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Accidents in the home are also declining: open fires and unreliable gas heaters have been replaced by central heating; and candlelight has been replaced by electric lighting. Of course, we are not living in a risk-free world, but it is clearly not the case that we are facing more risks — whether it be at home, at work or in public.

The current unease about new developments cannot be explained by what goes on in the world of science.

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Instead, it is the outcome of a broader culture of caution. If risk-aversion really was a result of the rate of scientific and technological advance, how can we explain the fact that the belief in putting safety first shapes our response to everything from mobile phone masts and GM food to SARS and how we raise our children?

We need to explore the broader cultural assumptions about human vulnerability in order to understand the emergence of the precautionary principle into ever-more spheres of life. But if we accept that the widespread adoption of the precautionary principle is motivated, not by anything uniquely new or risky at the level of science and technology, but by a broader negative cultural outlook, is there still a case for adhering to the precautionary principle in science? The answer is, bluntly, no. Of course, society should not be reckless in its approach to innovation.

We should consider potential risks before introducing new products or proceeding with new activities. Scientists do — and should — hypothesise about, try to predict, and, as far as is possible, model possible harm. It is this reality that often leads proponents of the precautionary principle to respond to accusations that they are anti-science with the argument that they are in fact more pro-science than their critics: in the sense that they want more science rather than less.

But the precautionary principle does not merely ask us to hypothesise about and try to predict outcomes of particular actions, whether these outcomes are positive or negative. We are asked to make decisions to curb actions, not on the basis of what we know, but on the basis of what we do not know. Such arguments seem to be putting a straightforward case for restraint. Indeed, taken to its logical conclusion, it would surely mean that scientific experimentation would never take place at all. But proponents of the precautionary principle do not want to be seen to be too trigger-happy when it comes to banning things.

Tudge is right that a central component of the precautionary principle involves weighing up hypothetical risks against hypothetical benefits, before proceeding with new products or activities. The question remains, however: how far we can reliably quantify hypothetical costs and hypothetical benefits? And is it even possible to anticipate — in a quantifiable way — the future benefits of current discoveries and inventions? No one could imagine of what possible use this interesting phenomenon might be. Of course, now it is integral to the operation of hundreds of everyday products: it runs our printers, runs our optical telephone networks, performs laser surgery to correct myopia, removes tattoos, plays our CDs, opens clogged arteries, helps level our crop fields, etc.

Or take aspirin. If we had weighed up the hypothetical risks against the hypothetical benefits, would we ever have allowed the drug to be licensed?

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Many of the benefits derived from aspirin could not have been anticipated. But also, as a result of the success of aspirin, many safer alternatives have been developed.

See a Problem?

In the course of scientific progress, there are endless examples of technologies that have served as bridges to new and better technologies. We do need to accept that scientific and technological advances will often be accompanied by new risks. We cannot eliminate all risk, and we should not aspire to do so. Sometimes the consequences of innovation can be costly, and sometimes costly consequences cannot be foreseen.

Furthermore, just as there are risks in not restricting certain experiments and developments, there are risks in restricting them. Before considering regulation, one does indeed have to balance of the cost of being too permissive in relation to innovation with the costs of being too restrictive.

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It would be reckless to advocate risks where the potential costs are quantifiably high and the benefits quantifiably small. These include the risk of incorrectly assuming the absence of danger false negatives. That means forgoing many social benefits — most of which tend to make our lives safer rather than less safe. History has shown us that, while scientific and technological progress may often introduce new risks, its general trajectory has been to reduce many other, more serious, risks. Examples are plentiful: including the development of vaccinations, organ transplantation, blood transfusion, the chlorination of drinking water, the use of pesticides, and much more.

The precautionary principle will therefore not make us any safer. But we could pay a very heavy price for taking it on board, by missing out on future social benefits that are unimaginable to us today. A fear of the new and the unknown may have been understandable in the past, where people turned to religious prejudice to explain phenomena that seemed out of their control. Those of us who still have an aspiration for a better society need to confront the restraints imposed on us by an outlook guided by ignorance, in favour of an attempt to control our destiny in order to improve our world.

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The Precautionary Principle

Log in or Register now. Essays, profiles and in-depth features, every Sunday. Challenging the precautionary principle How has society come to be governed by the maxim 'better safe than sorry'? Tags Environment. Comments Log in Register. Log in. Remember me.

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Log in Please wait We couldn't log you in. Please check your details and try again. Register now. I have read and accept the comments policy. I want to subscribe to spiked 's weekly roundup newsletter. I want to subscribe to spiked 's Sunday long-reads newsletter. This work set out to examine the precautionary principle as an environmental policy, its origin, meaning, importance and adaptation in international, regional, and domestic Laws. This study applied desk approach in generating data for the study. The result indicates that though the principle has become an established principle of environmental law particularly at international level, it is yet to be legitimately invoked and applied by most national laws.

Precautionary, Principles, Adaptation and Laws. Bell and D. R, Noelle, and S. Pfitzer Animal Health V.


Council of the EU, 11 E. R , para. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, Join as an Editor-in-Chief.