SoftestPawn’s Weblog

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Cautiously Approaching the Precautionary Approach

Posted by softestpawn on August 25, 2009

Following a post about the appalling Precautionary Principle, some folks said I was a bit harsh and that I had constructed an extreme version of it that it was never meant to be.

I’ve not been given an alternative definition, but all the same let’s have a look at a softer ‘Precautionary Approach’. In this case we’ll consider it in its fuzziest nicest: that we should not do dangerous things, and that if something might (but plausibly might) be dangerous, then the people who want to do it should prove it safe before they start.

All well and good it seems. This is the mellow, relaxed and comfortable “better safe than sorry” or “look before you leap”. It means people have to prove stuff is safe before they start doing it. And what can be wrong with that?

Well it’s wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong as follows:

  • It considers only direct harm.
  • It includes the potential for possible harm, even with little or no supporting evidence
  • Proof lies with the advocates
  • It makes the decision for you

It considers only direct harm

Most activities include quite definite harm. These are traded against the benefits of doing, or indeed the harms of not doing: if I am being chased by a veloceraptor, I am not going to pause and look to see what’s on the other side of the log I’m about to leap. There is a much higher certainty of danger in not doing, than in doing.

When it comes to more complicated activities, like building a factory or a hospital, we have definite harm: the land occupied will destroy wildlife, it will require energy, roads. On the other hand we will have the things the factory makes, the lives saved by the hospital, the employment. There are costs and benefits too from the houses, shops, recreation activities, schools, hospitals and factories needed by the workforce.

And the same effects will appear harmful to some and beneficial to others. Sheep grazing keeps the heather down. If you replace sheep with some other local industry, then the heather can run riot; this is good for the heather, but not so good for the moorland. Creatures that like living in heather will thrive, at the expense of those that like moorland. Are you a fan of heather or moorland?

Caution is not free. The continued ban on GM crops affects the wealthy very little, who can afford the warm, cuddly feeling of ‘protecting the environment’ at the expense of a little more wealth. That same ban, even if justified, is cold, heartless and cruel to those living on the edge of starvation, who die very young, who are always hungry, diseased and frail.

It includes the potential for risk of harm

Most activities carry some risks that they might cause harm. With the precautionary approach, we’re not only interested in the ‘known risks’, but the ‘unknown risks”.

There is no indication of quite how much possible risk is important; any “plausible” cause is sufficient. So for example the initial studies that drew a “link” between the MMR vaccine and autism are sufficient to “take precautions”. There was no actual evidence of risk of harm (the single study that started the scare had no significant value in the existing evidence), but there was enough to indicate the potential of such a risk.

And that’s enough. Being generally precautious provides no help in evaluating the possible risk of harm, and so it all rather depends on the emotions and enthusiasms of those applying the approach. If you are scared or highly reluctant to use modern medicine, then the above tenuous link between MMR vaccine and autism is enough to “take precautions”, and keep your children safe from such injections. This exposes your children to the harm of not taking the vaccine, but that’s not part of the consideration.

So we end up making decisions based on lack of evidence; based on ‘fantasy’ where we can dig out any possible plausible danger and use it as if it was actual danger. You might as well make decisions based on the plausible possibility that aliens live in clouds.

Proof lies with the advocate

This is not necessarily part of being generally precautious, but it seems to come with the Precautionary Principle:  if you want something, you prove it’s completely safe.

Which has two problems:

(1) It’s rarely possible to prove that anything is completely safe. Lots of clever people have looked for links between the MMR vaccine and autism and found nothing, but maybe that’s just because they haven’t found the right thing yet. Maybe there are other dangers. And so anyone ‘being precautious’ can do do so for ever, happy in the knowledge that, because they’re using the important-sounding “Precautionary Principle”, they are doing the Right Thing.

(2) Expecting someone with a vested interest (who wants to build the factory, or vaccinate children against MMR) to be fair about the evidence they present is a bit naive. Or rather, it’s a way of maintaining the Precaution, no matter what evidence is presented. Because you can’t trust it, obviously, it’s from the evil capitalists who want to build the factory, or evil drugs companies who want to make money from vaccine injections.

It makes the decision for you. Or not

Evidence and analysis inform our decisions, but should not make them. Sometimes the decision is obvious based on that information but sometimes it is not.

The precautionary approach provides a way of shortcutting all that palavar, and tells you not to do something if it might be dangerous. Yet it contradicts itself: it will tell you opposite things depending on how you apply it to the same problem.

For example: “Do I get up tomorrow?” The precautious approach tells you that because there are many possible (and known) harms in doing so, you should not. Yet “Do I stay in bed all day?” also has many possible (and known) harms in doing so and the precautious approach tells you that you should not.

Instead you have to choose when to use it, and choose which way to phrase your same question in order for it to ‘work’, and that’s the giveaway that it’s not a useful scientific approach. It’s a way of providing a pseudo-scientific cover over an emotional approach.

So if we look at opponents of wind farms, nuclear power, road bypasses, new shops, and so on, we sometimes see people who find just possibilities of potential harm, and seem to think that this by itself is enough to call a halt.

The Reckless Approach

Taking the same approach in the opposite direction exposes the lack of evidence, reason and analysis behind the Precautionary Approach.

The Reckless Approach says that “if there is any potential benefit to the action, we should act”.

And if we apply this approach to any ideas, we can quickly see that we’ll end up doing lots of really rather dangerous things.

Risk Analysis

The way we really – and sometimes even scientifically – decide whether to do something is to weigh up the costs against the benefits, including the uncertainties which are usually given as risks (potential costs or harms) and potential benefits.

This might be brief and scrappy – as we run from the veloceraptor, we have to make snap judgements made on very little, but often very important, information. This is a long running issue in the military (the snap judgements, not the veloceraptors) where life and death decisions need to be made on little and uncertain information.

For the more complicated issues involved in environmental impacts, impact assessments are well established, if not entirely straightforward.

Which is perhaps the problem; carrying out a proper assessment is complicated, and involves making difficult decisions in weighing the various effects against others. How do you weigh, for example, the many benefits of faster, cheaper travel provided by a bypass with the deaths to cute furry animals? To the permanent loss of certain habitats?

But doing anything else is insufficient. To pick and choose amongst the effects of an action and wave only those around, as if they force only one possible decision, is not rational, scientific or even moral.

(See also Risky Business, Adam Curtis on the Precautionary Principle, SIRC on Beware The Precautionary Principle, Precautionary Principle, Evidence Based Belief, EU Commission’s Communication on Precautionary Principle)


4 Responses to “Cautiously Approaching the Precautionary Approach”

  1. Martin Locock said

    I’ve looked at the same question from a more managerial approach on my blog A few words.

    • Heh, I know I tend to go on about climate change, but my critique is meant to be broader than that and apply to the general case. I think your take on other aspects of it – or what it is perceived to be – also show that it’s not very useful.

  2. al capone junior said

    Martin, your blog never ceases to amaze me, precautiously speaking, that is.


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