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Thinking About The Precautionary Principle

Dale Carrico, in his "Progressive Futures" column over at BetterHumans, takes a thoughtful look at the "precautionary principle." For those unfamiliar with the term, the most-broadly accepted definition is from the Wingspread Statement:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.

While much of the debate in emerging technology circles focuses on the first part of the statement, Carrico instead gives his attention to the last sentence, arguing that the precautionary principle has the best chance to both protect us from hazardous results and still encourage innovation and experimentation when it is open to broad participation:

I think many underestimate how often the most reasonable assessments emerge from open encounters among actual stakeholders to questions at issue. Even expert knowledge is most useful when it is answerable to multiple and contending stakeholders to a question, rather than imposed unilaterally by an organized authority (whether corporate or otherwise), the particular and interested viewpoint of which it will tend to reflect, often to the cost of sense. Even people who weight potential harms unreasonably strongly may still be readily persuaded to undertake risks when benefits are made clear or the rewards offered for undertaking them are sufficient enough. Again, it isn't clear to me why anybody can be so certain that a technological development answerable to these more democratic demands would necessarily have failed to deliver even historically a comparable level and speed of developmental achievement than we have managed otherwise, and certainly it is hard to see what would be appealing in such a view today when democratic ideals are broadly affirmed.

Comments (1)


This is very cool. Thanks for bringing it up Jamais, it clears things in my head.


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