The precautionary principle
Posted by aogTuesday, 25 November 2003 at 08:51 TrackBack Ping URL

I’ve been pondering the “gay marriage” issue, which conflicts me greatly, but I’m not yet ready to pontificate on it in public. However, it did put another issue in mind, which I was reminded of by another post at the Judd’s.

One of the techniques used by modern day Luddites and enemies of technological civilization is the precautionary principle. This basically states that the burden of proof is on the promoter of a new technology, that the technology must be proven safe before it should be allowed in general use. Of course, no technology actually is safe and even if it were, there seems little possibility that it could be proven to be so. This principle is simply a mechanism for shutting down technology1.

What strikes me, though, is that many of the political factions that promote the precautionary principle for technology do not seem to even consider it in the social realm. Surely if the precautionary principle is a good idea for new technologies, it’s just as good an idea for social innovation and change? Perhaps we should think deeply about modifying basic social structures and only do so if it can be proven that no harm will come from the change2. Try it out on a Left Green and let me know how it goes3.

1 This isn’t to say that we should blithely adopt whatever techno-wizardry that comes along, but we have to accept that we are fallible people living in a poorly understood universe and there are many things we can’t know at any moment in time. Beyond that, it’s not a matter of whether a technology is safe but whether it’s likely to be safer. Surely we can say that we prefer technology A, even though it kills a thousand people a year, to technology B which kills 10,000 / year or no technology at all, which kills 100,000 / year, even though technology A is obviously not “safe”.

2 Note that the precautionary principle in this context would be even more reactionary than mainstream conversatism.

3 Gosh, I love these footnotes. But is having a post that uses footnotes indicative of a deeper, psychological problem? Probably, but in my case worrying about it would be like noticing chipping paint on the Titanic.