Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Abuse of a Sound Principle

By Peter Bowditch

The Precautionary Principle has been abused in debates about climate change, vaccination and genetically modified food.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The Precautionary Principle is basically the tenet of “First do no harm” that doctors swear by in the Hippocratic Oath. It says that when faced with the decision between two causes of action, we should take the path with the least risk. While the Precautionary Principle protects us from doing silly things or pursuing courses of action that might have nasty unintended consequences, this doesn’t mean it should be applied to every decision we make about where research should go or how we implement public policy.

Sometimes it’s difficult to place a value on relative risks, and this difficulty is exploited by people who like to push a particular agenda. I’m going to look at three cases where the Precautionary Principle is abused by people who have barrows to push.

The first of these is climate change denial. This is possibly best summed up in a cartoon that regularly appears in various places on the internet. It shows someone at a climate change summit asking: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”. The argument is that until we are in possession of all the facts about everything that influences climate we should do nothing because the economic cost of doing things is far too great.

In reality the correct application of the principle here would be to take steps to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and the burning of...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.