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March 13, 2005

The precautionary principle's utility....

I have observed before that the Left and Right appeal to the precautionary principle in selective manners. Many environmentalist liberals will appeal to the complexity of natural systems, which evolved over millions of years, to argue against "development" and change. Similarly, conservatives will often suggest that organically developed social institutions achieved through a process of trial and error should not be tinkered with because we do not truly understand the complexity of the system and the ramifications of deleting customs and traditions which we assume must be unreasoning spandrels extraneous to functional considerations (the same universal acid at work).

Evolutionary biology and sociology are both complex sciences (broadly speaking) which rely on probability and statistics because of their evasion of deterministic universal laws on any level of granularity. One could contrast this with the physical sciences, where deterministic reductionism has been much more influential (though at its heart the basic quantum level of organization is probabilistic). Though both environmentalists and conservatives do express some caution about mechanical innovation, in general it does not seem to be as great a concern.

But...of course the physical & information sciences in the grand-scheme-of-things undergirds the life and social sciences. Is the distinction truly relevant? After all, the development of the technology usually has important consequences for both the environment and society. There are obvious "sexy" causes like stem cells or SUVs, but it seems likely to me that the internet and cell phone technologies have reshaped human social interaction and their likely impact on the environment to a far greater extent than stem cells or SUVs will for at least a generation.

How should we exactly trot out the precautionary principle? Should we ignore it as a principle and simply accept that its implementation will be ad hoc and contingent upon norms and values?

Addendum: On second thought, I want to make explicit I know that I am not being totally fair to social conservatives and environmentalists, they do often point out the acidic effect of the modern world on human life in a general sense, but in terms of specific activism, they seem to focus on "sexy" topics like the Kyoto Protocols or gay marriage, which seem ancillary to the root problems that modernity confronts those who adhere to the precautionary principle with. Granted, gay marriage or the Kyoto Protocols are issues which have legislative solutions, and legal fiat is relatively easy to manipulate. Nevertheless, I don't think it undermines my general point, the modern present tears apart the time tested fabric wrought by the past with an unprecedented rapidity.

Posted by razib at 01:01 PM