Precautionary Principle

At every stage the opponents of technological progress argue that just because there is no evidence of harm, that does not mean that something is not harmful.

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Beware the Precautionary Principle

A new mantra is beginning to occupy pride of place in debates on all environmental issues, whether they be to do with food safety, genetic engineering or global warming – the precautionary principle. Originating in 1960s Germany as Vorsorgeprinzip (literally foresight planning) it has been increasingly seized upon by green activists and other romantics since the 1970s as an unanswerable credo – when considering technological innovation, exercise caution with regard to its potential consequences.

In itself the precautionary principle sounds harmless enough. We all have the right to be protected against unscrupulous applications of late twentieth century scientific advances – especially those which threaten our environment and our lives. But the principle goes much further than seeking to protect us from known or suspected risks. It argues that we should also refrain from developments which have no demonstrable risks, or which have risks that are so small that they are outweighed, empirically, by the potential benefits that would result. In the most recent application of the doctrine it is proposed that innovation should be prevented even when there is just a perception of a risk among some unspecified people.

We have seen the impact of this thinking in recent debates on genetically modified crops, 'novel' foods, 'greenhouse' gasses and even the mythical ability of cellular phones to fry the brains of those who use them. At every stage the opponents of technological progress argue that just because there is no evidence of harm, that does not mean that something is not harmful. We have to 'prove' that it is not harmful before we embrace it.

This form of pre-scientific thinking presents a serious obstacle to rational discussion. The absence of an effect can never be proved , in the way that I cannot prove that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. All I can say are two things: firstly, sustained observation over the past 20 years has revealed no evidence of their presence, and secondly the existence of fairies, in my garden or elsewhere, is very unlikely on a priori grounds. This is how science works – precisely in accord with the principles of Karl Popper that hypotheses cannot be proved, only refuted.

The precautionary principle is, however, a very useful one for consumer activists precisely because it prevents scientific debate. The burden of evidence and proof is taken away from those who make unjustified and often whimsical claims and placed on the scientific community which, because it proceeds logically and rationally, is often powerless to respond. This is what makes the principle so dangerous. It generates a quasi-religious bigotry which history should have has taught us to fear. Its inherent irrationality renders it unsustainable.

Everything in life involves a risk of some kind. Throughout our evolution and development we have sought to minimise and manage risk, but not to eliminate it. Even if this were possible, it would undoubtedly be undesirable. A culture in which people do not take chances, where any form of progress or development is abandoned 'just to be on the safe side', is one with a very limited future. The very nature and structure of all human societies are what they are because individuals, in co-operation with each other, have taken their chances – seeking the rewards of well-judged risk-taking to the enervating constraints of safe options. Had the precautionary principle been applied the Pilgrim Fathers would never have set sail for America in their fragile ships. Life-saving advances in medicine would have been halted when the first patient died on the operating table.

The champions of the precautionary principle, of course, will argue that what we choose to regard as modern progress is nothing more than the manifestation of greed and exploitation. But in their vehement critique of the interests and power of 'big business' – forces which they see as inexorably apocalyptic – they cling to a naïve and romantic vision of agrarian idylls which have never existed and can never exist. In doing so, they offer no sustainable solutions to the potential problems which are recognised by us all. Their rhetoric, however, is sufficiently seductive to win over those whose anxieties about food, health and the environment have been generated and nurtured by those very same people who now purport to offer a solution. Create an unfounded scare, provoke fears, sell them the precautionary principle – a style of marketing of which 'big business' would be proud.

In reality, the precautionary principle presents a serious hazard to our health which extends way beyond the generation of unnecessary neuroses. The biggest correlate of our health and well being is our standard of living, as measured in conventional economic and physical terms. People in technologically advanced societies suffer fewer diseases and live longer than those in less developed nations. The biggest killer in the world is not genetically modified soya, pesticide residues or even tobacco. It is something which is given the code Z59.5 in the International Classification of Disease Handbook and accounts for more deaths world-wide than any other single factor. It is defined as 'Extreme Poverty'.

The narrow philosophy which surrounds the precautionary principle is fundamentally conservative in both political and literal senses. It offers little prospect for those who are disadvantaged in our societies – those who have far more real concerns in their daily lives than to be worried about whether the beef that they cannot afford has a remote chance of being contaminated with BSE. By seeking to dismantle the industrialised-based processes which generate wealth and health, the eco-activists can only make their plight much more profound.

In one sense, though, the precautionary principle might have some utility. If we apply the precautionary principle to itself – ask what are the possible dangers of using this principle – we would be forced to abandon it very quickly.