I imagine that everyone hopes that they are careful. They believe that they assess risks and take steps to avoid or minimise them. They castigate themselves when they make errors and chide themselves, an others, when they are careless. It is held that there is a duty as we grow up to be careful, childhood is the time when we can be carefree. But can we be too careful ?
I think we all can remember times when our caution made us miss an opportunity, when in hindsight we regretted our hesitation. Certainly we can all recall the old adage “faint heart never won fair lady” and many of us have friends or acquaintances troubled by timid, over-cautious natures who lives are stunted by the problems of excessive care and anxiety. In the world of science, however, a preferred adage might be “better safe than sorry” where the stakes are higher than winning the hand of the damsel. But is is possible that excessive caution and being too careful can be troublesome here also ?
In the scientific world this might be the case with the “Precautionary Principle“. This was brought in as Principle 15 in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It might be well defined as follows :-
‘When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.’
Similar descriptions of the principle have been placed in regulations such as the World Charter for Nature and E.U.’s Treaty of Maastrich. A basic tenet of the this principle is that the ‘duty of care’ or ‘onus of proof’ is on those who those who propose change. Further, we are advised to err on the side of caution, even when there is no scientific evidence of harm.
While appreciation of risk and assessment of risk are a basic, and advisable, scientific task this principle can cause problems. Were the instruction ” assess and avoid risk” this would be entirely reasonable and right. But avoid risk, even is there is no evidence of risk , is a much more troublesome statement.
Obviously when change is proposed there may well be risks, but after these have been dealt with, it will always be possible to imagine or fear further risks for which there is no scientific basis. People feared train travel would be so fast that it would be damaging to the human body, people feared radio waves would affect the human mind. It would not have been possible to show at the time that these things would not occur. Presently we see the precautionary principle pulled out to protect us from all sorts of risks ; GM crops, Fracking, mobile phone masts, vaccination – “Just because they don’t know it doesn’t do any harm, doesn’t mean it wont.” they cry.
But here lies the inherent anti-scientific nature of this principle. It is not possible to prove the existence of something which doesn’t exist. If someone states that there are spirits form past lives in the ether. I can not prove that they are there. I can say that we have never seen them, I can also say that there is no known mechanism for them to be there. This is what science can do. With regard to harm scientists can say ‘we have never seen it’ and there is ‘no known mechanism’ for it to occur. This would be inadequate for the precautionary principle which would suggest caution and hesitation even though there is no scientific basis for this.
All life entails risks. Scientific progress is no different. Each step forward we take carries some risk. However, looking back at our development we live happier, healthier and longer lives now as a consequence of taking these risks and the progress of science. We would have missed major steps if we had been so risk averse. Had we fully comprehended the risks of aspirin we would never have started using it. For every risk we take we must also consider the risk we take by not moving forward. Had Jenner not taken the risks of injecting his fellow countrymen with cowpox, then smallpox would still blight our lives and would have caused millions of deaths. Those deaths would be the cost of not taking the risk.
Similarly, this year, two million children will die from nutritional deficiency, entirely needlessly ,because we will not allow the use of “Golden Rice”. We allow them to die because of our fear of the possible ‘risks’ . This is nearing a “crime against humanity” say over one third of all living science Nobel Laureates in their recent letter. I don’t think they are being excessive in their complaint.
Two million children dead while we follow the precautionary principle. Yes, it is possible to be too careful.