Monday, 15 January 2018

On the Precautionary Principle

Today, I’m going to look at a mantra much trumpeted by environmentalists; the precautionary principle. I’ll seek to make a case that, since the early 1980s, this idea has been perverted. To such an extent, that the principle now has an effect all but opposite to its true intention. I’ll trace how this happened, and try to outline how we might fix the resulting mess.

What is the precautionary principle?

The precautionary principle, even in its original, pre-1980s form, is an elusive beast. There’s no generally agreed wording of it. But its essence can be summarized as “better safe than sorry,” or “look before you leap.” Though some – myself included – go further, and see it as akin to the Hippocratic oath for doctors: “First, do no harm.”

In this form, the principle is very sensible advice. Before they put a new product on the market, for example, sane business people will test it thoroughly to check it has no bad side-effects. If they don’t do this, and something goes wrong, they will face lawsuits, and perhaps worse.

But some wish to take the principle further. Today, it’s often interpreted to mean that if there’s a risk of something bad happening, particularly to the environment or to human, animal or plant health, then action should, or even must, be taken to avoid or to minimize that risk. And on this excuse, policies have been made that have imposed huge costs on all of us.


On examination, this new form of the principle doesn’t fit well with our common-sense ideas of how to deal with risk. For in thinking about risk, we recognize two kinds: risk to ourselves, and risk to others. As far as risk to ourselves goes, each of us must make our own decisions. We do it all the time; just about everything in life involves some degree of risk. We judge, rationally or otherwise, whether a particular risk is justified for us. And we decide either to take the risk, or not. For example, every time we go in a plane, there’s a risk it may crash and kill us. We weigh this up, consciously or not, against the gain we expect from making the journey. We look, and then we leap; or not. And most of us come out with the same decision: We get in that plane.

Today’s version of the precautionary principle is worse than useless in assessing risk to ourselves. For it would have us either avoid risks altogether, or focus on minimizing them. But a life without taking risks is, at best, the life of a vegetable. And a life spent focusing on risks is a paranoid one.

Risk to others is a more difficult subject. Sometimes our actions may have negative impacts on others; on their property, on their health, even in extreme cases on their very lives. Now, all individuals are responsible for the consequences of their actions to others, unless those actions were coerced. And it may be that in a particular case the harm, which an action causes others, exceeds what reasonable people will bear in a spirit of mutual tolerance. In such cases, in a sane world, we should be required to compensate those we have harmed. In environmental terms, that’s the basis of the idea of “polluter pays” – one with which I heartily agree.

There are, therefore, good reasons to invest in minimizing risk to others. I gave already the example of a company putting a new product on the market. In making decisions on such risks, particularly if the damage caused may be great, it makes sense to assess the risks, and their consequences and costs if things go wrong, as objectively as possible.

Rationally, we will invest in minimizing such a risk as long as the likely gain from the reduction of risk exceeds the cost involved in reducing it. Beyond that point, we have only two options; we either go ahead and face the consequences, or we scrap the whole thing. If we tried to use the precautionary principle as often interpreted today, however, we would have to spend forever more and more to allay less and less likely, or less and less serious, risks.

Weak and strong precaution

In the original (weak) form of the precautionary principle, the burden of proof is always on the party wanting to make change. If one party wishes to stop or restrict an activity of another party on the grounds that it causes risk to them or to others, it’s up to the accuser to show that the risk is real and significant. It’s also up to the accuser to show that the change they propose is both necessary and beneficial. And the cost effectiveness of any such change must be taken into account. For it isn’t reasonable to expect anyone to spend more on reducing a risk, than the gain which results to those whose exposure to the risk is reduced.

However, many environmentalists, politicians and regulators favour a stronger form of the principle. In its strong form, it can be used to regulate or prohibit any action that has actual or perceived risks, even if those risks cannot, or cannot yet, be accurately quantified. Further, the burden of proof is inverted, so that the proponent of an activity must prove that it is harmless. And the costs of preventative action are not to be taken into consideration. Thus the strong form of the precautionary principle is, simply put, a power grab and a tool for tyranny. A long, long way from “First, do no harm.”

A history of corruption

The perversion of the precautionary principle into an excuse for tyranny began in the early 1980s. And it was the United Nations that did it. The World Charter for Nature, a 1982 UN resolution, included an extreme formulation of the precautionary principle. It stated: “Activities which might have an impact on nature shall be controlled,” and “where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.” The Charter was passed by 111 votes to 1, with 18 abstentions. The USA was the only country voting against.

Fast forward a decade, to the Rio Declaration of 1992. Principle 15 states: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

At first sight, this looks like a walk back towards the weak form of the principle. But there’s a catch; and a big one. If you don’t have a high degree of scientific certainty about the size and the likelihood of a problem, how can you assess whether or not a proposed counter-measure is cost-effective? You might (or might not) be able to estimate the costs of the measure accurately; but without high scientific certainty, you can’t accurately estimate the benefits to compare them with! And so, sneakily, the activists bypassed the cost effectiveness condition that was supposed to be built into the principle. The world’s politicians bought it; and they sold us all down the Rio.

Then there was the much touted Wingspread Declaration of 1998. This came out of a conference of academics, politicians and activists, convened by an organization, only formed in 1994, called the Science and Environmental Health Network. Whose mission statement reads: “In service to communities, the Earth and future generations, the Science & Environmental Health Network forges Science, Ethics and Law into tools for Action.” An activist organization, no?

Here’s how they re-defined the principle: “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 fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” We’re back to the strong form, aren’t we? And worse. For when they talk of “the public,” they don’t mean us ordinary people. What they mean is that government shouldn’t have to bear the burden of proving its accusations; so we’re all guilty until proven innocent. Clever about-face, eh?

By 2002, the UK’s Inter-Departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment had perverted the principle still further. They saw its purpose as “to create an impetus to take a decision notwithstanding scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risk.” And they wanted to invoke the principle “even if the likelihood of harm is remote.” They said, too, that “the precautionary principle carries a general presumption that the burden of proof shifts away from the regulator having to demonstrate potential for harm towards the hazard creator having to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety.” And they misused an aphorism attributed to Carl Sagan, saying: “‘Absence of evidence of risk’ should never be confused with, or taken as, ‘evidence of absence of risk’.” Bureaucrats seeking more power, no?

What does all this add up to? First, the activists have inverted the burden of proof, and require the defendants (that’s us, who want to do things like heat our homes and drive our cars) to prove a negative. Proving a negative is often impossible. How, for example, would you prove there are no fairies at the bottom of your garden? Second, they want the judge to rule, and to find us guilty, before all the evidence has been heard. And third, even if there’s no evidence at all that our activity causes any harm to anyone, they wouldn’t accept that fact as evidence! In essence they have decreed, in contradiction to the norm of presumption of innocence, that absence of evidence of guilt is not evidence of absence of guilt. We’ve been had, haven’t we?

Post-normal science

Beginning in about 1993, an idea called “post-normal science” started to take root in academe. This claimed to be a new way to use the outputs of science, in situations where standard methods of risk and cost-benefit analysis were insufficient. These situations were described as: “facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.”

But what post-normal science actually is, is a hard question to answer. It describes itself as a “problem solving strategy.” It seeks to replace the hard edged objectivity of properly done science with something much woollier, that it calls “quality.” It seeks the involvement in the decision process of “all those who wish to participate in the resolution of the issue.” And through its concept of “extended facts,” it allows ideas which are not facts to be treated in the debate on an equal basis with facts.

In my view, post-normal science merely provides a way for glib, persuasive activists to direct policy debates towards outcomes which suit their agendas, even when the facts do not support those outcomes. It’s little different, either in intent or in effects, from the perversion of the precautionary principle into an activist tool. It’s not a form of science, but of nonscience. And it has been used to blur and to obfuscate the interface between science and policy.

Here are my own thoughts on the situations post-normal “science” claims to address. If facts are uncertain, you must put more effort into clarifying them. If values are in dispute, that increases the need for the decision to be, and to be seen to be, absolutely objective. For if not, those on the losing side of the debate will have good cause to become resentful. If stakes are high, that increases how much you should be willing to spend on making the decision as objective as possible. And if decisions are urgent, you must use the precautionary principle – properly. Look before you leap. First, do no harm. Don’t do anything that damages innocent people.

How to fix the problem

In my view, those that have perverted the precautionary principle, and have tried to discredit science and to substitute it by nonscience, have acted in bad faith. To fix this, we first need to restore the precautionary principle in the public understanding to its proper meaning, of “Look before you leap,” or “First, do no harm.”

Second, we must seek to compensate those who have been unjustly harmed by bad policies made as a result of these perversions. If we accept the idea of “polluter pays” – and we should – then why should we not also accept the idea of “politicker pays?” Should we not hold those, that have acted in bad faith in support of those policies, responsible for the effects of what they did to us? Should we not require each of them to compensate us for their share of the bad things they did to us? And if any of them have committed offences such as perjury, should we not be seeking to prosecute them too?

To sum up

Over the last 35 years or so, the precautionary principle, “Look before you leap,” has been perverted out of all recognition. It no longer tallies with our common sense ideas of risk. At the instigation of the United Nations and other activist groups, the principle has been re-cast into a strong form, which inverts the burden of proof and has become a tool for tyranny. There has also been a movement to obfuscate the interface between science and policy. These perversions have helped politicians to make environmental policies that have harmed all of us.

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