The precautionary principle is critical and useful tool for addressing risk. Put simply, it encourages us to resolve uncertainty judiciously and carefully, with an awareness of possible risks. It gives us a check on unbridled enthusiasm, and a check that is altogether important. In fact, many of the regulations we have in place in society are built around precaution rather than simply assuming something is worthwhile.
So the precautionary principle has value in many uncertain circumstances, but we shouldn’t assume that it has value in any uncertain circumstance because, to be perfectly frank, all circumstances are uncertain. The question is of degree. And improperly applied, the precautionary principal can be unbridled and dangerous—the exact attitude it is intended to keep in check.
I consider myself more progressive than not, at least as far as my social policy views. And yet, one of the things I find most irksome about my fellow progressives is this misapplication of the precautionary principle. Instead of asking where the evidence falls and using the precautionary principle to resolve true uncertainty, a trend has arisen of using the precautionary principle as justification for presuming danger in the complete absence of evidence, and indeed, even despite evidence against it.
At issue for me lately are some of the statements Green Party candidate Jill Stein has made during her campaign. Regarding wi-fi, she had this to say:
“We should not be subjecting kids’ brains especially to that. And we don’t follow that issue in this country, but in Europe where they do, they have good precautions around wireless—maybe not good enough, because it’s very hard to study this stuff. We make guinea pigs out of whole populations and then we discover how many die.”
We have no evidence that wi-fi is dangerous. And we’ve looked hard for that evidence. Which, in less scientific terms, means it isn’t there.
Stein also made some comments about vaccines:
“There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”
Well, to be honest, that’s a lie. I could call it a misstatement or an error, but she’s a doctor, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt and presume she is not a terrible doctor, in which case she knows full well that there are no medical concerns about the vaccination schedule, and that mercury in vaccines was never “rampant” and wasn’t even the toxic form in any case. Questions do remain for some people, it’s true—but that’s because they’ve rejected the answers. Well-researched, strongly evidenced answers.
And maybe Dr. Stein is just pandering and looking to pick up votes from the fringe. But if she is, she’s doing herself and everyone else a disservice.
Because I care a lot about protecting our environment, it also matters to me that we do it in accordance with the scientific evidence. I would love to see the day that I support a Green party candidate for president. I would love to the Green party be the party of science, environmentalism, and social progress. But misapplying the precautionary principal and conjuring up imagined toxic threats in everyday life isn’t the way there.
I understand that it’s part of progressive culture to worry about how we’re damaging our environment and ourselves. We are doing that. We are doing that it clear, well-researched ways. We are burning too many fossil fuels, clearing too much land, having too many children, depleting too much of our soil, and killing too many of our fellow species.
But those are the things we can prove. When we spend time building concern about things that are unlikely and even disproven, we take away from those things that matter. We come across as paranoid rather than cautious, and we are.
It’s like we’ve recognized, correctly, that we are playing Russian roulette with many parts of our world, but at the same time we’ve lost our ability to discern which parts. And so we worry about vaccines, and power lines, and wi-fi.
We pull the trigger on the important issues daily. And yet, we spend our time worrying we’ll shoot ourselves with a banana.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore