10 thoughts on “Sandpit

  1. The anti-vaccine movement and the precautionary principle that is so much more acceptable in polite society, are fellow travellers.

    Cass Sunstein wrote that in its strongest and most distinctive forms, the precautionary principle imposes a burden of proof on those who create potential risks, and requires regulation of activities even if it cannot be shown that those activities are likely to produce significant harms.

    The critics of the precautionary principle are not from the so called pro-science Left.

    Sunstein is a moderate democrat whose white house appointment to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs was opposed by the Left of the Democratic party because of his views on the precautionary principle and his support of cost-benefit analysis as a primary tool for assessing regulations.

    The epitome of antiscience is support for the precautionary principle and opposition to cost-benefit analysis is assessing regulations. Which side of politics is guilty of this?

    The dead are many because of regulatory delays in introducing new drugs. this regulatory delays are championed by the nader and the consumerism movement.

  2. The precautionary principle is just a ruse. When somebody invokes it then you should indeed be cautious.

  3. It’s a matter of degree. It’s a matter of assessing risks, benefits and costs on a case by case analytical basis. Liberterians want to invoke a “one-size-fits-all” inflexible rule which holds that no precautions should ever be taken in the face of possible dangers to third parties, the environment and so on. The Titanic sank because its captain failed to take adequate precautions in the face of plausible risks. Libertarians say “Because we don’t have perfect knowledge of all risks this means we can disregard risks altogether.” Libertarians want licence to behave with reckless disregard when they think the benefits will accrue to them and the risks and dangers will mostly accrue to others or to things they don’t care about like the environment.

    I am certainly very cautious of the sophistry employed by libertarians.

  4. Ikonoclast – enjoy that libertarian straw man you have made for yourself. It should bring you endless hours of joy.

  5. TerjeP :The precautionary principle is just a ruse. When somebody invokes it then you should indeed be cautious.

    Well done. Your 2 sentences are the shortest and most precise contradiction I’ve come across for a long time.

    Conclusion: The proposition that the precautionary principle is a ruse is not true.


  6. @TerjeP

    I don’t have to create parodies or strawmen of the libertarian position. It is its own parody and its true nature is as flimsy as any straw man.

  7. EG – there would be a contradiction if the “precautionary principle” was simply a case of “being cautious”.

  8. @Ikonoclast

    As a libertarian precautionary principalist who does risk assessment I’m on your side but I also have some sympathy for JR and TP’s positions. In part your differences are about some confusions . Maybe the following observations/comment will help:

    1. Science is not directly about saying whether/when the precautionary principle should be applied which is the real sticking point. In most situations science provides lots of qualitative and quantitative information that can help inform reasonable decision makers. But this information is generally on a risk continuum and has many associated uncertainties which make final decision making hard. For a full array of risk tools of varying precision see IEC/ISO 2009. IEC/ISO 31010 Risk management – Risk assessment techniques Edition 1.0 2009-11.

    2. Sometimes the scientific information screams – there is no problem! or alternatively it screams there is!! and there is no dispute. An example of the former might be the small amount of nerve agent in garden bug spray – which based on toxicity, dilution, exposure and carcinogenicity tests poses no problem as best we can tell – even though its clear when people handle concentrates in large amounts and then spill them on themselves they tend to die (I’m thinking here Malathion). Vitamin A is another good example – essential in low doses – toxic in high doses (never eat dog liver when in Antarctica). Eating too much vitamin A will kill you and its quite well documented.

    The number of exposure scenarios is limitless. Scientific methods provide a way of indicating whether a specific type of problem could occur or not –

    3. OR ALTERNATIVELY we may be looking at a grey area where an assessor cant be hairy chested either way – for example where a chemical Hazard Quotient for exposure is around 1.0. Well known examples are the issue of fluoride.

    The problem here is to decide based on such available evidence is the risk tolerable????? The central issue here is ‘tolerable risk’. Regulators like simple thresholds because they minimizes decision angst and this works sometimes.

    4. But there are so many situations when these don’t pass the laugh test. As a result science will only be part of the story and the final decision may not even be scientifically dominated or it will be multi-factorial. Here are some real world criteria for identifying ‘tolerable risk’:

    A risk is acceptable when:
    • it falls below an arbitrary defined probability
    • it falls below some level that is already tolerated
    • it falls below an arbitrary defined attributable fraction of total disease burden in the community
    • the cost of reducing the risk would exceed the costs saved
    • the cost of reducing the risk would exceed the costs saved when the ‘costs of suffering’ are also factored in
    • the opportunity costs would be better spent on other, more pressing, public health problems
    • public health professionals say it is acceptable
    • the general public say it is acceptable (or more likely, do not say it is not)
    • politicians say it is acceptable.

    This is the real messy world of risk assessment and decision making. For more information see HUNTER, P. R. & FEWTRELL, L. 2001. Acceptable Risk. In: FEWTRELL, L., BARTRAM J., (ed.) Water Quality Guidelines, Standards and Health: Assessment of risk and risk management for water-related infectious disease. London UK.: IWA Publishing/WHO.

    I would say JR is proposing basing a yes no decision on
    • the cost of reducing the risk would exceed the costs saved

    He and vaccination opponents might agree on:
    • the cost of reducing the risk would exceed the costs saved when the ‘costs of suffering’ are also factored in

    While some opponents focus may simply say tolerability should be based on.
    • the general public say it is acceptable (or more likely, do not say it is not)

    Clearly there is not simple answer – even before this question of what constitutes acceptable ‘costs of suffering’ is factored in. JR is clearly concerned with the large majority not suffering, while vaccination opponents focus on the dispossessed minority who have a very bad minority.

    One additional problem in making the decisions based on the above criteria also has very real associated uncertainty – and the Precautionary Principle is just the start of dealing with this Gorilla.

    Interestingly you get a real appreciation for the problem of uncertainty WHEN you do science and it wont necessarily solve the problem. A former student did some estimates for risks after a water disinfection process and came up with a 5% to 95% confidence interval range of 6! orders of magnitude.

    In regard to ‘tolerable risk’ how acceptable is it that a few people get really screwed so that the rest can have a better life in practice? This answer to this question is generally fudged because there isn’t a simple answer.

    Science can help usually understand the problem but often it can solve the final decision in many instances.

    Returning to the libertarian matter, I personally have no problem with thoughtful libertarians who aim to not infringe the liberty and health of others or the natural world up on which we depend. Thinking of one such I know the see this as just part of doing a good job. They would in fact expect to use the precautionary principle, in principle if not explicitly.

    But back to the real world there are also:
    – libertarian clowns who fall in love with their own mad development schemes and don’t understand the limits of their knowledge. (e.g. I’ve come across crazy chemists convinced a magic bacterial brew they had developed could yield a brilliant product when their science was 30 years out of date and they were utterly clueless but good self promoters. They just don’t know what they are doing which makes them dangerous).
    – genuine charlatans also known as snake oil salesmen who know there is a problem but can make a profit by short term gaming of a situation. They figure they can get in – make a quick buck and leave their mess to the public or future generations to sort out. A good example is the fossil fuel companies.
    – honest do gooders who stuff up. TP and JR have a look at the Bangladesh Arsenic story if you aren’t familiar with it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_contamination_of_groundwater#Bangladesh_and_West_Bengal.2C_India . The precautionary story is simply a response to Murphy’s Laws which is as important a principle in doing science as hypothesis testing even if they don’t have quite the same status.

    The bottom line is risk management and precautionary principles aren’t about promoting greenie bleeding hearts ahead of dynamic all knowing Randian entrepreneurs. Clown, cranks and scum come in all political gear and the idea is simply to reduce the damage they do because we are running out of planet fast.

    The precautionary principle is merely a part of the swag of risk tools designed to mitigate the worst damage of development. A downside is the only way we know to apply risk management is through adversarial bureaucratic review – and I happily own to being on the receiving end of enormous levels of frustration here myself.

    Part of the relevance to JQ’s blog is this. Neoclassical economists treat the market as all knowing and self righting. By contrast anyone who does risk assessment (outside of the economics area of course) knows how imperfect the knowledge even of specialists is and how poor is the knowledge of actual decision makers in practice. They are limited and only human – so ways to stop the insane excesses of the market must be developed – the precautionary principle is one.

    As to equilibration – the great leveller – it makes insufficient allowance for time which allows compounding of initial mistakes.

    The fossil fuel industry is the perfect example in point. We’ve had imperfect knowledge that we can burn too much carbon fuel before the damage exceeds the benefits. But it has been sufficient to predict the impact of global development forever. The basics have been known for 110 years and the market has known it too. But it has failed to act fast enough and as a result we are heading to a crisis borne of market failure.

    Part of this failure has been the failure of decision making and insufficient application of the precautionary principle.

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