A cautionary tale about the precautionary principle

It's wise to be careful, but some approaches to regulating the development of technology may be counterproductive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:56am

Some principles form the basis of science. Others purport to regulate the way science and technology develops. But are such principles scientific themselves?

The so-called precautionary principle - PP here for short - is a prime example. It has been used by public and government regulators to restrict the use of new technologies and their products. But is it scientific or, as some critics have claimed, anti-science?

Enshrined as part of the European Union's governance legislation, its most powerful effect has probably been the almost total ban on commercial genetically modified food within the union, and the under-funding of research into GM products.

There have been fierce public debates about the validity of PP in Britain and the European Union whereas it figures far less in the US and is almost non-existent in China. The Guardian newspaper in Britain last month ran an extensive and provocative debate on the principle.

While it seems sensible to be cautious about new technologies, the excessive application of PP can also lead to, and indeed has caused, fears, confusion and damage to the public interest. An example is the decade-long row over the safety of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, following a sensational study in the late 1990s, since discredited. People were taking precautions against a perfectly safe and key vaccine for children. As a result, there have been sporadic outbreaks, most recently of measles in South Wales.

One problem with any debate about PP is that different people have different definitions for it. I discern at least two - the weak and strong - versions. Others may identify more. The weak version is just common sense and should be adopted by everyone, not just government agencies, though it probably doesn't deserve to be called a principle, let alone a scientific one. It is: "Hey, there are danger signs so we better be careful about this technology and find out more before introducing it widely." This is just a responsible precaution. People have done this all the time, long before someone coined the phrase PP.

Then there is the strong "you never know" version of PP. This is most liable to abuse and is often exploited by ideologues against whatever science or technology they happen to be campaigning against, for example, Greenpeace's decades-long campaign against GM products.

It usually cites unspecified dangers or hypothetical harms a new technology may cause. This can easily degenerate into a dogma. Its reasoning and arguments also get circular because you never know what harm or good may result when you stop or delay a technology.

For example, green groups and beekeepers have celebrated the recent EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, supposedly to save the bees. But mainstream biologists have pointed out that dwindling bee populations involve multiple causes and the ban is unlikely to reverse that.

It appears PP takes off in European welfare states to the extent of being legislated because their governments accept as their primary task the protection of their citizens to such an extent as to be against potential or imaginary harms from new disruptive science or technology.

By contrast, the US economy strives on creating disruptive technologies - it created most of them in the last century from the microchip to the internet - such that its commercial and government culture is almost ideologically against PP.

One area that I think Americans could have benefited from PP early in the last decade is high frequency and algorithmic trading in the stock markets. It has crashed markets and is intrinsically unfair to ordinary investors, yet has come to dominate most exchanges in the US and other major international exchanges.

People, not only government regulators, should always take precautions, and not just with new technology. But to turn it into a legislative or regulatory principle is tricky and may even be counterproductive.

Alex Lo edits the science page