Acting precautiously is not the same as ensuring risklessness. Put differently, precaution depends on a sense of proportion, a sensible trade-off between cost and remaining risk. In political debate one often hears of the "precautionary principle", but rarely is the reference accompanied by a clear and sensible account of the cost-benefit relations attending the "precaution" in question. Often one ends up with a lot of pre(-payment) and little caution in the way of what one is paying for.
Of course, calls for unspecified or all-out "precaution" are an indispensable part of the statist's toolbox.
Next time you hear of the "precautionary principle" or "Earth day" remember what Edward Calabrese has to say below:
The first Earth Day, in 1970, was celebrated after a wave of environmentalism swept the nation. Many give credit to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which popularized the notion of large-scale chemical pollution, for igniting the movement.
But she was really feeding off of a concept developed a few years earlier. The “precautionary principle” was conceptualized when the National Academy of Sciences proposed a radical change in the risk assessment of exposure to radiation and carcinogens. It recommended changing the regulatory paradigm from a “threshold dose” model to a linear one.
The threshold paradigm was what one might call common sense. It held that humans could tolerate small doses of things that, in larger doses, could be harmful.
Sunlight is a perfect example. Low doses are actually required for survival, as ultraviolet radiation — the same general type that causes sunburn — catalyzes the formation of Vitamin D. But, as is obvious to anyone who lives in a sun-drenched area, excessive exposure can lead to death in the near term (from dehydration) or the longer term (from skin cancer).
The “linear model” assumes that just a single molecule of a carcinogen or a single ionization from an X-ray can induce cancer. The enthusiasm spawned by Earth Day soon gave us brand new regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The EPA routinely applies the linear model to carcinogens.
“Environmental regulations based on the “linear model” are having a negative impact, not only on societal costs, but on our health as well.”
The linear model is a case study in the unintended consequences of the desire to do good. In this case, an ideologically driven scientist, Nobel Prize laureate Herman Muller, whose research formed the basis for EPA’s model, led the charge. A very powerful figure in health physics, he is now known to have marginalized and obstructed the publication of any research that provided evidence counter to the linear model.
If that sounds like the way senior climate scientists were found to behave in the famous 2009 “Climate-gate” emails, it should.
The regulatory agencies fell in line, as did a compliant scientific community and a media that was afraid to dig deeper. Every country followed the U.S.’ lead.
The linear model is rigid, absolute and wrong. We now know that there are so many flaws or holes in the linear dose response model that it looks more like Swiss cheese. The resulting environmental regulations are having a negative impact, not only on societal costs, but on our health as well.
See alo Hormesis versus Leviathan.