields typically concerned by the precautionary principle are the possibility of:
* Global warming or abrupt climate change in general

Extinction of species

* Introduction of new and potentially harmful products into the environment, threatening biodiversity (e.g., genetically modified organisms)
* Threats to public health, due to new diseases and techniques (e.g., AIDS transmitted through blood transfusion)
* Long term effects of new technologies (e.g. health concerns regarding radiation from cell phones and other electronics communications devices Mobile phone radiation and health)
* Persistent or acute pollution (asbestos, endocrine disruptors…)
* Food safety (e.g., Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease)
* Other new biosafety issues (e.g., artificial life, new molecules)

The precautionary principle is often applied to biological fields because changes cannot be easily contained and have the potential of being global. The principle has less relevance to contained fields such as aeronautics, where the few people undergoing risk have given informed consent (e.g., a test pilot). In the case of technological innovation, containment of impact tends to be more difficult if that technology can self-replicate. Bill Joy emphasized the dangers of replicating genetic technology, nanotechnology, and robotic technology in his article in Wired Magazine, “Why the future doesn’t need us“, though he does not specifically cite the precautionary principle. The application of the principle can be seen in the public policy of requiring pharmaceutical companies to carry out clinical trials to show that new medications are safe.

Oxford based philosopher Nick Bostrom discusses the idea of a future powerful superintelligence, and the risks that we/it face should it attempt to gain atomic level control of matter.[17]

Application of the principle modifies the status of innovation and risk assessment: it is not the risk that must be avoided or amended, but a potential risk that must be prevented. Thus, in the case of regulation of scientific research, there is a third party beyond the scientist and the regulator: the consumer.

So what are we, the “consumers” to think of all this?  The best explanation I could find is this:

There has been a lot written and said about the precautionary principle recently, much of it misleading. Some have stated that if the principle were applied it would put an end to technological advance. Others argue that it fails to take science properly into account, though in fact it relies more heavily on scientific evidence than other approaches to the problem. Still others claim to be applying the principle when clearly they are not. From all the confusion, you might think that it is a deep philosophical idea that is very difficult for a lay person to grasp [1].

In fact, the precautionary principle is very simple. All it actually amounts to is a piece of common sense: if we are embarking on something new, we should think very carefully about whether it is safe or not, and we should not go ahead until we are convinced it is. It’s also not a new idea; it already appears in national legislation in many countries (including the United States), and in international agreements such as the 1992 Rio Declaration and the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol agreed in Montreal in 2000.

Those who reject the precautionary principle are pushing forward with untested, inadequately researched technologies and insisting that it is up to the rest of us to prove that they are dangerous before they can be stopped. At the same time, they also refuse to accept liability, so if the technologies do turn out to be hazardous, as in many cases they already have, someone else will have to pay the costs of putting things right.

The precautionary principle is about the burden of proof, a concept that ordinary people have been expected to understand and accept in the law for many years. It is also the same reasoning that is used in most statistical testing. In fact, as a lot of work in biology depends on statistics, neglect or misuse of the precautionary principle often arises out of a misunderstanding and abuse of statistics.

The argument that it tips Common Law on its head is the one I am finding the most troublesome.  If we make people, companies, corporations prove that what they are doing won’t harm us before they do it, that is fine to a point.  What about unforeseen effects?

What about personal choice?  Do I still have the option to chose to use tobacco products, knowing that they will harm my health?  The choice to eat that juicy hamburger with fries?  The choice to share my home with a couple of cats who may carry toxoplasmosis?   The choice to live freely.

What about the legal criminal definition of “innocent until proven guilty”?  Are we going to flip that?  Are we going to have a new Department of Pre-Crime like in the movie Minority Report?

I think that we need to consider all the ramifications, and then use common sense in our applications of the Precautionary Principle.


3 thoughts on “The Precautionary Principle

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