It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.
The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.
This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:
In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. 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.
The above is quite sensible. The Emperor’s actions, however, which are not in accord with the above, would be considered an extreme example of the precautionary principle—hereafter referred to as Extreme Precautionary Principle (XPP), however, it has been referred to as the strong form of the PP, also. What’s troubling is not Tiberius’s actions 2000 years ago (bygones be bygones), but that today many modern greens are advocating similar use-cases for the XPP. Today, greens and those on the left advocate the XPP in regard to biotechnology (albeit only those we eat; those we inject ourselves with, ala insulin, get a free pass). Here is the activist version of the Precautionary Principle, formulated at the Wingspread Conference in 1998:
What’s more troubling than ignorance of the scientific method is that the Wingspread PP allows such rationalizing. It has no cost-effective (cost-benefit) mechanism, and as a reviewer of this article pointed out to me, those raising threats of harm are never accountable for being wrong. Moreover, what does one mean by threat of harm—why not actual harm?—which begs the question: whose definition of threat? The scientist or non-scientist definition? A scientist needs at least a hint of a cause-effect mechanism to propose a hypothesis, set up an experiment, and attempt to disprove the null hypothesis. Activists, however, as evidenced by numerous articles, seem to only require a priori considerations (albeit, sometimes they seem to make stuff up), though usually bringing motivated reasoning to the table.
The XPP, as espoused by many greens in the last few decades, requires of science a standard of evidence that demonstrates absolute safety (which is literally impossible), and when that evidence is not forthcoming, and it can’t be, attempts to steer the discussion towards the curtailment or cessation of that technology. Such reasoning is often found among those reasonable greens who pontificate on the dangers of GMOs decades down the line (because there is no evidence to suggest any danger today). “Sure, GMOs have been shown to be safe today, but what do we know about potential complications twenty years from now?” some may say. However, theoretical concerns twenty years from now are almost irrelevant when the problems that GMOs solve are manifestly real here and now. (I choose the word irrelevant very carefully. That is to say, they do not exist and, furthermore, may never exist.) The risk that complications may arise twenty years from now are outweighed by the rewards they solve today, such as reduced pesticide and water use, reduced soil erosion and carbon emissions. These problems, if allowed to continue as is, would generate very real risks tomorrow, next decade, and twenty years from now if not addressed today. In other words, non-existent unknown fears twenty years from now, which may or may not transpire, are allowed to outweigh problems that we know will most certainly exist in twenty years. Today we find that GMOs increase yield, replace intensive pesticides with milder ones, while their negatives, if any, may transpire (or, perhaps more likely, may not) one, two, or three decades from now. That is a bet any rational person should take every time, regardless of differing risk perception. Many modern greens would not take this bet, which is a sure sign something is awry with modern risk perception.
A tangential situation occurred in recent years when scientists created a potent human-transmissible version of the bird flu (H5N1). Controversy stirred after the news became public. People picked their sides from: ‘This is too dangerous to pursue’ to ‘This is vital research that can help explain how viruses evolve.’ The former group was advocating the XPP; the latter group was operating on the principle that more knowledge is better. Well, the advocates of the XPP were wrong in this situation, and the latter group justified. Why is this? Well, for one, we do not live in the ancient Roman Empire where, if some piece of knowledge were discovered, you could cut off the head of the snake with one fell swoop and be content it had vanished—at least for a time. There were no scientists then, and no mode of instantaneous communication across continents. People were, for the most part, beset with the problem of surviving the day-to-day—little else mattered. None of which is the case today. Today, the world of censorship is all but impossible. (Yes, Big Brother can monitor what you see, do, and filter through some of it post-hoc, but look at the last few times that Western governments and corporations have tried to regulate information pathways on the Internet; they’ve failed.) On the Internet, you can find instructions to make just about anything, from—unfortunately—bombs to—awesomely—3D printers, and everything in-between. In other words, once something is out there, its out there. The idea of a human transmissible bird flu is out there and there is no putting it back in the bottle. Moreover, even if these particular scientists did not publicize their experiment, it would not have been such a leap to put two and two together by both good and bad actors.
Furthermore, the technologies such as Information Technology that underly the Internet and the biotechnology underlying biology sit on exponentially growing trends that every year propels them into more hands at less cost with increased capability. Perhaps, were one committed enough, one could recreate the flu variant the researchers did (or something close enough), with very little help—and if not now, then it is only a matter of time. To show how far along biotechnology has come; recently, in California, a competition was held among students to produce novel organisms. The students succeeded in creating 248 novel bacteria. Students. Kids. New life. Never been seen on the Earth! Eventually, one way or the other, the right chain of thought, experimentation, or discussion will instigate some bio-hacker or terrorist to do it on their own, and if governments squash a website with such information, it will simply pop up somewhere else—as the DHS and CIA have discovered terrorist propaganda does.
However, to come back to the main point: The reason the scientists were, and are still, justified in doing such research was to better understand the mechanisms by which the flu virus evolves, mutates and, given enough research, discover any weaknesses. If the H5N1 were ever to evolve to make the jump to the human population, either on its own (plausible), or by some malicious act (terrifying), such information would put to shame any further usage of the word ‘priceless’ for all time. The globalized world being interconnected and constantly traversed such a virus, were it ever released or evolved, would devastate humanity. It would catch every government and scientific institution by surprise reaching every corner of the world in a matter of weeks, if not days. By the time any research was started; its weaknesses, if any, discovered, and a vaccine developed and deployed, who knows how many people would have died. (The movie Contagion accurately depicts such a global pandemic, and it is very, very scary.)
At the end of the day, human transmissible bird flu is possible. It may evolve naturally or be developed nefariously or weaponized for purposes of terror. Given that potential reality, it behooves us to instigate steps to ensure that if it does happen, the counter-attack is ready and swift. The mortality rate from H5N1 is somewhere in the region of 60%. Even if there is the tiniest chance of it evolving to be human-transmissible—and there is more than a tiny chance, not to mention the many other flu variants—any effort put into preventing such a disaster could reap untold benefits. That is to say; the risk-to-reward ratio is in favour of research, because tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people dying infinitely outweigh a few million dollars in research in a Level IV quarantine lab. Yet, the crux of the XPP would have its constituents stick their heads into the sand and do nothing—in essence, hoping that such a scenario never comes about, instead of doing everything possible to ensure it does not. Part of the problem, I think, is that the XPP gives the illusion of taking action, while in reality, only superficial action, at best, was taken.
Furthermore, it seems that in recent decades society has been cajoled into defaulting to the XPP. Take the following two examples.
In 1962, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which stressed the adverse effects DDT was having on bird populations in the United States. The burgeoning environmental movement latched on like a fat kid on cake, and within a short amount of time, the pesticide was banned worldwide. (It was not banned for disease vector control, however, often enough aid money coming from wealthy western countries came with an addendum: DDT not be used—an example of the XPP approach on top of the XPP!) The banning of DDT had many deleterious effects, most notably for poor people in developing countries without recourse to alternate methods of fighting malaria, or, in rare cases, only access to more expensive and less effective methods. Today, up to 3-million people, most of whom are in Africa, die of malaria each year, and DDT was, and still is, the most effective pesticide for fighting malaria-borne mosquitos. Yet, despite never being implicated in a human death, it became almost impossible to source due to its banning for everything else. What were the ramifications of the XPP approach? Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health wrote “the ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.” Some price to pay for egg-thinning in Bald Eagle and Pelican populations in the US. In the decades since Carson’s book and the banning of DDT, we have learned a lot more about DDT’s effects, and though not everything is known, its effects fall far, far short of the original claims put forth to justify its banning. As Brian Dunning wrote: “There probably is a correlation, but it’s not a strong one; and at best it’s only one of many causes. Whether DDT is used or not would probably not have a large impact on bird populations.” As a result of activism, society and government went way, way too far in its curtailment, and adverse affects (seems wrong calling the deaths of 20-million children an adverse effect, but language fails me) have demonstrably made this world worse off.
Golden Rice is another example. It is a genetically-modified rice that produces beta-carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A. In 2005, it was estimated that 190 million children and 19 million pregnant woman were affected by Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). Of these two staggeringly large numbers, 1-2 million of them die each year, while causing 500,000 cases of blindness. Golden Rice, despite being effectively ready since 2002, has been blockaded by Green organizations such as GreenPeace and Friends of the Earth delaying its introduction to those it could help the most. Despite the controversy over GMOs (most of which relate to agriculture in general, instead of to GMOs specifically, such as patents, abuse of monopoly, and market share concerns), Golden Rice was intended from the outset to be patent-free, zero-cost, and freely re-plantable to any and all farmers who earn less than $10,000 p/a. Despite these concessions, opposition to Golden Rice remains as adamant as ever, with full support from the badly defined, easily rationalized XPP. As we saw with DDT, there is no cost-benefit analysis; such as, what is the risk of two beta-carotene inducing genes escaping into the wild and what are the implications to the local environment vs. the well-being and suffering of hundreds of million of people. Is that a price we can afford to pay to ensure the health and safety of a significant portion of the region? The answer, clearly, is yes. Despite the lamentations of Greenpeace et al. that vitamin-A pills are a superior solution, which are of a top-down nature, it can never have the reach and cost-effectiveness of a bottoms-up approach. Supplementation programs cost $4,300 for every life saved in India; fortification programs cost $2,700 per live saved, while golden rice is estimated to cost $100 per life saved and is just as effective in imparting the necessary vitamin A. Both cost-effective, with a favourable risk-reward ratio to tackle a moral dilemma. Instead, as a result of fundamentalist use of the XPP, twelve to twenty-four million people have died of preventable-VAD since 2002. (Although it is easy to say X amount of people died, this is not to say that X amount of people would have been saved if GR was legal and distributed in the region. The key measure is that some fraction of X would have been saved—hopefully a high fraction, of course—and a population of people would be on their way to telling their children of the scourges of VAD as their society course-corrected to an optimum use of their resources to become and stay healthy. Instead, what we have now is a stagnating population of people continuing to die without any moral outrage on the part of the public.)
The Precautionary Principle can a valid tool, if used rationally. It can paint a big picture of what could be one way or the other.
What might happen if we do this?
What could occur as a result of that?
But, it is only the first step. Very few, if any, conclusions can be drawn from there. From there, it not only needs a cost-benefit analysis (which the activist PP avoids entirely), but further a risk-reward ratio, plans of action, contingency planning for the ‘what-if’s’ and ‘could’ve been’ scenarios that are brought up, along with a host of other factors. For example, in the 60s, someone could have asked “what will replace DDT in disease-vector control?” Then, as a follow-up: “what do these replacements cost and how does that affect the poorer countries most afflicted by malaria?” (The severity of mosquitos is underestimated by almost everyone, so I think a little context is needed here: malaria today kills 725,000 people a year, which for comparisons sake: humans kill 475,000 other humans per year.) How effective are they compared to DDT? Finally, they could have asked if the cost of banning DDT outweigh the potential risks of doing nothing: continue using DDT? In hindsight, it is easy to say the answers were: nothing, more expensive, less effective, and no. Yet, there was nothing in principle stopping regulators and scientists from being able to find out the answers to such questions then. At the time, it was known that DDT saved millions of lives as the discoverer of DDT was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1948, while the effects of DDT in American populations of Eagles and Pelicans were only hinted at, and when studied in greater care, was shown to not be entirely causal (there were multiple causes, of which DDT was a relatively minor one). The question then becomes (if we could travel back in time, that is): do we risk millions of lives for the reward of potentially helping the environment? Even if one were a misanthrope, the answer is not so clear-cut, as families tend to have more children in areas with higher child-mortality, because they know some will die, therefore, the environmental burden increases one way or the other.
To bring this back around to the bird flu fiasco: What are the risks from H5N1 becoming human transmissible?
Risk, in the case of a virus, depends on several factors:
The R0 (basic reproduction rate) of the virus, N (human population), the contact rate, and a suite of other variables that estimate how fast and how deadly a disease is to a given population. All told, the result would be that millions, perhaps tens of millions, of deaths. As a reference point, in 1918, the Spanish Flu infected a third of the planet (some 1.6 billion) and killed 50-100 million people. If the early 20th century had our population density, comparable numbers would put the death toll between 175-350 million.)
On top of that, as if that wasn’t enough, it is fair to say that economic output would plummet, millions would lose their jobs, with a concomitant drop in quality of life. These would increase the general disease burden, population growth would increase to compensate for the increasing disease burden, and tangential factors like infant mortality, maternal mortality, poverty etc., would likewise rise in lockstep. In short, it could be a planet-wide disaster.
What are the rewards?
Increased health (as has been the upward trend of the last century) and less human suffering. The likelihood of increasing disease burdens (along with infant/maternal mortality) rising are slim to none in a stable, growing world economy. That also goes for the economic rewards from not losing the billions of work-hours from death and illness, and the restriction of travel, plus the economic output that would not have materialized if the pandemic occurred.
Does it make sense, therefore, to attempt to mitigate such a risk for such a reward, even at the cost of a potential outbreak? Yes, it does, by any criteria with the risk so enormously large (the bird flu could evolve on its own, it could be weaponized etc.), and the reward so much larger (that is, the reward includes hundreds of millions not dying if the risk materializes).
But, perhaps, the biggest lesson is this: outlawing research into any particular field only stops law-abiding scientists and citizens, not bio-terrorists or would-be Malthusians. The outcome merely stops honest folk from working to understand it within a regulatory framework that the public and government allow with oversight. Adopting, in this case, the XPP does not get you a better risk-reward ratio; it simply deepens the risk and superficializes the reward. It may as well be called placebo logic. (If the expected risk never comes along, it is pure luck that saved society, and not rational forethought, hence its superficiality.)
Contrarily, if we allow scientists to research it under strict quarantine, we will in time learn to develop a cure. Perhaps be able to synthesize one in very short order, or know where to look should the unthinkable happen. One thing is for sure: whether we outlaw it or not the universe will not respect our wishes. Nature won’t decide to give up on virus strains evolving, adapting, and mutating to better allow for their fitness just because we’ve collectively decided that we don’t like catching the flu. Nature has no laws; it just is, and it just does, and it is humanity that must adapt to it instead of the other way around. By allowing research to continue, we are accepting that responsibility.
This situation is going to come up again and again as we move into the technologically accelerating future. Very soon we’ll have nanotechnology coursing through our veins, more lines of genetically modified crops will be needed to combat climate change and pest resistance, and nutritional deficiencies in crops as a result of higher CO2 atmospheric conditions. We’ll even genetically modify humans (in fact, the first have already been born—and yet, we can barely get to grips with GM corn, and by we, I mean only affluent foodies in the West). No matter the answer or ethical outlook one has for banning such technologies, only one thing will occur if they’re banned outright: They will move underground. Bans rarely ever, under any circumstances, eradicate a problem. Outlawing drugs has not decreased drug use; outlawing abortions has not stopped abortion; and placing speed limits hasn’t stopped speeding. Trying to do so are examples of placebo logic, and humans are as bound to placebo logic as human physiology is bound to placebo medicine. Sometimes it works purely by chance; however, more often than not, it doesn’t.
Ramez Naam’s brilliant book, Nexus, accurately depicts a future where genetic enhancements (such as enhanced intelligence, increased muscular strength, carbon-fiber enhanced skeletal structures, etc.) are banned in the West, yet are available in locations such as Thailand where it is not legal, but it is tolerated. (For the record, these are all potentially real enhancements that may come in the following decades.) Their illegality has the adverse effect of creating a global tourist trade of folks making their way to where it is legal, or illegal and tolerated, to receive the enhancements—of course, minus the safety net and regulatory structure that a government provides. Because, as we all know, when humans really want something, it is practically impossible to stop some fraction of them from getting it. As is often the case in reality, in his fictional universe the crime syndicates are the primary beneficiaries. Much like today it is the cartels who benefit most from the illegality of various drugs to the tune of $26-29 billion, at the expense of human well-being.
Over 60,000 people have been killed in the pursuit of profits from illegal drugs in Mexico alone, and millions have been thrown in jail and had their futures destroyed for taking a decision that would, were those drugs legal, affect only their own body—except in the most extreme circumstances. This situation is not only pathetic, it is backward, counterproductive, a waste of resources, and most importantly, human life. Yet, it is an example of the XPP: Let’s not deal with the issue of drugs and why folks want them; let’s just ban them and pretend the problem is solved. Society tried to outright ban drugs, i.e., to work against human nature, which wants what it wants, instead of working with human nature and researching ways to allow human social life and drug use to co-exist. It is evident that one cannot exist without the other. Were we to do similar with studying the bird flu, we’d be embracing a similar scenario: we’d lose the benefits of the research, while still exposing ourselves to the risks, which have not been mitigated by the political solution of banning, as has been the case with drugs.
The future is coming, and it is coming fast. In order to create the best possible world, we need to identify the shortcomings of human risk perception, see the Extreme Precautionary Principle for what it is: placebo logic resulting in the propagation of the status quo (which in real and relative terms is a regression), and above all, foster public understanding that doing nothing is itself doing something (i.e., it is a risk, and sometimes a big one!). And, lastly, just making something illegal (the opposite extreme of doing nothing) does not solve the issue of the problem’s existence; it just pushes it underground where there are no ethics committees, oversight boards, safety regulations, or public oversight and accountability. In other words, outlawing or banning ensures that society receives the bad parts, and none of the good.
In place of informed, real-world choices that include the potential implications of both doing something and not doing it, we have simplistic bans, precaution’s monotonous answer to every challenge. ~ Tracy Brown, managing director of Sense about Science.
The Extreme Precautionary Principle is no longer a practical mode of thought in the fast-moving world we find ourselves. This is not to say “away with the Precautionary Principle. I happen to agree with Andy Stirling that “Precaution does not necessarily mean a ban. It simply urges that time and space be found to get things right.” In light of that, imagine if the time and space was given to the study of the use of DDT. Imagine if greens took the time and space to actually understand GMOs and Golden Rice without ideological baggage. However, that is not what we get, what we get instead is the overuse of a XPP which leads to bans of benign substances like DDTs, opposition to required medical interventions such as Golden Rice under the facade of doing the right thing, and, when things go wrong, are not even held accountable for their actions! We need better, much better. Public buy-in and commitment would be nice, but we can very easily do cost-benefit analyses, calculate risk-reward ratios, prepare contingency plans in case plans go awry, and demand scientifically literate politicians so that correct policy can be crafted to watch industries, with experts to anticipate and ameliorate potential problems. At the end of the day, more knowledge is almost always a good thing, and less knowledge a bad thing. Yes, there are risks with everything we do; however, doing nothing is often just as big a risk, if not bigger. And banning anything is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand. The original PP allows for risk, because it is implicit that doing nothing is risky, the XPP does not.
The example is easily followed when presented in a single person whom we’ll call Bob. Our friend Bob has just been diagnosed with cancer and is given three options:
(1) Receive chemotherapy
(2) Take alternative medicine
(3) Do nothing
Chemotherapy (or evidence-based medicine, to be more precise, as better therapies will come) gives him the best chance of survival (albeit, not 100%). Alternative medicine, while giving the illusion of action, keeps him on his path towards inevitable death (unless, by some luck, his cancer goes into remission or disappears). However, Bob doesn’t like either option: he has read too much Natural News and, as a result, thinks chemotherapy is a fraud, yet, he is not quite comfortable taking alternative medicine as it often includes ingredients not indicated on the label, and even though such active ingredients might be very small, because he is a homeopath (the smaller the dose, the more potent the effect), he foregoes even this option. So poor ol’ Bob opts neither for the red pill (chemo), the blue pill (alt.med), but opts instead to do nothing. Six months later, Bob is dead.
Now, you say: “thank you Captain Obvious for pointing out the obvious! Obviously, doing nothing is a risk in this situation!” And yet, though some will disagree, if Bobby boy chooses the blue pill (alt.med), his likelihood of death is quite likely to be just about the same as doing nothing. The obvious choice (the chemo) does not have a 100% success rate, yet it sure beats the others, but wasn’t chosen. Now, replace Bob with Society.
Routinely, society has the same three choices to pick from: take the red pill (evidence, logic, and course-correct as required in full view of the public) making hard choices on the way that will occasionally backfire; take the blue pill (i.e., political solutions and placebo logic to technological problems, human nature, or both, i.e., drugs, free trade, globalization), or freeze/ban/ignore innovation (DDT, stem cell research, and who knows, perhaps very soon, self-driving cars, wearable computers, and nanotechnology). Society and Bob are not so different from eachother. (While ban/freeze and ignore are two different options, I have simplified them into one for convenience’ sake. For example. imagine if the US government ignored the Soviet push into space; that is, did nothing. No NASA agency, therefore, no Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo programs. We wouldn’t have explored the hundreds of worlds in our solar system, made it to the Moon, or launched satellites, or learned about climate change from Venus. As a result of such a program, microprocessors would not have been invented, nor single-crystal silicon solar cells, memory foam, safer helmets, emulsified zero valent iron, adjustable smoke detectors, improved breast-cancer detection analysis, water filters, standing wave reflectors, cochlear implants, and thousands of other inventions that have returned to Earth to benefit humanity. Imagine, without the Cold War, the Internet, originally called the ARPAnet, might not have been invented, which was spawned by the US government to ensure that geographically disparate scientists and government leaders could communicate with each other in the event of a nuclear world war. The adverse cost of doing nothing can be large.)
In the near future, we may find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the dangers of antibiotic resistance, stagnating worldwide food yields that need to be 70% higher than today by 2050, population growth (which will increase if the standard of living drops), resurgent and new diseases, pollution, declining water-tables, and the problem of climate change because politicians are all too eager to pander to the crowd, and the crowd never bother to learn about the important issues of the day—if they are able to do so, at any rate. So far, societies have tended to oscillate between doing nothing/banning and the blue pill, and we’ve muddled through—so far. However, we may soon need the red pill. Given our history and propensity for easy answers, how likely are we to take it in an age where everybody thinks he or she is an expert or, even worse, think themselves smarter than the experts? A Bayesian argument here spells trouble.
The coming decades will present bigger issues than we have ever encountered before, and if the public still allows itself to be cajoled, either by activists, industry, or government, to the Extreme Precautionary Principle, we will be the worse for it.
Yes, there can be misuse and abuse. Yes, we will make mistakes. But perhaps the worst abuses are committed by those espousing the precautionary principle: “Prove this will never harm anyone, and I’ll give you permission.” Had such folks been in charge a few decades ago, we would never have had cars, stairs, electricity, or hammers. ~ Juan Enriquez
[UPDATED: 17th May for grammatical, spelling, and flow errors. ~ Fourat J]