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.
Sometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”
“Look, he has no reason to lie.”
“Why would he lie?”
“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”
However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.
And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.
The anti-trans bathroom bills legislatures have been passing or proposing lately are obvious discrimination—yet, for an apparently significant group of people, they seem to be about protection. For weeks now I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could think these bills did anything useful; how anyone could see them as something other than an assault on the liberties of trans people specifically. The flimsy rationalization that we have to keep people “safe” from “predators” seemed farcical—could anyone actually believe that?
Of course, part of the answer lies with bad logic. It’s easy to play the game of spotting logical fallacies in other people’s arguments, but what I sometimes forget is that bad logic feels convincing, even when stopping to think about it clearly would destroy it. The argument that we need to protect people from supposed trans predators is nonsense, but it doesn’t feel like it. Until you stop to think about it and realize that there are zero incidents of trans people doing anything untoward in public bathrooms (unlike, say, republican legislators).