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Striking attitudes

Reading Johnathan’s piece on ‘the precautionary principle’ below, I was struck by the way both it and the comments fail to come to grip with the fact that people who support precaution simply do not share the attitudes and values that those arguments take for granted. Both sides are unintelligible to the other. All sides, in fact, because there are more than two.

I am thoroughly persuaded by the distinction made by cultural theorists between two sorts of precaution promoters, the heirarchists and the egalitarians. The interaction between those two types in a media democracy very well explains how we get to the regulation of virtual risk. Egalitarians expect difference and change to be threatening; heirarchists value order and system, and hate absence of rules. Regulation promises egalitarians safety, that is – the minimisation and control of change and choice – in return for granting heirarchists power and order. Collective nightmares and regulatory bedtime stories are both the stuff of news.

The people advocating the precautionary principle adopt it because it is a neat encapsualtion of the preconception that all change is danger, or because it is a procedural pretext for change to be subject to approval so that it not be permitted to disrupt social order. That is how it is a principle so completely incapable of application. It is not intended as an axiom of rational construction for policy but to legitimate an approach.

The commentator who compared it to Pascal’s Wager had it precisely wrong. It is an inversion of Pascal’s Wager, an anti-rational argument for refusing to make any bets.

17 comments to Striking attitudes

  • Pa Annoyed


    The method is applicable by anyone making an argument, not just those arguing for either stasis or regulation.

    The method simply requires one to project an unquantifiable possibility of extreme and irreversible damage from the position they are arguing against, and thus conclude that the position should therefore be opposed “just in case”.

    The dire consequences supposedly trump any need to show that the possibility is supported by evidence; and because it is only applied to one’s opponent’s argument, there is never any trade-off against the costs of one’s own proposal.

    (This is of course the method of Pascal’s wager – the infinite cost of unbelief should there be a God are so terrible that no actual evidence for a God is supposedly needed. Likewise, the potential costs of the alternatives – e.g. economic costs of wasting billions of man-years on this, worshipping the wrong God, etc. – are never properly examined.)

    The method works for anyone. You can even use it in a Libertarian cause – “this measure may lead to a police state, hence the government should not do it.” You don’t have to provide details on how; your alternative can be a total absence of regulation. The scariness of the consequence is sufficient on its own to justify stopping it. Or so the precautionary fallacy goes.

    It’s not about a division in attitudes and values – it’s simply a common, rhetorically very effective fallacy. As you say, its real purpose is “to legitimate an approach”. The only real distinction is between those who are willing to recognise that fact and those who don’t.

  • Quite so. Here is the Precautionary Principle at work in the FCO: http://charlescrawford.biz/blog.php?single=44 (Link)

    My conclusion: “Of course we need to think about what we do. But in the process of weighing options and trying to choose a reasonable way forward, over-focus on PP tends to empower those with high-energy neurotic anxieties and/or bizarrely lurid busybody imaginations, and compels taxpayers to waste astonishing sums of money accordingly.”

    It’s all about staking out psychological territory (“how dare you take risks with people’s lives!”) with a view to thereafter staking out political territory (“look how reckless and uncaring they are – you can trust us…”).

  • Gabriel

    The problem with that PA annoyed, is that logical fallacy or no, slippery slopes appear to be a more or less accurate description of how the world works. I’ll take one example about of millions. By any reasonable criteria the extension of the francise to 5% or so of the male population cannot possibly lead to mass suffrage an the inevitable public bankruptcy that eventually accompanies it. So the Great Reform Bill passed above the whoops and whails of backwoods ignorant Tories.

    But here we are.

  • Laird

    The PP is a bastard version of a cost-benefit analysis. In a traditional CBA you multiply the risk (or cost) by the probability of its occurrance, and compare that to the likely benefit (similarly measured). As the cost increases, the likelihood of its occurrance (in percentage terms) can decline and still impel a decision against taking the action. Make the cost of something approach infinity (such as death) and likelihood of its occurrance can be infinitessimal and you still won’t take the action, whatever the possible benefits. That’s the game being played by the environazis: make the possible bad outcome appear so horrific that no possible benefit can justify taking the risk.

    And as I understand it, that’s Pascal’s Wager in a nutshell.

  • Vercingetorix

    Egalitarians expect difference and change to be threatening; heirarchists value order and system, and hate absence of rules.

    Yes, like parents that believe – out of fear or ignorance – that vaccines cause autism, and hacks that want to hijack whole industries(Link). The first has alot at stake and the second has alot of ambition.

    PP is a common sense syllogism (I use it when I vouch for a strong American military, because, just in case). As a moral principle, it is light-weight.

    both [Jonathan’s article] and the comments fail to come to grip with the fact that people who support precaution simply do not share the attitudes and values that those arguments take for granted.

    Well, yeah. Consider the fundamentals: Are human beings good or evil or both? Do people have free will or are they automatons? Do people have natural rights from natural/divine law, or are all things relative? So on and so forth. Nobody here has all the same fundamental assumptions (some here do not believe in free will, which I find rather shocking – and baffling – for this site’s readership, for instance), but we share more in common than not. Our rivals share more of the very opposite conclusions.

    Our political adversaries are adversaries to the root.

  • Larry Sheldon

    Is there no version of Cost Benefit Analysis that says “examine the cost of doing something that turns out to be the wrong thing to do”?

  • tdh

    The pseudo-ecologists known as Greens do not even have to have unknowns to go flying off into fantasies reminiscient of Nazi horror movies in that reality was treated as incomprehensible. (Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) I was in a store for the first time today, and when I was unable to get a plastic bag, I commented that that was too bad, that that’d been one of the reasons for my largely stopping going to a certain supermarket chain; not only are plastic bags easier to recycle, but I can re-use them for garbage, for which I can’t use paper bags. I was told that if I threw a plastic bag away, it’d be around for a thousand years. When I pointed out that that was not true, I got some well-maybe-if-it’s-near-sunlight-nowadays hedging, but that otherwise it somehow must be true. I pointed out that paper does not decompose under those conditions (which tend to be anaerobic). The lady claimed that, on the contrary, paper would decompose in soil. At that point I turned and smirked, giving up a hair too soon; perhaps the halfwit would have been reachable if I’d pointed out that the letters of Roman soldiers were still legible after about two millenia because they’d been thrown in a dump.

    BTW, Pascal’s wager discounted the costs of compliance with irrationality to zero, holding its benefits to be infinite. This is certainly part of what the Greenlets are doing, and the identity holds if costs and benefits are treated as co-dimensional.

  • tdh

    I suppose I should take this a step further. I remember being hassled as a youth because I didn’t wear jeans like all of the other non-conformists.

    Greenism, like leftism in general, has become a matter of personal identity, of conformity to novel inanity such that the thought of deviating from it causes cognitive dissonance, as if its ideal somehow equated to goodness. (Perhaps, unfortunately, it does, for mating.) Even in areas where they are quite wrong, they stand fast.

    All of their other sky-is-falling precautions are, motivationally, pretexts, subordinate to the inculcated religious aspects of their belief system, science proper (as opposed to science qua abused adjunct) be damned.

    I don’t know if there is any escape from such insanity. Perhaps in the course of debate if a great deal of depth-first attention to detail were insisted upon, so that evasive rats like Barney Frank didn’t get a chance to hop from one sinking lie to another, it might be possible to win over whoever in the audience had a long enough attention span.

    I wish it were simply a matter of weighing risks. IMHO it fundamentally isn’t.

  • Marshall

    The first thing that the “precautionary principle” needs to be applied to is itself.

    If you do that, you’ll realize that the possible damage by using the precautionary principle makes it completely unreasonable for any kind of use.

  • Vercingetorix

    The first thing that the “precautionary principle” needs to be applied to is itself.

    Good point. Full-on recursion. Interesting debate tactic. I like it. 🙂

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Guy, I am not entirely sure that I did not “come to grips” with the idea that those on one side of the debate fail to understand the world view of the other. I think it is pretty clear, in fact, that the PP appeals to those who demand complete information about the future before acting, which in practice is impossible. The PP is a worldview that would be foreign to say, an entrepreneur, explorer, scientist.

    The PP can be seen in different contexts. Arguably, George W. Bush’s policy of “pre-emption” is a kind of PP: act to head off potential trouble before it strikes, even if that potentiality is not fully known. The same PP can be seen in action when social conservatives frown on liberalising drugs, or allowing other behaviours that they think might damage the social fabric in some way, such as gambling, smoking, etc, etc.

  • Chris H

    The flaw with the PP is that you’re always choosing between action and in-action and both have consequences. There’s no reason in general to assume that in-action is inherently more cautious than action and it often isn’t, actually about 50% of the time!

  • Mrs. du Toit

    The PP only works at the micro level. For example, if a parent decides to give a baby a pacifier, one that is designed to prevent orthodontic problems is better than one that isn’t, even without rock-solid scientific evidence that the traditional, cheaper one may not cause as much harm (or any harm). Getting the rock-solid scientific evidence would require a test and control group with babies (say, of the same family) and no one (in their right mind) would enroll their babies in that kind of study… so the evidence we use to support our decision is spotty/dodgy, but we accept that, knowing the alternative is potentially worse, and it does no harm to use the ortho-recommended pacifier.

    In that case (and where PP works) is when the choice to “use caution” or (take an evasive action) has no risk, or no greater risk than the alternative.

    That’s seldom the case.

    One of the difficulties occurs when we stray into unknowns, where we there are competing risks, such as global warming vs. the economic impacts of enforcing an environmentally “safe” alternative. Which has precedence? The world, as we know it, will heat up and destroy all of us, or the economic impacts of enviro-friendly restrictions leaves millions in poverty, or thwarts their economic potential?

    (For the record, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to support man-made global warming.)

    If, on the other hand, we do things that cause us no harm or inconvenience, and fall more into the category of good stewardship of our environs, then it becomes a “no harm, no foul” type situation, and we could all VOLUNTARILY get around those ideas (and most rational, non-psychopaths support those kinds of things).

    When there are competing risks and uncertain outcomes, my basic approach is to rely on Lord Salisbury’s principle: “Best not.”

    But it will always depend on how critical one views the risks and orders the priorities, and on which side of the science one finds oneself (usually, directly related to our priorities and passions, regardless of how “rational” someone claims to be, or hopes they are).

  • Pa Annoyed

    Mrs. du Toit,

    Regarding your pacifier example, can I ask how it was “designed to prevent orthodontic problems” if we don’t know and can’t measure whether any pacifier will cause such problems?

    It’s sort of like designing a leprechaun repellent. If you can’t tell if it’s working (because leprechauns are invisible, dontcha know), where do you start? How do you know it’s not making the problem worse?

    As the engineer in charge of design, you can of course add a few coloured flashing lights, slap on a label “New! With Leprechaun repeller!!!” and charge £20 extra. And people will buy it, because it makes them feel like they can make a difference, and because it shows they care.

    Do normal pacifiers distort teeth? Most people’s teeth don’t need treatment, and I’m sure a lot of them had pacifiers as babies. Would anyone ever know if they didn’t work? And if nobody can tell, what exactly are you gaining?

    I suspect in this case that people actually could tell – you could easily find a random bunch of parents who don’t actually care about the issue, and ask them to use one or the other. There are many other ways, too. You can measure the probable costs and weigh it against orthodontal treatment and decide rationally. There are valid ways of handling uncertainty – it is the entire business of statistics. The problem with the PP is that it ignores all that in favour of wailing “think of the children’s teeth!”

  • Mrs. du Toit

    It was a throw away example (used so that it would not spiral into a discussion of the example itself), PA, where one could take the tiny benefit or risk without inconvenience (unless it became one). If you are truly interested in the issue, here’s an article about it.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Mrs. du Toit,,

    Of course. I wasn’t being entirely serious…

    My point was simply that if choice of pacifiers are a genuine application of the PP, then it’s no more sensible to buy one than it is Leprechaun repellent – “just in case”.

    As it happens, it isn’t. There does appear to have been a weighing of costs and benefits, and an attempt to estimate probabilities, on both sides of the question. That’s not how the PP is normally applied.

  • Mrs. du Toit


    s it happens, it isn’t. There does appear to have been a weighing of costs and benefits, and an attempt to estimate probabilities, on both sides of the question. That’s not how the PP is normally applied.

    That was my (obviously not clear) point, which was, it ONLY works individually (at the micro level) because evidence (generally) is conflicting and competing, but it is perfectly reasonable/appropriate AT that level. Applying it at the macro level will almost always leave a percentage of people feeling that the data was not properly examined, collected, or distributed to those who chose the wrong side of caution.

    We seem to have forgotten the idea that “agree to disagree” means that we haven’t agreed on the prescription; therefore, the agreed upon action is “nothing” so we do nothing, ie, “Best Not.”

    Further, it isn’t that PP is “bad,” only that it can be difficult to find an issue without competing evidence and one devoid of political expediency and opportunism. At the individual level, it works just fine.

    I am reasonably certain that those who use PP to support Draconian legislation to prevent the disaster of Global Warming truly believe that they are on the right side of history and the data. The fact that there are ALSO among that group, folks who know the data is wrong and are using it as propaganda to achieve their other objectives, does not eliminate those who are motivated by the data they perceive to be correct.

    As most know, there were people who championed women’s suffrage and birth control rights because of a sincere belief that those rights extended to women, just as there were people who used those issues as a propaganda veil to champion horrid ideas such as eugenics, communist destruction of the family, etc.

    That’s why appeals to it appear to be logical at the macro level, because most rational people have some experience with it being a sound approach at the micro level. It doesn’t scale.

    IF we all agreed that the data was sound, the outcome was reasonably certain, then PP would be “good,” but since that is rarely the case, we disagree. The logic is sound. It is only its application that can be “bad.”

    In the end, parents who used PP in choosing their first pacifier are very likely to abandon their own wisdom if the baby is still crying. The crying baby isn’t using PP. The parents are, and those who cry the loudest are going to win the argument (eventually). The baby just wants to suck on something that makes it feel better, regardless of how bad it might be for their orthodontic health.

    In a nutshell, PP works. Arguing that it doesn’t is wrong-headed and futile. WHERE it works and WHEN it should and could be used effectively/desirably is the argument that is more likely to achieve a desired consensus… which is what you said.