TCS Daily

Taking Precaution Vs. Proving A Negative

By Kenneth Green - March 19, 2001 12:00 AM

When tending the garden of environmental policy, one would always prefer to be planting pretty flowers, and finding better ways to protect safety, health, and environmental quality. Sometimes, however, one is forced to stoop to pluck a weed. One such weed that has escaped its proper place in the garden is called the "precautionary principle."

In the debate over environmental policies ranging from global warming to genetic engineering, advocacy groups such as Greenpeace want to replace traditional risk-based approaches to managing environmental risk with a "precautionary principle" that presumes an activity guilty until proven innocent. Under the precautionary principle, the burden of proof for demonstrating safety is placed on the group seeking to develop something, not on those claiming that an activity or product poses a risk to others.

The precautionary principle, as formulated at a meeting of academics called the Wingspread Conference, goes like this: "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

As Joan D'Argo of Greenpeace elaborates, "Rather than our health and our children`s health being sacrificed for industry greed, the Precautionary Principle states that it is the polluters who must prove that their products or manufacturing processes are not likely to harm the environment or human health. Anything less, would be using the environment and our bodies as a large scale laboratory to gather evidence of harm, a morally unacceptable principle."

Now, everyone is for protecting children, and there's nothing wrong with caution. In fact, current environmental policy has strong "precautionary principles" built in. For example, before one can build any major construction works in many areas, one must complete an environmental impact report that evaluates what possible environmental damages might be done, and how those damages might be ameliorated. Before one can market a drug, one must test it for safety and efficacy. Few would argue that the world would be a safer place if drugs weren't safety-tested before being given to human beings.

But this concept, a flower in the right part of the policy garden, becomes a weed when it migrates to other areas. Indeed, when applied to subtle risks, the precautionary principle is more properly labeled the "prove a negative" principle. And proving a negative, as we know, is an impossible task.

Perhaps that's the point. As science writer Ron Bailey pointed out in a recent article in the online adjunct to Reason Magazine, Martin Teitel, a philosopher who directs the Council for Responsible Genetics, was quite explicit about what the precautionary principle could do to stop technological progress in the biotech field. When a student at a recent anti-technology conference observed that a biotech crop couldn't be proven safe without field trials that would themselves be forbidden by the precautionary principle, Teitel's reply was illuminating. "That's just fine," the philosopher replied, because "politically it's difficult for me to go around saying that I want to shut this science down, so it's safer for me to say something like 'it needs to be done safely before releasing it.'" To put is simply, the precautionary principle is a catch-22 that delivers a ban that one never has to ask for. The biotechnologists, Teitel concludes, "don't get to do it period."

It is inarguable that if one foregoes the development of new drugs, chemicals, genetically-enhanced organisms and so on, one reduces the risk of these things harming people. But it's equally inarguable that in ceasing such scientific research or technological development, one foregoes the opportunity to save lives. Further one terminates the discovery process of science and technology. Even further, by keeping products from the market, one sabotages the economic voting process by which a creative society finds out what can best extend life and improves it's quality.

Consider some of the inventions that would fail the precautionary principle test of developmental worthiness:

Fire, of course, is a loser from the get-go. Aspirin, with its risks to the stomach lining would almost certainly fail the test, as would food preservatives if used improperly. Cars are out, of course, but then, so are bicycles, and horseback riding. As for that computer you're using, or the television you watch, or the cell-phone you use when you call 911 at a highway accident ... well, forget about it.

Surely if advocates of the precautionary principle believe in what they're proposing, they'll be willing to walk their talk. So, before pushing the precautionary principle into policy, it seems only prudent to ask that precautionary principle proponents prove that the precautionary principle itself poses no risk when implemented. If the precautionary principle is so easily implemented, advocates won't mind demonstrating that no risk will accrue from lost opportunities, reduced economic health, the slowing of medical and technological progress, and so on.

But wait. What's that, you say? One can't prove that the precautionary principle will do no harm? One can't prove a negative? Imagine that.


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