Saturday, January 05, 2013

Precautionary principle possibilities

The options:

1. Prove a negative, or no dice.  No technology can be used unless it's proven in advance to never have risks.  That can't be done, so we can't use any technology, new or existing.

2. Risky, smishky.  Defined risks are no reason to stop or alter use of a technology unless the risk has moved from possibly harmful to scientifically-certain harm.  With no certainties in science, this also can't be done.

3. Squishy real life choice.  evidence rising to a level of x for harms whose severity rises to a level of y compared to the technology's benefit of less than z is the point at which you stop or alter the technology's use unless and until additional research changes the value of those variables.  The only minuscule problem with this is it doesn't provide much of a guideline.  But it's right.

Discussion below in this blog and at Stoat are relevant.  Anti- and pro-GMO forces argue for positions 1 and 2 although they're usually vague about it, as a clear description of their perspective doesn't help them win.  Switching over to variables x, y, and z, pro-GMOers like Keith Kloor obfuscate the non-zero value of x, while anti-GMOers exaggerate the other way.

So what to do?  Caution, I guess.

To try to move from saying something squishy to something interesting, how about this:  prior to the 1970s, the correct policy conclusion was that CFCs have no broad-based environmental harms and should be used liberally.  That's not right, it turns out, but that's the information we had at the time.  The key is moving quickly as new evidence for variables x and y came out.  From a political science/international coordination perspective, the world moved amazingly quickly on ozone-depleting chemicals.  From an environmental perspective, my sense is that we barely dodged a bullet (and we still have another 40 years or so of slowly declining CFC concentrations where something new could go wrong).  We'll see how well we'll do on climate change with already, well-established x and a range of bad to horrible values for y.

Moderately relevant:  I've had a sci-fi story in my head for a while, an alternative history where CFCs were invented and widely-used a century earlier than in real life and long before the science could anticipate their problems.  Society would be finding nature melting and cracking around them, along with peoples' skin, and have no idea of the reason.  Not a particularly happy story.  So, caution.