William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Precaution: Part I — Guest Post by J.C. Hanekamp


The can things with the sharp little edges
That can cut your fingers when you’re not looking
The soft little things on the floor that you step on
They can all be DANGEROUS.

As the lyrics of The Dangerous Kitchen by Frank Zappa imply, one can never be too careful. Although it was published in 1983, it, to some extent, foreshadows a perspective now dominant in Western World culture: ‘better safe than sorry’. This proverbial notion has taken center stage in Western world culture, and is now known usually referred to as precaution.

This so-called precautionary perspective has materialised in a legal principle called the precautionary principle (henceforth PP). It emerged as a doctrine cognisable by international policy-making at the Rio Summit in 1992, inserted in the Declaration on Environment and Development issued at the end of the conference, and can be found in numerous national and international legislation and treaties. It enjoys wide international support. The Rio definition reads as follows:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

We are familiar with precaution when for instance climate change is discussed, or food safety, technology, medicine, and so on. Whenever human activities are involved, precaution shows up in not a few instances. The axiom put forward by the PP is that for a given human activity that may have a detrimental effect on the environment and/or human health, the PP is supposed to designate a remedy. The ‘burden of proof’ is shifted from the regulator to the person(s) responsible for the potentially harmful activity. Safety needs to be demonstrated, not just assumed or approximated.

The hopes are that the PP will generate a new (environmental) law system with universal scope that will protect the present and future generations against the environmental and health risks associated with the highly technological production methods and consumption patterns of us citizens. So, the PP is the tool for a glorious and sustainable future, which we usually and intuitively associate with organic farming, wind turbines, solar energy, and what not. Sustainability is usually characterized as the ability of humanity to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

So, any critique on this supposedly sensible approach? Most certainly, and I will look into a number of critical reflections in consecutive posts. One aspect that stands out in precautionary debates is the understanding of science and its results. Scientism—that is the view that all knowledge is scientific knowledge and that science alone is deemed to be capable of elucidating and resolving all genuine human problems (poverty, social inequity, global warming, warfare, pollution, food safety, the meaning of life, and etceteras) whereby all human affairs can be reduced to science—seems rampant in discussions that emphasize the need for precaution and a sustainable future.

Small wonder that in debates on precaution and sustainability criticism of whatever kind is usually labeled as immoral (as in jeopardizing humanity’s future, endangering species and/or ecosystems or stalling important policies, or being in the pockets of big oil or big pharma, or whatever), as this author can attest to. However, this is only sidestepping this important discussion as a means to hide a poverty of reason by means of some fallacy of argumentation, of which the ad hominem and popular arguments are the most common. In an upcoming post I will look into the history of precaution.

Read Part II

Dr. Jaap C. Hanekamp is a chemist at the Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands.


  1. The precautionary principle roughly stated as, Thou shalt not do X unless X is proven risk free, has one major flaw.

    It ignores the fact that not X is not risk free and that in fact the risks of not X can exceed the risk of X.

  2. The world may get hot. The world may get cold. The world may stay the same. How do we use the PP for that? The threat from cold is at least equal to that of hot. If some scientists find we are heading for an ice age (which was true in the 70′s), that’s very serious and we should not wait for consensus or additional research.
    How do we prepare for opposite outcomes? As far as I can see, the PP does little more good than just adapting to whatever comes. Prevention of the unknown/uncertain is no better than adapting to what comes, and possible worse.

  3. The precautionary principle is nothing but a method for devising rationalizations for preferred decisions / policies.

  4. Of course the problem with “safety first”, for any enterprise about which one might propose “safety first”, is that the safest course is not to embark on the enterprise. Which I think is not really a problem for those proposing it, but the solution.

  5. I use the precautionary principle every day practically. When I cross the street, I check for cars, even when there is a light there to “protect” me. I wait for oncoming traffic to go by before I turn left across it. I don’t light matches around gas unless I have taken precautions to prevent me and others from combusting. I use it all the damn time.

    What I don’t do is worry about eggs, milk, peanut butter, coffee, etc and their long term effects. If I have a peanut allergy, I don’t eat peanut butter. Lactose intolerant, no milk. If I am hungry and I don’t eat though, thirsty and don’t drink and I keep that up for just long enough, I die. Just long enough ranges from a week to a month. Not dying today always outranks worries about dying 20 years from now. It is amazing how hard it is to get some people to grasp that…

  6. Transportation Security Administration.

  7. PP works when risk can be calculated. I.e., we have traffic accident data and we can do a rational analysis of the cost/benefit for legislating seat belts.

    What we can’t do is risk benefit on unknowns. Global warming has unknown risks (the consequences may actually turn out to be positive rather than negative.) Genetically modified food risks are unknown in the sense that there will always be consequences nobody thought of.

    In these cases PP is useless. You cannot take precautions against unknowns, so it because FP instead. (Fear Principle.) Do not change, because change contains unknown inherent risk.)

  8. Will Nitschke,

    The ability to do risk calculation does not make PP work. It’s implementation in European law and the UN both make clear that the only acceptable risk is 0 and they don’t give a damn about the posibility of benifits.

  9. Thanks for this post. Current discussion at Nassim Taleb’s facebook page (12/29) worth checking out.

  10. brad.tittle I use the precautionary principle every day practically. When I cross the street, I check for cars, even when there is a light there to “protect” me

    I believe the way PP is commonly used means you wouldn’t cross the street even if no cars were coming because there’s the chance you missed seeing one.

    Another example of over-application of the PP: you don’t drive to work because you have no way of knowing you won’t get killed trying to get there. This is probably closer to how climate alarmists tend to use the PP.

    A better example of of PP in everyday use: you don’t eat the cookie that’s fallen to the floor even though it passed the 5 second rule.

  11. Just a wrong (although common) take on the original precautionary principal. When the cost to prevent a potentially significant harm is minimal, one should pay that minimal cost. If, for example, the cost to prevent Global Warming Catastrophe is a one time expense of 1/2 of 1 US cent per person, or some similarly minimal cost then it makes sense to make that expenditure without worrying about the actual likelihood of Global Warming Catastrophe. The important point is that the cost of prevention is minimal, certainly not the level of crippling the world economy decried as necessary by some advocates, because a minimal expense if wrong will cause minimal harm and can prevent a major harm.

    Converting “minimal” to “cost-effective” throws the entire rational for the precautionary principal away – you cannot determine if something is “cost-effective” without a high level of certainty. If CO2 is not the cause of any warming, then no amount of reduced CO2 emission, not even 1 picogram, is cost-effective for preventing a Global Warming Catastrophe. So we cannot use cost-effectiveness as a measure in an uncertain regime.

  12. “A better example of of PP in everyday use: you don’t eat the cookie that’s fallen to the floor even though it passed the 5 second rule.”

    My family has upped the limit to 15 seconds because we like cookies. That’s cost/benefit analysis for you!

  13. Isn’t the precautionary principle basically a secular version of Pascal’s Wager?

  14. Spoiler Warning?
    “…to hide a poverty of reason.”
    … ahhhh, that rings a fondly remembered bell:
    A Poverty of Reason by Wilfred Beckerman (2002)

  15. john robertson

    5 January 2013 at 5:54 pm

    The precautionary principle, my experience is those who introduce this phoney phrase of political correctness are of a type.

    People who have chosen to be nonproductive members of society, usually in academia or government,Quangos, NGOs, members of the group of people who live off of the largess of society.
    They produce nothing of value, consume and destroy the work of others, yet are certain that they can manage society best.

    The obvious precautionary principle would be for me to treat them as the loons and thieves I believe them to be.

Comments are closed.

© 2014 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑