Saturday, January 05, 2013

Precautionary principle possibilities

The options:

1. Prove a negative, or no dice.  No technology can be used unless it's proven in advance to never have risks.  That can't be done, so we can't use any technology, new or existing.

2. Risky, smishky.  Defined risks are no reason to stop or alter use of a technology unless the risk has moved from possibly harmful to scientifically-certain harm.  With no certainties in science, this also can't be done.

3. Squishy real life choice.  evidence rising to a level of x for harms whose severity rises to a level of y compared to the technology's benefit of less than z is the point at which you stop or alter the technology's use unless and until additional research changes the value of those variables.  The only minuscule problem with this is it doesn't provide much of a guideline.  But it's right.

Discussion below in this blog and at Stoat are relevant.  Anti- and pro-GMO forces argue for positions 1 and 2 although they're usually vague about it, as a clear description of their perspective doesn't help them win.  Switching over to variables x, y, and z, pro-GMOers like Keith Kloor obfuscate the non-zero value of x, while anti-GMOers exaggerate the other way.

So what to do?  Caution, I guess.

To try to move from saying something squishy to something interesting, how about this:  prior to the 1970s, the correct policy conclusion was that CFCs have no broad-based environmental harms and should be used liberally.  That's not right, it turns out, but that's the information we had at the time.  The key is moving quickly as new evidence for variables x and y came out.  From a political science/international coordination perspective, the world moved amazingly quickly on ozone-depleting chemicals.  From an environmental perspective, my sense is that we barely dodged a bullet (and we still have another 40 years or so of slowly declining CFC concentrations where something new could go wrong).  We'll see how well we'll do on climate change with already, well-established x and a range of bad to horrible values for y.


Moderately relevant:  I've had a sci-fi story in my head for a while, an alternative history where CFCs were invented and widely-used a century earlier than in real life and long before the science could anticipate their problems.  Society would be finding nature melting and cracking around them, along with peoples' skin, and have no idea of the reason.  Not a particularly happy story.  So, caution.

29 comments:

Rich Puchalsky said...

This is two straw men and an undefined middle category whose only real function is to establish the straw men. Defining the people who you are arguing against as wanting absolute proof is an Internet technique of argumentation, nothing more.

Most implementations of the precautionary principle that I've seen come down to something like "We should study new technologies until we have a fairly good idea that we know what they'll do before we introduce them into wide-scale commerce." CFCs should have been studied more. Many GMOs should be studied more. Some probably not. Historical counterfactuals aren't very useful, because people who are proposed the precautionary principle mean to use current science.

The problems with global warming were known, in broad principle, back to 1896 / Arrhenius.

Mark said...

Rich Puchalsky,

I don't think this is true. There are quite a few known and unknown uknowns with regard to climate change. The "broad principle" of global warming and its known adverse impacts doesn't help us here. Truth is, we have not the slightest idea how to respond to risks about which we can say nothing more but "They are there, maybe, or maybe not; anyway, they are not very probable, but maybe they are; and maybe they are catastrophic, or maybe not."

Jay said...

The thing with the precautionary principle, I think, is that you have to consider that being cautious isn't free - you might safeguard yourself against some costly mistakes. But equally you might miss out on some much needed new benefits. So I think you need good reason to be cautious.

Switching the subject to DDT, because that's always fun, Precautionary principle applies and there's an international treaty (for agricultural use to be sure) because DDT is persistent in the environment. It doesn't break down.

Climate change would very likely be persistent.

Risk analysis is pretty good at telling us what's best to do in the face of uncertainty. How quick you drive if you don't know where the nearest cliff face is depends on how well you can see. If the visibility isn't so great, you slow down so you give yourself time to react given the visibility that you have. We've known that much since the Titanic sank.

Jay said...

...where I think the Stoat might go wrong is dismissing points 1 and 2 of the realfarmin'campaign folks' argument about benefits. The Stoat argues that other folk should invest in what the hell they like in a fine and honest free market. Which is all well and good, except patents and licenses are a classic examples of things that causes market failures. After which it all starts getting a bit tricksy.

Anonymous said...

I can think of two past experiences that may support caution in supporting GMO salmon. One is the introduction of triploid grass carp into the U.S. for aquatic vegetation control. I worked with the biologists who lead the studies that determined normal grass carp couldn't reproduce in N.A. because of the nature of our rivers, flooding regimes, etc. This was proved incorrect over time (disasterously). Thus the move to triploid carp. But the triploid process wasn't fool proof and so again more disaster (the extirpation of native aquatic plants where the carp were introduced).

The second incident is the highly effective use of sterilized male screw flies released in S. Texas to mate with and crush the popluations of this pest. It was completely effective.

Any reproductively capable GMO salmon resulting from farming efforts could be disasterous for wild salmon. And realize that other companies will retool the GM process and will surely ask for a receive permission to farm these salmon in areas where wild fish live. Also, whether reproductive or not, escaped GMO salmon that try to mate with native Atlantic salmon will reduce their already precariously low population.

Anonymous said...

I would bet that there are probably a lot of people who question GMOs not because they require "absolute proof" of safety (that also seems like a strawman to me, whether intended as such or not) but because they simply don't trust the assurances coming out of the companies that produce them and stand to profit from them.

Or even the assurances of the federal government (when testing is performed by the companies with supposed "government oversight")

If the track record of the tobacco industry (with smoking), pesticide industry (with DDT) and pharmaceutical industry (with Fen Phen) are an indication, I'm not sure the fairly widespread skepticism about GMOs isn't completely warranted -- and actually wise.

It's not simply a matter of insufficient testing, but, rather, trusting the validity of the tests that have been done.

It's too bad that people now distrust federal agencies like FDA (eg, over Fen Phen) to protect them, but once you lose the public trust, it's hard to regain it. Trust has to be earned.

And people certainly have very good reason to distrust the companies that stand to benefit -- because they have made a habit of telling at least 2 lies before they get up every morning (just to keep in practice)

~@:>



Anonymous said...

"The problems with global warming were known, in broad principle, back to 1896 / Arrhenius."

Much too broad to be helpful at the time. There was no way to know then if the CO2 we were releasing was even accumulating in the atmosphere. Natural sinks might have been taking in all of our emissions for all we knew. It wasn't really until after we had a much better record of CO2 levels and their change over time that we could assert that we were indeed altering the atmosphere. That didn't happen until the 1960's really. It's not enough to show that changing CO2 levels can cause temperature changes; you have to show that CO2 levels are changing first, and that we're the reason. In 1896 it wasn't possible to say either; from the 1960's and beyond it was.

Robert Murphy

Hank Roberts said...

> Anonymous ...
> you have to show

No, you've got the precautionary principle backwards, there. The problem was anticipated; the rate of change was drastically underestimated.

The "you've got to show piles of bodies before any regulation can be considered" -- the standard approach to public health issues -- got us where we are now.

The tobacco companies, by the way, have much responsibility for the estrogen mimic problem, which is part of the early puberty problem among other things.

Hank Roberts said...

> alternative history
Don't miss Crutzen's Nobel Prize speech, where he raises

"... the nightmarish thought that if the chemical industry had developed organobromine compounds instead of the CFCs ... then without any preparedness, we would have been faced with a catastrophic ozone hole everywhere and at all seasons during the 1970s, probably before the atmosphe- ric chemists had developed the necessary knowledge to identify the problem and the appropriate techniques for the necessary critical measurements. Noting that nobody had given any thought to the atmospheric consequences of the release of Cl or Br before 1974, I can only conclude that mankind has been extremely lucky, that Cl activation can only occur under very special circumstances. This shows that we should always be on our guard for the potential consequences of the release of new products into the environment. Continued surveillance of the composition of the stratosphere, therefore, remains a matter of high priority for many years ahead."

Chlorine was a little bit cheaper and more available than bromine when the chemistry of the stable fluorocarbons was being commercialized, so they went with chlorine compounds as a market decision. Just lucky.

Anonymous said...

"No, you've got the precautionary principle backwards, there."

Sorry, without knowing if we were even increasing CO2 levels, it would have been wrong to say that we were causing global warming. Regulations to curb/halt CO2 emissions would have been more than premature, they would have been immoral. You can't use the info you have now and pretend we knew it then.

"The "you've got to show piles of bodies before any regulation can be considered"... "

Completely different situation. There wasn't even evidence of a problem in 1896 let alone cause for action. We simply had no idea if CO2 was rising, and if it was if that was even a bad thing or a good thing.
Again, you to go by what was known at the time, not by what was latter discovered. You can't act on info you don't have and couldn't have had.

Robert Murphy

Brian said...

If my points 1 and 2 are strawmen, then there are lots of strawpeople out there using variations of 1 and 2 to advance their position. For 1, see Stoat's critique of anti-GMOers. For 2, see the standard industry claim that the burden of proof, usually absolute proof, lies on the other side for any particular issue before regulation is needed.

kT said...

There wasn't even evidence of a problem in 1896 let alone cause for action. We simply had no idea if CO2 was rising, and if it was if that was even a bad thing or a good thing.

Right, but we knew it was rising precipitously even in the early sixties it was taught in post sputnik elementary schools, and we even knew what the result would be. We knew it in 1980 when the actual abnormal winters started showing up, we knew it again in 1988 when the abnormal summer drought showed up, and by that point we even knew average global temperature was rising, and we knew it again in the late nineties when satellite sea level records began to show acceleration of sea level rise above the tide guage records. Nothing happened then and nothing is happening now on the policy front, even now when this thing is literally IN YOUR FACE!

Now I have been IN YOUR FACE for a while, but I have backed off a lot.

That's gonna change once again.

Anonymous said...

That's not fair. Keith Kloor is always telling he's the middle ground, detached, objective observer.

Anonymous said...

"Right, but we knew it was rising precipitously even in the early sixties it was taught in post sputnik elementary schools, and we even knew what the result would be."

We knew it was rising but there was real uncertainty as to whether it was enough to offset rising aerosols, or if it was going to be offset by natural forcings. And you're already talking about the 1960's, though there was still no consensus about whether it was going to warm or cool until the mid 70's. My original post was in response to this, at any rate:

"The problems with global warming were known, in broad principle, back to 1896 / Arrhenius."

That's simply untrue. The problems were not known then, even in broad principle. Certainly not in any way that would warrant immediate action. Position one is as wrong as position two.

"Now I have been IN YOUR FACE for a while, but I have backed off a lot.

That's gonna change once again."

That's your problem, not mine. I'm not your therapist.

Robert Murphy

kT said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kT said...

We knew it was rising but there was real uncertainty as to whether it was enough to offset rising aerosols, or if it was going to be offset by natural forcings. And you're already talking about the 1960's, though there was still no consensus about whether it was going to warm or cool until the mid 70's.

Only in your feverish and pathetic excuse of an innumerate mind, Robert. Keeling published in 1970 and Sawyer published in 1972. There are a whole host of publications in that time period and all of them more or less agree that things will be changing by 2000 at the latest. By 1975 it was more than convincing by everyone credible in the this new field.

Anonymous said...

"No, Robert, you're just yet another fat stupid human..."

OK, I was sorta kidding about seeing your therapist but now you've shown my concern was legitimate. Nothing I said warrants the rant that follows the above.

Please, go see a shrink; you're nuts. Or a troll. Either way, you're not worth getting my blood pressure up over. Have a nice life, such as it is.

Robert Murphy

EliRabett said...

If the bunnies are going to be nasty, at least some style. Stilettos, not broadswords.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Brian: "If my points 1 and 2 are strawmen, then there are lots of strawpeople out there using variations of 1 and 2 to advance their position. For 1, see Stoat's critique of anti-GMOers."

I don't understand your point. Here's a sentence that Stoat quotes in his critique. The sentence is written by the anti-GMOers:

"All of the philosophy of science over the past 80 years or so (at least since Kurt Goedel and Karl Popper) has been telling us that science does not, and cannot, deal in certainties."

So the anti-GMOers have explicitly rejected the idea of absolute proof one way or the other. I have no idea why you're trying to hang it on them. They may very well have written that sentence on the road towards rejecting what you think is adequate evidence that would allow GMOs under a reasonable precautionary principle, but that's not how your original characterization goes.

Hank Roberts said...

From stratospheric ozone to climate change: historical perspective on precaution and scientific responsibility (PDF)


Science and Engineering Ethics
2006, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 596-606

"... Stringent regulations were adopted when large scientific uncertainty existed, and the environmental problem would have been prevented or more rapidly mitigated, at relatively modest incremental price, but for a time delay before more rigorous Precautionary measures were implemented. Will history repeat itself in the case of climate change?"

Hank Roberts said...

> kT said...
> There wasn't even evidence
> of a problem in 1896 ...

kT should read history
not neglecting the footnotes:

2. Högbom (1894) ; the
essentials are quoted by Arrhenius (1896), pp.
269-73; see also Berner (1995); for further
background, see Arrhenius (1997).

Anonymous said...

"Anti- and pro-GMO forces argue for positions 1 and 2 although they're usually vague about it, as a clear description of their perspective doesn't help them win."

So, in "vague" cases (which I would guess to actually be a fairly large fraction of all cases) how do you decide who falls into what categories?

How can you be certain that their "vagueness" is not actually an indication that they have many sincere questions about GMOs (eg, about the reliability of tests done by GMO companies) and possibly quite valid concerns?


There is, to be sure, a lot of straw in the background on that Campaign for Real Farming site that Stoat links to, but is Stoat's quotation of a single article (and selected parts at that) really evidence of "lots of strawpeople" who fall into category #1?

Is it really even productive to categorize people in this way, particularly when their positions may be "vague" (purposely or otherwise) and thus impossible to really be certain about?

It seems a little too convenient to simply claim people are being vague purposely because "a clear description of their perspective doesn't help them win. "

Isn't it best to actually address the (quite possibly legitimate) concerns people have -- ie try to answer ALL their questions and not just the ones you (or Stoat) have decided place them in category 1,2,3, dismissing the rest of the questions if the individual or group is deemed to fall into category 1 or 2, since those questions are clearly disingenuous, anyway (merely meant to add "vagueness" to the stance on GMOs)

~@:>

Personally, I think the best way of dealing with the public health issue is to label all GMO foods and let people decide for themselves (for whatever reason) whether they want to eat them and feed them to their families. of course, that does not address all the potential problems, but at least it gives people some choice in the matter.

Brian said...

kT, I deleted your comment that had an obscenity directed at a fellow commenter. I second what Eli said about stilettos.

kT said...

Ok, on style. Given the energy imbalance that presently exists - vis-à-vis the elevated carbon dioxide of the atmosphere that has existed FOR SOME TIME NOW, you are not going to be able to HIDE that large amount of energy for any length of time. When the ocean does bite you, and I'm sure that will be real soon now, it's going to make my bite look pretty damn mild. Now you bunnies can make a choice, do you want me to bite you occasionally with harsh words? Or do you want the ocean heat to bite? This has been a well known problem for some time now, and nobody has really acknowledged how severe a itsy bitsy teeny little energy balance can be integrated over the entire surface of the earth and left unattended for oh, several decades now by my counting.

kT said...

kT said...
There wasn't even evidence
of a problem in 1896 ...


I'm pretty sure I didn't say that, but the post was deleted over a conflict of style versus substance. If you read the thread back and check for italics you will see I was quoting the fossil fuel apologist - Robert, some guy on the internet. I was simply throwing out some well known early 70's reviews of the problem by some of the principles. By 1980 the snow line recession in the mid to upper plains was well recognized by many of the locals, particularly the snowmobilers.

Hank Roberts said...

On science fiction, is there an alternate-history scenario for coal-powered steam-engine industrialization at a pace that would not have exceeded the planet's ability to recycle CO2 from the air? I can think of several factors that might have introduced interesting numbers, like
-- an early alternative source of high grade oil (leaving whale stocks high and iron fertilization of plankton at its pre-human rate; maybe enough whales coughing up enough ambergris to make a business out of just following them and upsetting their stomachs in a sustainable way ....)

Anonymous said...

Those who actually read the full piece (particularly the text of the question 4 section) that Stoat has quoted (quotemined?) from may come away with a slightly different take on the matter.

Taken in the context of the entire section, the word "sure" in the question "Can we really be sure that GM crops are safe — for our fellow creatures in the environment at large; or for consumers – whether livestock or people?" seems to be closer in meaning to "very confident" than to "absolutely certain"

That use of the word ("highly confident") would hardly be surprising, since that is actually the common use for "sure".

In the last part of that same section, the author even refers to the fact that "all technologies carry risks"

"though, the GM advocates could reasonably retreat from their position of absolute confidence and simply point out that all technologies carry risks, and many of those risks cannot be known in advance, and things have often gone wrong in unexpected ways but still, in the long run, the technologies were worthwhile. After all, no-one knew about metal-fatigue until air-liners started to break up – but most people surely would agree that mass air-travel is a good thing, and that the risk was worth taking (tragic though it was for the crash victims). The earliest steam locomotives kept blowing up and killing people – but who, now, would want a world without trains?

So the GM advocates might admit that there could perhaps be risks associated with GM; but still they might reasonably suggest that the drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefits."


Stoat essentially claims that the question posed about whether risks outweigh benefits is irrelevant (because the author has already decided no risk is acceptable and hence the question of weighing risks is disingenuous, in Stoat's view), but the last section explicitly acknowledges that "all technologies carry risk" and hence consideration of the weights actually IS relevant.

In my opinion, Stoat has done a very poor job of making his case here (to be kind)

And to use his post as "evidence" for category #1 is simply illadvised.

~@:>





Alexander Harvey said...

The ability to create GMOs was a revolutionary change in the way science and industry relates to life.

It is very much an ongoing revolution. Much like computing, it started with big and expensive technology and is changing to become something within the range of any half decent university when dealing with plants, and the within the range of the hobbyist when it comes to bacteria.

I wonder how strong the stomachs of the laissez faire will prove to be when the produce is not from the giant corporations but obscure laboratories in lesser known countries.

I will confess that it is the unrealised potential that has most botthered me not the current range of products.

I have no reason to suspect that this latter group will not be just as capable or otherwise as the current outfits. I think that the same considerations should be given to both.

I question whether we already have the safeguards in place to meet the challanges that are coming. Trying to retrofit new regulations at a later date will look like protectionism.

Alex

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