Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Perils of Precaution

This is the first in a series of entries of what is chapter 2 of my book-in-progress, The Proactionary Principle. I will post a new section of that chapter every day or two. Following that will be sections from chapter 4, The Proactionary Principle (my alternative to the precautionary principle).

When you hear the word “mother”, what comes to mind? If you are like me, mother stands for comfort, for love and, above all, for protecting and nurturing the young. Those lurid and repellant news stories of mothers who murder their children revolt and fascinate us precisely because they violate our expectations so brutally. We expect mothers to watch over their offspring, to safeguard them, to take precautionary measures. When we see mothers filling this age-old role, all feels right with the world.

But what if a mother is killing with kindness? What if, by protecting her child from a perceived danger, she is opening the door to a greater danger? What if the overprotective mother encourages thousands of other mothers to follow her example? How do we feel then? Her excessive—or misdirected—precaution now puts in peril a multitude of innocents.

In the process of writing this chapter, I came across a website that claims to reveal the truth about vaccines. The mother who runs this site had her son vaccinated with the usual treatments, starting at two months of age. At fifteen months, one week after being vaccinated for several dangerous conditions, the boy starting having seizures. No definite connection was established with the vaccine, and reactions typically occur more quickly. This unfortunate woman is now devoting herself to broadcasting dire warnings about the vaccine menace. To the extent that the conviction of her personal voice succeeds in influencing others, she will be responsible for greatly raising the risk of serious illness in numerous children.

The mother had read a fact sheet explaining that a vaccine can cause serious allergic reactions, and induce seizures in 6 out of 10,000 cases. She writes that, “like so many of us, I never thought it meant my child.” This comment indicates a failing in the thinking of this mother—a failing that sparked such appalled outrage in me that little room was left for sympathy. First, she read about the small odds of an adverse reaction but ignored it—because it didn’t mean her child. (Why not? Because believing something comfortable was more important to her than seeing reality?) Then, after the misfortune of her son being one of those suffering adverse reactions (assuming the vaccine was the cause), she ignored the dangers for which the vaccine was prescribed and set about encouraging other women to refuse to vaccinate their children.

This aggressive ignorance typifies the danger of allowing caution without knowledge and fear without objectivity, to drive our thinking and decision making. When we overly focus on avoiding specific dangers—or what we perceive to be dangers—we narrow our awareness, constrain our thinking, and distort our decisions.

Many factors conspire to warp our reasoning about risks and benefits as individuals. The bad news is that such foolish thinking has been institutionalized and turned into a principle. Zealous pursuit of precaution has been enshrined in the “precautionary principle”. Regulators, negotiators, and activists refer to and defer to this principle when considering possible restrictions on productive activity and technological innovation.

In this chapter, I aim to explain how the precautionary principle, and the mindset that underlies it, threaten our well-being and our future. The extropic advance of our civilization depends on keeping caution in perspective. We do need a healthy dose of caution, but caution must take its place as one value among many, not as the sole, all-powerful rule for making decisions about what should and should not do.

I will show how the single-minded pursuit of precaution has the perverse effect of raising our risks. Then I’ll point out many ways in which the principle fails us as a guide to forming a future with care and courage. That will set the stage for an alternative principle—one explicitly designed for the task.

Our Endangered Future
Continued technological innovation and advance are essential for our progress as a species, as individuals, and for the survival of our core freedoms. Unfortunately, human minds do not find it natural or easy to reason accurately about risks arising from complex circumstances. As a result, technological progress is being threatened by fundamentalists of all kinds, anti-humanists, Luddites, primitivists, regulators, and the distorted perceptions to which we are all vulnerable. A clear case of this shortcoming is our reasoning about the introduction of new technologies and the balance of potential benefits and harms that result.

Most of us want to do two things at the same time: Protect our freedom to innovate technologically, and protect ourselves and our environment from excessive collateral damage. Our traditional thinking has shown itself not to be up to this task. If we are serious about achieving the right balance of progress and protection, we need help. Suppose your friend wanted to make your favorite meal for you, and you knew he was clueless about cooking. To improve the chances of enjoying a delicious feast, while minimizing wasted ingredients, damaged utensils, and hurt feelings, you might gently urge him to use a recipe. Reasoning about risk and benefit is similar. Only we call the recipe structured decision making.

One recipe for making decisions and forming policies about technological and environmental issues has become popular. This decision recipe is known by the catchy name of the precautionary principle. This principle falls far short at encouraging us to make decisions that are objective, comprehensive, and balanced. It falls so far short that cynics might wonder whether it was devised specifically to stifle technological advance and productive activity.

Regulators find the principle attractive because it provides a seemingly clear procedure with a bias towards the exercise of regulatory power. The precautionary principle’s characteristics suit it well for the political arena in which regulators, hardcore environmental, and anti-technological activists pursue their agenda. Their interests, and the nature of the principle, practically guarantee that no consideration is given to an alternate approach: making decision making less political and more open to other methods. With rare exceptions, political decisions ensure that for every winner there is a loser. That’s because political decisions are imposed by the winners on the losers. Decisions made outside the political process typically enable all sides to win because there are multiple outcomes rather than just one.

Some well-intended people who genuinely do share the goal of a healthy balance of progress with protection have attempted to salvage the precautionary principle. In the absence of a more appealing alternative, they hope to reframe it and hedge it so that it does the job.

Before setting out a positive alternative for making decisions about the deployment or restriction of new (or existing) technologies, I want to make completely clear why I consider the precautionary principle not only inadequate but dangerous.


Tim Tyler said...

It is an interesting topic. I once made a video about it.

Sean said...

I have been thinking of us as systems and as such this means we are energy in different forms with connections to many other systems where energy is exchanged in many forms. You have pointed out that there are certain rules that guide this transfer of energy. How these energies are focused and distorted affects all exchanges. Creating algorithms which map visually these connections would be very valuable in creating honest understanding of situations like risk assessment.

dobermanmacleod said...

A cat that sits on a hot stove won't ever sit on a hot stove again; but it won't ever sit on a cold stove again either.

Risk assessment is very difficult, and endangered by emotions, so naturally people are generally bad at it. I would think the tendency to take risk is as genetic and environmental than it is rational and reality based when weighing risk vs. benefit.

Sean said...

true! but humans tend to see only by their chemical hormonal influences. It takes an enlightened veiw to see that we are not the center of the universe and there are systems that are influential in our lives that are guided by energy rather than that which guides us, chemistry. Talk to a spider. If it answers you then you will begin to understand. Its your energy it responds to. plants, clouds, everything that has energy responds to energy. you exist in a universe that lives. it is your presumptions that stop you from ever communicating with us.