TCS Daily

Spectre of Fear

By James K. Glassman - May 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: The following is a speech delivered to the "Panic Attack" conference sponsored in conjunction with TCS at the Royal Institution in London.

What an honor it is to be here today in the Royal Institution, where, among others, Michael Faraday performed his spectacular experiments in physics and chemistry.

A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of fear and ignorance, cloaked in the garb of science, of pseudo-science.

This spectre, which haunts the United States and the rest of the world, too, can be summed up in two words: Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle is a political idea, not a scientific theorem.

The Precautionary Principle kills. It discourages progress. It promotes timidity and stupidity.

The Precautionary Principle has no official definition, of course, but the Wingspan Declaration by a group of environmentalists in 1998 will do: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health and the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not established scientifically."

In other words, forget the science; just ban it. As Mick Hume of put it, "The Precautionary Principle is humanity's most powerful self-imposed constraint."

Last year, famine swept through Southern Africa. The U.S. sent huge amounts of basic foods to feed the starving. Much of the corn that was sent was grown through methods involving genetic modification, or GM. European Green groups, ruled by the Precautionary Principle, persuaded the president of Zambia and other leaders of affected countries to reject the aid - to let their people starve in order to avoid an imaginary risk.

The GM food stayed in warehouses in Africa. In an absurd catastrophe, people died because of the Precautionary Principle. And people continue to be impoverished. The European Union's long-running moratorium on GM foods has discouraged small farmers in Africa and Asia from using efficient GM agriculture, which could otherwise be the basis of a flourishing export trade.

The effects of the Precautionary Principle are not always evidence. That is because it is an example of a distinction identified by the great 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat - the distinction between the "seen" and the "unseen." This is the idea that all economic activities - in fact, all actions related to public policy - have effects that are both evident and not evident, and the latter may be more important.

An example is pharmaceutical policy that discourages the development of life-saving drugs. Forty years ago, the Food & Drug Administration in the U.S. banned a drug, Thalidomide, which, when taken by pregnant women, had caused terrible birth defects. The person who banned the drug became a hero - and certainly the decision was meritorious, though it turned out that the drug, if administered properly, had valuable uses. More important, however, the Thalidomide mentality - ruled by the Precautionary Principle - has led to the banning or delay of perhaps hundreds of other cures. That's the unseen part of Bastiat's dichotomy.

What great discoveries, inventions, applications won't emerge because of the Precautionary Principle? We can't possibly know.

Recently, the smart folks at Spiked asked 40 members of the international scientific community to identify historic achievements that would have been thwarted by the Precautionary Principle. Among them: the airplane, air conditioning, blood transfusion, high-voltage power grids, nuclear power, and the discovery of America.

Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, editor of the journal Energy and Environment, wrote that "virtually all scientific and technological discoveries" would be thwarted "because all create, initially at least, powerful losers who can activate the prevailing ideological and political system against the new."

Europe has become a profoundly conservative society - deadlocked by powerful interest groups, many of them seemingly benign but, in truth, brutally reactionary and tyrannical.

I am thinking here, for example, of Green NGOs. But there are others. They are enforcing a kind of imperialism of ignorance on others, here and abroad, and enforcing an orthodoxy governed by fear, caution and inaction.

Yes, even in the best of cases, we can't know for sure about the extent of every danger. But we take reasonable risks. It is part of our humanity. To deny the ability to take risks is to crush human freedom, which Friedrich von Hayek defined as a state of being "in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of others."

And arbitrary, the Precautionary Principle is.

You will hear today from my colleague Sallie Baliunas, co-host of TechCentralStation and a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and from a brave Galileo of our time, Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," on the subject of climate change - where the Precautionary Principle rules and is embodied in the Kyoto Protocol.

There are two problems with climate-change mitigation, Kyoto-style. First there is a lack of sound science behind predictions of calamitously rising temperatures over the next 100 years. More and more research lately is casting doubt on the computer models that predict the change. And a study led by Dr. Baliunas and her Harvard colleague Willie Soon, recently found that, according to most studies, the 20th Century is not the warmest century on record. Long before SUVs, a thousand years ago, the Vikings were cultivating Greenland. Temperatures move in cycles, perhaps influenced by solar activity. At this point, the extent of the human role in climate change is sheer conjecture.

Second, cutting greenhouse gas emissions is extremely costly since the only way to do it is to reduce the use of fossils fuels, and, since those fuels are the inexpensive leverage that allows an economy to grow, cutting down on them can be disastrous to worldwide economic growth. And it is economic growth which, in a Kuznets Curve effect, improves environments. "Poverty is the worst polluter," said the late Indira Ghandi. And the Precautionary Principle is a great encouragement to poverty. And to absurdity.

Consider the case of smokeless tobacco - chew, snuff or dip are some of its more common names. You will hear more about this story later today at a distinguished panel that includes Professor Robert Nilsson of Stockholm University. The product has been banned in the EU - with the exception of Sweden - and in Australia, while cigarette smoking, despite its proven harmful effects, remains legal in those parts of the world. And Europeans really know how to smoke! I am not advocating that cigarettes be banned, of course. I just find it absurd that the Precautionary Principle should apply to the non-proven activity and not to the proven activity.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal Europe last month, Roger Bate, a fellow of the International Policy Network and a regular contributor to the TechCentralStation website, quotes a statement by anti-smoking advocates who actually challenged the Precautionary Principle in the case of snuff. Wonders never cease. And they will be on display here today.

Risk-taking is at the heart of the animal spirits that have made free-market economies prosper, as imagination thrives. But government, in league with environmentalists, political groups and often the media, is using the possibility of risk as a way to limit freedom.

Technology has the potential to increase our freedom exponentially - which is why government and the sycophants and cynics who try to use it for their own selfish ends, want to limit biotechnology, revolutionary software, new drugs, the Internet itself.

That is why this conference today is so important.

By exposing the irrational obsession with risk, this conference will promote freedom and prosperity and unleash the imagination of hordes of modern-day Faradays.

Thank you.

TCS Daily Archives