Krauss on "Precautionary Principle"

The amount of risk to which the public should be exposed is greater than zero says Professor Michael Krauss, discussing Canada's invocation of the "precautionary principle" in revamping its Food and Drugs Act and new Consumer Products Safety Act.

In an op-ed in Toronto's National Post, Krauss looks at the application of the precautionary principle, which assumes we should err on the side of caution when not absolutely certain that an action will have good results, concluding that to take reasonable risks to property and to health makes life "uncertain but also worthwhile."

Krauss's op-ed is part of the publication's annual Junk Science Week wherein each day it features its take on the latest examples of how "bad science" and politics distort policy and views on food, health, medicine and the environment.

Too cautious, National Post, June 19, 2008. By Michael Krauss. 

"The precautionary principal might seem to be a modern variety of Luddism, for in banning the unproven technology, the cautious condemn us to the dangers and costs of the status quo. But it turns out that the Luddites may have been more rational than they are given credit for. In The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson showed that the Luddites were not opposed to new technology per se, but rather to the abolition of regulated prices and the introduction of the free market. For example, the Luddite anthem, General Ludd’s Triumph, includes this stanza:

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At the honest man’s life or Estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate

“'Wide frames' were cropping frames, and the old prices were those prices agreed by custom and practice. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left untouched. The old Luddites were what economists call 'rent seekers,' acting as profit-maximizers, objecting to competition that might put them out of business.

"The precautionary principle, then, is less a modern Luddism than a fear of the unknown risk, and an irrational preference for the known risk, even if the latter is very likely greater than the former. It is the denial of what has made us the most modern and, yes, safest and healthiest society on the face of the Earth. It is fear and it is unreason. It is downright dangerous.

"When do we get to apply the precautionary principle to the precautionary principle?"

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