The precautionary principle: Good or bad?

Life is full of costs and benefits, the best actions are those that maximize benefits and minimize costs. Playing it safe is not always the best policy!

Since the dawn of time, humans have taken actions to prevent harm. This tendency is one of the reasons human civilization has progressed and has led to sayings like “Better safe than sorry”. Michigan State University Extension suggests that we have learned to avoid actions that place us in danger such as building a large fire in a small space, fording a raging river or touching a hot stove. Of course, all these avoidance actions are based upon previous consequences, either our own or others.

A more recent innovation is called “the precautionary principle”, which suggests that no action should be taken unless we are certain there are no possible negative consequences. Of course, this requires the proof of a negative, which the philosophers say is impossible! The use of “the precautionary principle” becomes an excuse to restrict new innovations, unless you can prove that there are no negative consequences even if the benefits outweigh the risks even if that ratio is thousands or millions to one.

So, the use of a new cancer prevention drug should not be utilized unless we can prove that it would never harm any single individual. Should we move forward with new vaccines even though a few individuals may be allergic? Should we develop new antibiotics that would benefit millions even though some of us may experience negative reactions? The precautionary principle would suggest that we should not.

While many environmental and consumer groups are advocating for use of the “precautionary principle”, there has been limited use in the U.S. However, the European Commission has used the “precautionary principle” to impose bans on new technologies in spite of the absence of any evidence of harm to humans and clear evidence of the benefits.

The use of the “precautionary principle” leads to a fear of new innovative technologies and often considerable harm to humans. Life is full of costs and benefits, the best actions are those that maximize benefits and minimize costs. Playing it safe is not always the best policy!

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