Be Very Cautious of the Precautionary Principle

It is likely that the spirit of the PP, “better safe than sorry”, has been around since the dawn of civilization, but it seems to have been formally defined, according to Wiki, in 1930’s Germany. It is quite likely then that the PP was used in that period for the atrocities that occurred under Nazi Germany’s rise to power.

Certainly this is not likely to have been the first abuse of the term, but the spirit of the PP certainly has been abused throughout history to justify just about anything authority in power needed to further their goals. Thus the use of the PP must be scrutinized. Above all, the PP itself requires that the PP be justified in its use.

“In fact, prevention is only better than cure, if the probability of the particular problem you have in mind occurring is rather high, and if the proposed preventative measures are largely accurate or effective. But in the majority of debates about risk that we encounter today, neither of these cases are actually met. Probabilities, on the whole, are pretty low – otherwise, society would divert large amounts of resources and concern towards dealing with them. And there is little evidence that the precautionary measures taken actually work.” ref

Thus, if the PP were a de facto principle of action for any threat to people or society, then, for example, people would not live along active tectonic or volcanic zones. But since people do live in places where there is a potential of harm and destruction of property, then those people are playing the odds. That is, the degree of threat is what is important, not the absoluteness of the PP.

So this begs the question. What is the probability of the threat that will force one to invoke the PP? Obviously that is highly subjective. Those who are risk takers are often touted as throwing caution to the wind. Though many have succumbed to the consequences of their actions with such an approach, many have succeeded and over all benefited society.

Taken to the extreme, people would not venture out of their homes on the possibility that something may happen to them. Thus the use of the PP often is tagged to the degree of paranoia of either the individual or group. The use of the PP most definitely can be tagged to the political agenda of those who advocate its use.

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