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Precaution and Bigness

One of the key implications of the Precautionary Principle is shifting of the burden of proof -- it's up to those who want to engage in potentially risky activities to prove that what they propose is safe. Typically this point is made on purely ethical grounds, but it's made plausible by a certain (not altogether incorrect) assumption about how the world works. As Egalitarians, PP proponents see most risks as coming from large institutions, particularly big corporations. Being big and rich, these institutions -- rather than the scattered and poor individuals and communities who will be harmed if the proposed activity turns out to be risky -- are expected to have much greater capacity to do the studies needed to figure out what the danger really is. More rarely, Hierarchical opponents of the PP make the inverse claim, focusing on individuals and small companies to show that it's unreasonable to expect them to be able to meet the PP's burden of proof.

This shifted burden of proof raises a couple of interesting issues. First is the apparent claim by PP proponents that they want to base their decisions on science conducted by risk-producing companies, as well as the implicit promise that they would be willing to accept positive results from that science as proof that the activity in question is harmless. I don't think I need to do anything more than mention tobacco industry scientists to show why this is a strange position*.

The other interesting issue is the way the concern with bigness rebounds against itself. PP proponents have a (not unwarranted) suspicion of big, rich, and powerful organizations. Yet placing the burden of proof on risk-producers favors bigger companies. It's the big organizations that are able to afford the necessary research, and hence able to gain the profits from innovations that are now proven safe.

What PP proponents expect in this situation is that no potentially risky technologies will actually be proven safe. Thus this stream of profit will be denied to all companies, not just to the small ones with limited research budgets. What's more, while the big companies are bogged down in spending money trying to prove the safety of old-fashioned high tech innovations (say, genetically modified crops), smaller companies will turn to new low-tech ways of doing business (such as organic farming). The innovations found by the smaller companies will, it is thought, not be prima facie potential risks**, and hence will not be stopped by the PP.

* In the context of climate change, back40 claims that this sort of "Type M" (aka "ad hominem") argument is invalid. But ad hominem is only a fallacy when the personal attack is irrelevant to the nature of the claim being debated. When someone presents the results of a study, there's a lot we have to take on faith -- that they conducted the study with appropriate safeguards against bias, that they didn't cherry-pick their data, etc. Consideration of the character, motives, and interests of a researcher is quite relevant to this aspect of study evaluation. Of course, simply pointing out the possibility of bias is not the same as proving that the study is unreliable.

** The PP, as it is used by its main proponents, contains some contestable assumptions about when we can assume a potential risk is present, generally emanating from a bias against new and "unnatural" activities.


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