ENVS 1200 Lecture Notes - Precautionary Principle, Statistical Significance, Antiscience
Chapter 14: the precautionary principle: A guide for protecting Public Health and
Many environmental impacts of human activities cannot be predicated because of
the complex interactions among variables in the ecosystems.
The history and definitions of the precautionary principle:
Precautionary principle says that we should aim to anticipate and avoid damages
before they occur or detect them early. It is based on underlying values and on the
following core elements:
Potential harm predicting and avoiding harm, or identifying it early, should be a
primary concern when contemplating an action
Scientific uncertainty the kind and degree of scientific uncertainty surrounding a
proposed activity should be explicitly addressed.
Precautionary action particular activity undertaken to avoid harm, even when the
harm is not fully understood.
Elements of the Precautionary Principle:
The principle is based on recognizing that some activities may cause serious,
irreparable or widespread harm.
The principle is based on the assumption that people have a responsibility to
preserve the natural foundation of life, now and into the future.
A precautionary approach is based on determining how much harm can be avoided
rather then deciding how much harm is acceptable or how much can be assimilated.
The potential for harm:
Nothing important I see
Recognizing the uncertainty and limits of sciences is central to the precautionary
Global trade and travel may introduce bacteria, viruses, insects, and other exotic
species into ecosystems.
Understanding cause and effect relationships in complex system is limited by
different kinds of uncertainties.
More complex problems have a mixture of three general kinds of uncertainty—
statically, model and fundamental—each of which should be considered before
deciding how to act.
Easiest to reduce or to quantify with some precision.
Understanding the global climate impact of a proposed shift in energy policy
requires more than simply knowing the probability distribution of a single variable.
A study of the relationship between two variables, a correlation is said to be
established with statistical significance only if the results show the two to be linked,
independent of other factors.
Under the precautionary principle, the burden of proof could shift from one party to
another, depending on weight of evidence, lack of evidence scientific uncertainty
and the nature of the harm of concern.
The precautionary principle does not specify which actions are appropriate under
The choices among potential anticipatory actions, however should be informed by
I) full consideration of the weight of evidence for potential harm
Ii) the kind and degree of scientific uncertainty associated with the evidence
Iii) an assessment of potential alternative actions
Implementing the precautionary principle:
Policy decisions are often made by focusing primarily on economic or political
factors or by considering only one kind of risk.
Goal setting is particularly important for establishing environmental and health
policies because choices among human activities can have wide spread adverse or
favourable impacts on regional and global ecosystems.
Goal setting requires us to ask the following questions: 1) where do we want to be
at some future time. 2) Who should have an opportunity to answer the question? 3)
What mechanism is in place or could be put in place to determine which visions for
the future will prevail.
Risk assessment attempts to estimate the probability of harm risk from a proposed
activity and then ask whether that harm is acceptable.
Adopting Transparent, Inclusive, and open process:
When the health and well-being of the public and environment are at stake, a
precautionary approach requires open, inclusive, and transparent processes that are
initiated early in decision making, beginning with goal settings.
Noting important I see
The relationship of the precautionary Principle to Risk Assessment:
Risk assessment attempts to estimate the potential risks of proposed products or
activities on a case by case basis without consideration of the complete context in
which the activity will be carried out and rarely with any consideration of
alternatives to the proposal.
The precautionary principle presents a different view based on a number of factors,
including how much we know, how much we can know, how broadly questions
should be framed, which questions should be asked, who should frame the question,
the value of nonhuman life, our responsibility to future generations and how we
plan for the futures.
Risk assessors often claim that the precautionary principle is anti-science or a tool
to keep certain technologist from the marketplace.