Friday, April 6, 2007

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When should sound science trump the precautionary principle?

In the wake of the latest IPCC report on global warming, it's worth asking whether there are other scientific consensuses out there that should be embraced by policymakers across the world.

Over at Reason, Ron Bailey finds one. It's also discussed in greater depth here. Or here.

posted by Dan on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM


The whole point of the precautionary principle is that nothing can trump it. Ever. Thus, no genetically modified food, no cellphone towers, no CO2, etc. It's all quite consistent, however unscientific in the Popperian sense.

posted by: JohnF on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

I think the Reason authors are completely missing what's unnerving about genetically modified crops. It's the fear that genes could spread into the wild. As long as these modified genes are under the control of farmers, it's no big deal. But if they were to spread uncontrolled, it could mean a lot of harm to a lot of ecosystems. The fact that there's scientific concensus that these crops are edible means nothing: edibility was never the issue.

For instance, right now, there's some evidence that insect-resistant crops are killing some insects that they weren't meant to kill: bees. If the bees go, lots of other crops die, because they need bees for pollination. If that gene jumps from the modified corn into other plants, then the bees and the related crops might be gone for a long time.

There are two big ifs: we don't know if the modified crops are really hurting bees. We don't know if the gene will make the jump to wild plants. But the problem is, both are plausible. Since both are plausible, it seems likely that this chain of events or a similar one will eventually occur.

posted by: Josh Yelon on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

nothing like a little shameless self-promotion. what, are they not moving quickly enough?

posted by: snark snark on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

At what point should us laymen, who don't understand the complexities of climate change, adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle? I view the scientific community as a Supreme Court of sorts. If their overwhelming verdict is that we are to blame for global warming, and the situation is dire, I'm willing to accept it as accurate and make changes accordingly.

It is a new age in which many moral issues cannot be fully grasped by a typical citizen. For many, a bitter cold day during spring is enough evidence to refute the notion of global warming. Should we just follow our gut? There are resources available to help educate us on the matter, but stubborness, fervent partisanship, and a lack of scientific curiosity is keeping certain individuals in a state of complacency. The situation is too critical at this point for us NOT to accept an overwhelming concensus on the issue. Sweeping changes must be made at the highest level. Selfishness, corporate greed, and a scorn for anything "liberal" negate personal choice as a viable option in "The War on Global Warming."

posted by: Josh on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

Adoption of the Precautionary Principle violates the Precautionary Principle.

posted by: dearieme on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

This just in ... honeybee populations are crashing across the globe.

Oh, never mind - I'm sure they're not related ...

posted by: sag_67 on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

Josh- the problem is that there simple _isnt_ a scientific consensus on how to approach global warming. How can there be? Climate scientists aren't experts on economics or anthropology or zoology- how can they be expected to determine whether global warming is a greater crisis than any other crisis facing us- whether it be aids, or nuclear proliferation, or poverty? How can any given discipline be the arbiter you seek when their only expertise is in a very narrow field?

Like it or not, this is a political decision because it has to be. Science is hard to argue with- but how we deal with what scientists tell is certainly MUST be argued over. Thats why this movement to science skeptics is so dangerous. We need all of the facts about just what the risk is, what we can do about it, what resources that will require, and what 'oportunity costs' losing those resources will mean for us to make these decisions. Scientists dont think in those terms, thats what politicians and philosophers are for.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

Mark- I completely agree with you that climatologists(sic) shouldn't be in charge of policy. I am merely saying that as a whole, this branch of the scientific community should be in charge of declaring and describing the extent of the problem. In many minds there is still a looming "debate" about human-assisted global warming. Until the issue of veracity is settled, government action will continue to be extremely limited. If a legislator doen't believe in global warming, chances are he won't do a good job addressing the problem. I am arguing that looking to a concensus on complex and highly nuanced scientific issues is a good thing. I'm content to leave policy decisions in the hands of our government, as long as they actually recognize the problem as being legitimate.

posted by: Josh on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

The problem is that it is impossible to scientifically prove something safe. You can prove something is dangerous easily (if it is), but you can never really prove safety because there may be something that you are not considering.

Any attempt to prove something safe is necessarily based on a set of assumptions and an attempt to consider plausible future events. This is obviously not rigorous science.

For example the analysis of nuclear safety before 3 mile island assumed that the maximum amount of fuel damage that might occur in any "credible" accident was 1%. In the event, this was exceeded by an order of magnitude.

So your attempt to create a parallel with something being proved dangerous (global warming) and something proved safe (GMO) is not logical.

Before I get a bunch of off-target responses, let me say that I am personally not afraid of using either GMOs or nuclear power. I just think that it is not correct ridicule oponents of them with the argument that they have been "proved" to be safe. They have not.

posted by: Robb Lutton on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

Well, that settles everything. I feel better now. BTW, did you know it was very cold in the East today? HAHAHA

posted by: Mickey Finn on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

Nothing is more discouraging about the state of the sciences today than the fact that thousands of so-called scientists can use the term "scientific consensus" without visible embarrassment. The term is a dead giveaway that the scientists don't have proof. If you have experimental data you cite experimental data. If you have tested theory you spell out the calculations. If you have coarse-grid models of chaotic dynamical systems chocablock with free parameters and fudge factors you argue scientific consensus. There ought to be a version of Godwin's law that the first person who mentions scientific consensus loses the argument.

posted by: Bob Rogers on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

It has been years since a virgin has been thrown into a volcano to appease the gods. Now look what has happened: global warming, tidal waves, bees dying. Just to be on the safe side let's chuck a few in.

No, no just wait, let's sacrifice our economy instead. Or we could let a million die a year from malaria. Or we could let another million go blind from vitamin A deficiency. Or we could stop inoculating our children against diseases.

God save us from the saviors.

posted by: BlueOx on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

I agree with Rob Lutton's comment. Also, the environmental organizations are arguing for risk-adverse approaches to both global warming and geneticly modified crops. Ronald Bailey was basicly writing a snark. It may be amusing, but it doesn't do anything to advance the discussion.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

Bob Rogers--"scientific consensus" is a sloppy way of saying "yeah, we got enough measurements to be able to get some statistics on the thing, and yeah, it looks like a Gaussian, and by the way, here's where the peak is."

And if you want, you could go back and dig out all the original papers and take a look at them.

I'd suggest taking a look at a good book on statistics for the physical sciences. Bevington is very good, especially his chapter on chi-square fitting.

posted by: grumpy realist on 04.06.07 at 07:33 PM [permalink]

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