Oh No, Not Another Precautionary Principle Article!

Guest essay John Ridgway

The precautionary principle has so often been the subject of articles on this website that one is slightly embarrassed to be adding to the pile. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add my own two pennyworth, particularly after reading the article posted by Neil Lock on the same subject earlier this month.

Whilst I appreciate that Mr Lock’s essay made a number of important points, it still remains, for me, a deeply problematic article that overlooks the most important aspects of the precautionary principle and post-normal science. So I hope Mr Lock will forgive me if my contribution is framed as a critique of his offering.

The Precautionary Principle and Tyranny

Firstly, I think I need to clarify an important point regarding the development of the precautionary principle. Mr Lock alludes to pre 1980s forms of the principle but declines to identify them. Instead, various aphorisms, such as ‘look before you leap’, are provided, each of which captures an aspect of precaution but none of which had ever been referred to as an enunciation of ‘the precautionary principle’. In fact, the first documented use of the term was a translation of the German expression ‘Vorsorgeprinzip’, as used in the German Clear Act of 1974.

Far from being a nitpicker, I feel I am making an important point here by stressing that, in its original guise of Vorsorgeprinzip, the precautionary principle already embraced the concepts that Mr Lock attributes to the principle’s strong versions, i.e. from the outset the principle emphasized that scientific certainty is not required in order to justify precaution, nor was there ever any suggestion that the burden of proof initially rested with the regulator. There never was a development from a weaker version of the principle that simply called for care and attention prior to proceeding with a venture. Admittedly, since then, several reformulations of the principle have been declared, all of which have simply added to the confusion.1 But to characterize the history of the precautionary principle’s development as one of ever-increasing ‘tyranny’ I feel misses the mark.

Risk Aversion Versus Uncertainty Aversion

Secondly, it seems to me (particularly after reading what Mr Lock had to say regarding risk management) that there is a misconception that the precautionary principle is about aversion to risk. This is not the case; it is instead a principle that promotes uncertainty aversion.2 Rather than encouraging the avoidance of risk, the principle seeks to advise on how to proceed when we have reason to suspect that a risk exists but we do not have enough information to quantify it (or, indeed, even to confirm its existence). For many policy makers, not being in a position to know the scale of a risk is sufficient reason to presume that it is unacceptable, particularly when the stakes are high and the impacts are potentially irreversible. Whereas risk aversion is akin to fear of snakes, uncertainty aversion is akin to fear of the dark, within which one cannot rule out the possible presence of snakes. Once again, this distinction has always been at the core of the precautionary principle.

Rather than taking a more risk averse position, the strong versions of the principle differ from the weak versions with respect to the extent to which sanctions and proscription should be enforced in order to achieve what are considered to be appropriate levels of uncertainty aversion in the face of potentially irreversible outcomes. All versions, both weak and strong, are equally clear in their advocacy of uncertainty aversion over risk aversion and none of them have anything particular to say about how risk averse one should be in any given circumstance. That said, the strongest versions do not even allow for the calculation of risk (or costs and benefits, for that matter) presumably since this is seen as futile in the face of the uncertainties. This is not so much a draconian attitude as a defeatist retreat from rationality.

To further emphasize this point, I would refer the reader to the UNESCO COMEST (2005) review of the principle, in which it is stated that deep uncertainty can preclude the calculation of probability and hence the ability to evaluate risk levels. In such circumstances, it is maintained, one cannot then base decisions upon calculated risk. Instead, one has to base the decisions upon an aversion to the uncertainty upon which the posited risk is predicated, combined with a consideration of the impact defined for the risk.

In such circumstances, plausibility takes on a new importance3 and imagination can run riot. If unchecked, this can result in credence being placed in fanciful concerns. The obvious solution is to reduce uncertainty by undertaking further research. However, if the posited risk is formulated in such a way as to suggest that resulting delays are likely to heighten the risk level, then uncertainty aversion, i.e. the precautionary principle, will win the day.

I think I should stress at this point that I seek to clarify the logic behind the precautionary principle but not to defend it. There are many good reasons for distrusting the principle. For example, as well as the cognitive bias of uncertainty aversion one can add omission bias, the focusing effect and neglect of probability as biases that both underpin and undermine the principle. You can also add to this the fact that the logic of the principle is profoundly self-defeating, since the deep uncertainty that precludes reliable risk calculations can apply whether taking action or not. Thereby, the principle can be used to simultaneously justify proscription of both action and inaction.

In summary, whilst I share Mr Lock’s disquiet with regard to the precautionary principle, I suspect I do so for different reasons. I do not see any evidence of ‘perversion’ of a basic concept, and I think that the distinction between weak and strong versions is misrepresented by his article. However, I do accept that there is plenty of scope, for those who are politically motivated, to take advantage of the perverting influence of uncertainty aversion and its distortion of the perception of risk.

Quality and Evidence

Turning to post-normal science, I find myself more closely aligned with Mr Lock but, even here, I feel that his article misrepresents.

The kinship between post-normal science and the precautionary principle lies in the fact that they are both attempts to address the same problem – how to proceed when uncertainty and expedience conspire to undermine confidence. However, whereas fear and various conceptions of political pragmatism may lie behind both, post-normal science differs in claiming epistemological roots. It is the non-absolutist nature of the Popperian philosophy that is taken by some as a free reign to take a postmodern stance towards scientific knowledge, in which all subjective opinion is valid as long as it is to some extent evidence based. Deciding between competing hypotheses then becomes a democratic process moderated by quality control. The danger with this view is that rhetoric gains undue significance, and consensus itself is taken as evidence. This is precisely the error made by the IPCC when they suggest that high levels of confidence are justified even when consensus exists in the face of low quality evidence.4

It isn’t the problem-solving nature of post-normal science that troubles me, since, after all, this is a feature shared with the standard Popperian approach. What I object to is the suggestion that science is a democracy in which authority, credentials and orthodoxy carry weight over evidence. This is not an inherent feature of post-normal science, but it is definitely a potential result of its misapplication. In particular, as the quality of evidence falls (or, more cynically, as appetite for evidence weakens) one will eventually arrive at a position where falsifiability and reproducibility of results become irrelevant. It is only at this point that post-normal science can be fairly dismissed as ‘nonsience’.

A Call for Restraint

I hope this article does not come across as being too disobliging or harsh in its criticism of Mr Lock’s viewpoint. I do not dispute that both the precautionary principle and post-normal science are problematic. However, I feel that criticisms of them should be qualified by a full appreciation of their provenance and purpose. By talking about ‘tyranny’ and ‘nonscience’ we run the risk of hyperbole that does not stand up to close examination. Concerns regarding the precautionary principle and post-normal science are valid enough without overstating the case.


1 Part of the confusion regarding the precautionary principle lies in the fact that it isn’t actually a principle, it isn’t just about precaution and there are now several declarations of it, all different but all claiming to represent the principle.

2 All risk is predicated upon uncertainty but it is not a function of uncertainty. Instead, uncertainty impacts upon the perception of risk, often, though not always, resulting in an increased interest in the potential for risk. Risk aversion and uncertainty aversion (or ‘ambiguity aversion’, as it is sometimes known) are, therefore, very different. For example, Daniel Ellsberg, in 1961, demonstrated how logically equivalent gambles may be treated unequally, simply because individuals consider subjective probabilities to be less reliable than objectively determined probabilities. Consequently, individuals can be fooled into accepting gambles with a lesser payoff, in violation of expected utility theory. These individuals are not more risk averse, they have simply misperceive the risk because they are concerned by the uncertainty or ambiguity inherent in subjective probabilities.

3 As explained in the COMEST review, “the unquantified possibility is sufficient to trigger the consideration of the Precautionary Principle”.

4 See, Mastrandrea M. D., et al (2011). The IPCC AR5 guidance note on consistent treatment of uncertainties: a common approach across the working groups. Climatic Change 108, 675 – 691. doi: 10.1007 / 10584 – 011 – 0178 – 6, ISSN: 0165-0009, 1573 – 1480.

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January 29, 2018 9:18 am

Precautionary principle in a nutshell: Guilty until proven innocent beyond any doubt.

Reply to  Curious George
January 29, 2018 9:33 am

You think they even care if you are innocent? Of course not.

Reply to  Curious George
January 29, 2018 10:52 am

Actually the more proper term for the precautionary principle is: Just in case fallacy
Pretty much sums up the doomsday climate cult.

Reply to  RWturner
January 29, 2018 10:53 am

But in the case of the climate researcher, maybe it is best to wear a helmet when they do their “research.”

Reply to  RWturner
January 29, 2018 3:20 pm

Plainly – one needs to protect one’s head when Folk – the Feds or others – are throwing gold at you.
Good connections, networking, peer-review [my orthography may be dodgy – I have seen ‘pal-review’, too], and the rest.

Reply to  RWturner
January 29, 2018 7:19 pm

The sky is falling. No, it isn’t. But pretend it is and just in case…

Reply to  Curious George
January 29, 2018 11:05 am

tossing virgins into volcanos to placate the gods was NEVER about risk aversion and never did anything but embrace uncertainty because these people live off the benefit of your doubt. the other 2 tools of manipulation are guilt and fear.
popper simply rebranded platonic essence to normalize ‘da supernatural’ – he was a freakin mystic and a philosophical fraud. his means of survival was babble. and to this day people suck it up as is if were sensible. it’s really ancient tripe.
rebranding sacrifice as ‘precaution’ is just the normal orwellian reframing of narrative by linguistic perversion.
and this article is not clarifying diddly.
u want clarification? any hypothesis which can not be resolved to True/False is unreasonable and therefore not science. it’s just that simple. there is true or not- there is no third alternative.
if it can not be proven (impossible to prove, for those of you who have forgotten the distinction between ‘may’ and ‘can’) then it is not true. if it is not true it is false. that’s your choice. existence or nonexistence. period.
and the sun is white. you need your reason to know what’s true. did you think it was yellow because hearsay when you can actually find out any day?

Reply to  gnomish
January 29, 2018 6:25 pm

“if it can not be proven (impossible to prove, for those of you who have forgotten the distinction between ‘may’ and ‘can’) then it is not true. if it is not true it is false.’
Very strange logic to me . . If you can not prove you ate dinner a year ago today, then it is not true, as in false, that you did?

Reply to  gnomish
January 29, 2018 7:27 pm

The precautionary principle was originally couched in terms of believing in god. The trouble is, which god? There is the Cristian god, Mohammed’s god, Buddha, a whole pantheon of Roman and Greek gods, not to mention all the Indigenous gods from the various continents. You can’t believe in them all, and many are exclusive; you can only believe in them, no other gods.
I always wondered if the precautionary principle was really meant as a higher order of sarcasm. A joke that the warmists just didn’t get.

Reply to  gnomish
January 30, 2018 9:32 am

i guess you really have to pay attention to every word and the definition of it.
when you reach into the past- where things no longer presently exist, you are seeking a contradiction to a statement i did not make.
as an exercise, try to determine the distinguishing characteristics of past, present and future in an objective metaphysics.

Reply to  gnomish
January 30, 2018 4:56 pm

I would like readers to know that I tried to respond to what Hive mind wrote above, but was disallowed.
(Your comments were on a subject that are not allowed on this blog, religion comments are subject to deletions) MOD

Reply to  gnomish
January 30, 2018 5:40 pm

“when you reach into the past- where things no longer presently exist…”
Science is not even possible to conduct without “reaching into the past”, it seems to me, sir. I mean, collecting “data” that only involves the present moment is pretty darn restrictive . . And that’s not the only potential problem I see with your “hypothesis” . .
“if it can not be proven (impossible to prove, for those of you who have forgotten the distinction between ‘may’ and ‘can’) then it is not true. if it is not true it is false.’
Unless you can somehow “prove” it is valid in all cases, it “eats itself”. I’m thinkin’ that’s gonna very hard . . especially if you must do so only in the present moment of time . . ; )

Reply to  gnomish
January 30, 2018 7:54 pm

please visit mr science or fiction’s site if you wish to engage on the topics of epistemology & metaphysics, morality and ethics. this is mr watts’ site for other topics. i think it wouldn’t be considerate to do that here.
but to respond just now:
i think it’s really going to save trouble if truth is defined at the outset. if you don’t like the definition, you don’t have to alter your lexicon- but when i use it in the context of a discussion such as this, this is what it means:
truth is the value of a proposition which can not be contradicted by any logical proposition in the context defined. pretty straightforward. (note again, can != may)
a most important point is that truth requires context. for example, with a simple proposition in the form if A then B, A is the context. it corresponds to the law of cause & effect wherein A is the cause which is sufficient to result in B. sometimes it is also called the law of implication.
in fact, we abstract truth at the most primitive level by this association of events in time. psychologist skinner did the science to put the numbers behind this animal trainers and schoolteachers employ this knowledge to teach creatures to behave. we do it to each other every day.
maybe i’ve demonstrated why wuwt is not the place for this with a wall of text that nobody cares to read, eh?

Reply to  gnomish
January 31, 2018 2:25 pm

{“please visit mr science or fiction’s site if you wish to engage on the topics of epistemology & metaphysics, morality and ethics. this is mr watts’ site for other topics. i think it wouldn’t be considerate to do that here”
It’s not at all clear to me why responding to what another said about something related to religion/God is a big problem . . There the comment I tried to respond to sits, and I’ve seen the same pattern many times . . Though I do thank the Mod for posting my request that the readers get some indication that a response was attempted.}
“i think it’s really going to save trouble if truth is defined at the outset. if you don’t like the definition, you don’t have to alter your lexicon- but when i use it in the context of a discussion such as this, this is what it means:
truth is the value of a proposition which can not be contradicted by any logical proposition in the context defined.”
Oh, so you sort of want “a pass” to begin with . . but then all that follows must conform to your proposed *prove it or it’s not true/is false* standard? I really don’t know how to explain the extent of the problem I see with such an approach . . How could we know, for instance, that some means of “proving” something could not be developed/discovered later, after that something has already been rendered false by your standard?
I really think the “and is false” aspect in particular goes way too far, and to my mind renders you something of a “mystic”, by introducing a quasi omniscience quality to human knowledge/understanding that simply does not belong to us . .

Reply to  gnomish
February 1, 2018 6:58 pm

dear john,

Sweet Old Bob
January 29, 2018 9:21 am

Wish common sense was more common …..

Reply to  Sweet Old Bob
January 29, 2018 9:37 am

“Common Sense” has been so polluted to render it useless.
Rely instead on “Good Sense”.

January 29, 2018 9:23 am

Thus, acting with certainty as though the uncertain is true, in the face of inability to confirm this truth, seems contradictory.

January 29, 2018 9:26 am

Whatever it is, the precautionary principle (PP) is used only in two kind of cases
* in cases that are managed just like before, with common sense. It is then just a parasite, using the circumstances to promote itself
* in cases that are managed without any common sense, with complete disregard to what is actually known. GMO are known to be safe for decades, but are still fought on the basis of PP. Electricity and radio waves have completely known danger, but are still fought by tinfoil wearer and friends even when not dangerous. Millions of cows known to NOT being ill of bovine spongiform encephalopathy were nonetheless slaughtered. Etc. The list is just endless
So the PP is just the bane of thinking, and using real, proper, normal, risk management.

Reply to  paqyfelyc
January 29, 2018 11:16 am

Safe or not, I don’t like Roundup sprayed on my food.

Reply to  icisil
January 29, 2018 2:20 pm

So basically you are saying that you have no interest in science, your mind is already made up.

Reply to  icisil
January 29, 2018 2:21 pm

PS: Roundup isn’t sprayed on food. It’s sprayed on weeds.

Reply to  icisil
January 29, 2018 4:12 pm

If Roundup was sprayed on your food, it would be dead.

Reply to  icisil
January 29, 2018 5:32 pm

What do you think GMO corn and soybeans are? They are engineered so that Roundup can be sprayed directly on the plant and the plant not die. It’s even sprayed on things like wheat right before harvest to desiccate the plant. So yeah it is sprayed directly on our food.

Reply to  icisil
January 29, 2018 6:31 pm

So grow your own or buy organic, you have options, it’s you little phobia so deal with it.

Reply to  icisil
January 30, 2018 1:36 am

Fair enough. You do have a right to askfood that complies to your wishes, as long as you pay for it. But just as just nothing to do with PP, This as to do with kosher (religious). Which is fine, as long as you don’t want to impose your prejudices to others. Do you?

Reply to  paqyfelyc
January 29, 2018 11:45 am

Your disdain for skeptics and your confidence in “known” (consensus) science allows you to keep your head in the sand and your hands over your ears. Your confidence is GMO’s is especially mindless. US GMO wheat is especially nasty, and from studies I have read has unhealthy side effects for over 10% of our population. My daughter gets physically ill if she eats it, but can eat wheat based products from Europe with no problems. So is it “safe”? People who think it is not, are not tinfoil wearing freaks, but people who have really life observations (science) to back them up.

Reply to  Dan
January 29, 2018 2:24 pm

Looks like your average agw acolyte, you only read studies that agree with your already formed opinion.
No regard for actual science, it’s the result that determines if a study is valid or not.
There is no science that indicates any problem with GMO crops. There are dozens of cranks who crank out round after round of pseudo science that those who’s brains have already rotted lap and provide funds that make the cranks rich.

Reply to  Dan
January 30, 2018 1:27 am

People have all sort of prejudice against some food or another. So do I, and so do You. You don’t want GMO in your food? Well, some people don’t want meat, other ban sugar or fat, or want only kosher/halal/organic/local/whatever. You don’t even need observationS for that, or just a random observation, insignificant except it matter much to them (like your daughter (*) )
Well, just fine. Diversity is a good thing on every matter.
Thing only go Awry when people fight to have their prejudice into law, like, to ban non kosher/halal/organic/GMO/whatever. And PP is just a tool for that war, nothing else.
(*) Methink you should really discover what made her sick, instead of letting your prejudice indict an innocent, and, so, let the real culprit get away with it. But as long as she is fine with her current diet, this is not that important. My 2cents.

January 29, 2018 9:27 am

“that a risk exists but we do not have enough information to quantify it (or, indeed, even to confirm its existence)”
Which is always the case for the new drugs used for prevention, notably: vaccines.
But for many “domain experts” (medical domain, like Nobel Prize), the a priori probably of a vaccine being catastrophic, is zero, despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines have caused huge harm to people when they were badly done – events like the polio vaccine propagating the infection is dismissed as “a long time ago” (like everything Hillary did as SoS was a “long time ago” and we shouldn’t speak about it), but then, the milestone of the experiment of Pasteur who cured a boy (a claim for which no evidence exist), is a glorious event for which all French people should be proud (French people apparently should be proud of doubtful events) and a reason why no French people should ever criticize a vaccine, according to the intellectual class.
It doesn’t work and according to polls no people have more mental sanity re: vaccine than French people. The idea that the country with probably the worst health and drugs authorities in the West could doubt advice from that authority is called a paradox by the lip flapping class.
The hypothesis of the vaccine being efficient at eradicating the target life form (usually, a virus) while not eradicating the disease with the same name (naming a clinical diagnostic and a life form the same way is a huuuuge issue) is not even considered, despite the evidence of the polio vaccine being unable to avoid polio disease in India, which of course is not polio because the drug prescriptions writing people discovered it’s completely different, just like the climate model people discovered that the heat content of the oceans was always the issue, not surface temperatures.
So no precautionary principle for unproven vaccines (which is sadly, almost all vaccines).

Reply to  st
January 29, 2018 9:41 am

You miss the point.
no precautionary principle for government action. That include vaccines, among other.

Alan Tomalty
Reply to  st
January 29, 2018 10:24 am

The problem is that the bleeding hearts wont let us inject convicted murders and rapists with unproven vaccines. We are not allowed to test on humans no matter how dispicable the humans are

Reply to  Alan Tomalty
January 31, 2018 2:32 pm

No, the problem is that vaccines mostly cannot be tested like other drugs because they apply to healthy people and their “individual” benefits are marginal, so testing against placebo is not done.

Reply to  st
January 29, 2018 11:22 am

LOL What?!

Reply to  st
January 29, 2018 2:25 pm

This overwhelming evidence exists only in your imagination.

Reply to  st
January 29, 2018 6:38 pm

Again as per the anti-roundup group, it’s your phobia you have freedom of choice and your anti-vax stance is of no interest in a climate change forum.

Reply to  LdB
January 31, 2018 2:37 pm

AFAIK there is no case of mandatory use of glyphosate on anyone’s field, ever.
Many vaccines are mandatory or virtual mandatory and medical doctors are not free to criticize vaccines exactly like “#ExxonKnew” is not free to criticize “alternatives” to oil.
This is a freedom of speech issue. If you feel concerned about the speech of Exxon you should be feel concerned about your doctor’s freedom.

John B
Reply to  st
January 29, 2018 7:34 pm

So st, to what do you attribute the almost total eradication of Polio to, if not the vaccine? God?

Reply to  John B
January 31, 2018 2:28 pm

Polio is NOT eradicated in India.

January 29, 2018 9:32 am

How about assuming that current trends will continue unless government does something to stop them.

January 29, 2018 9:44 am

this can result in credence being placed in fanciful concerns.
This gets to the heart of my problem with the precautionary principle. In any debate between competing policy responses (in this case, the cost of taking action vs. the environmental dangers of not taking action), victory goes to the side that can wheel out the scariest parade of horribles.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  tim maguire
January 29, 2018 10:11 am

If it is only “possibility” that need trigger untoward reactions to forestall catastrophe, why is the world not spending billions of dollars to detect and destroy incoming ‘dinosaur-killing’ asteroids? We are inconsistent in how we react to threats, and how we allocate limited resources to deal with them. Implicit in that is the realization that some threats have low probability, albeit high-impact consequences. To the extent that alarmists and the Media elevate the awareness of the public to threats, the subjective probability of the threat is raised.

Reply to  tim maguire
January 29, 2018 6:42 pm

Yes I have commented along similar lines that certain groups like the greens which are very selective about how they react to threats. If it helps “the cause” then it’s a problem but other more likely and more dangerous threats are ignored.

January 29, 2018 9:48 am

As with a huge percentage of communications in all media types, it’s usually:
Communication X = Give us your money
Nothing different here.
The precautionary principle = Give us your money

January 29, 2018 10:00 am

“Far from being a nitpicker, I feel I am making an important point here by stressing that, in its original guise of Vorsorgeprinzip”

You are being a nitpicker. Throwing your narrow personal perspective at the precautionary principle fails to clarify anything.
Your refusing aphorisms is bizarre, since your words are just variations on the same theme; especially where you claim first precedence.
My Father was a chemist. I learned about the precautionary principle, with that title, back in the mid 60s. My Father explained his “precautionary principle” based on his formal education and the industry in which he worked.
Farther back; the old Doctor’s maxim, “First, do not harm!”, is a “precautionary principle” and reaches back to the Greek era an did likely preceded by Egyptians who passed their knowledge to the Greeks.
But, you refuse aphorisms… A practice that fails to factually repudiate them.

Reply to  ATheoK
January 29, 2018 10:29 am

“First, do not harm!”, is a “precautionary principle”
Except that then it was quite the opposite meaning: be absolutely sure before taking action. Now they have perverted it to claim we should take action at great expense before being absolutely sure. If we went by “First, do no harm”, then the entire AGW argument would crumble.

Extreme Hiatus
Reply to  WR
January 29, 2018 5:51 pm

“If we went by “First, do no harm”, then the entire AGW argument would crumble.”
Indeed. Using the convenient Precautionary Principle employed now, the doctor would stay in their basement and avoid all contact with patients – just in case.

Reply to  WR
January 29, 2018 6:45 pm

Which is essentually what the anti-vax argument goes. It would be interesting to see if the number of extreme green groups had a higher number of anti-vax believers because essentially it’s the same principle.

John Ridgway
Reply to  ATheoK
January 30, 2018 2:16 am

Funnily enough, by distilling the essence of the advice given by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, I was quite unaware that I was promoting a ‘narrow’ view, let alone ‘throwing’ it at anyone. As for the question of provenance, I think the following quotes taken from the COMEST review of the precautionary principle (PP) are worth repeating:
“The PP is a narrower concept than merely looking for safety.”
And then later in the next paragraph:
“The PP, however, dates from the 1970s. Some scholars mention a Swedish and some a German origin of the PP. In Germany the PP (‘Vorsorgeprinzip’) may be traced back to the first draft of a bill (1970) aimed at securing clean air. The law was passed in 1974 and covered all potential sources of air pollution, noise, vibrations and similar processes.”
COMEST was as aware as anyone that the concept of taking precaution dates back to the year blob. However, the subject of their review (and my article) was, “the precautionary principle”. Therefore, we need to be looking at documented use of the expression, “the precautionary principle”, preferably backed up by a definition of the expression as coined. As life is too short to waste trawling through all the possible sources, I am satisfied to rely upon the scholars alluded to by COMEST. However, if you could kindly give me the name of your father, and the documented references he was quoting, I would be only too pleased to pass them on to COMEST so that they may amend their narrow view.

Roy Spencer
January 29, 2018 10:03 am

No one lives their life according to the PP. Every decision we make, we weigh the costs and benefits, even if subconsciously. You do it when you walk across the street, or drive your car, or take a bite of food. The PP is nonsense. There is no decision in life which does not involve risk.

Reply to  Roy Spencer
January 29, 2018 10:22 am

…and the PP not based on reality….is like bombing your house to get rid of the monsters under your bed

Extreme Hiatus
Reply to  Latitude
January 29, 2018 5:52 pm

Latitude – perfect analogy!

Reply to  Roy Spencer
January 29, 2018 6:49 pm

Agreed Roy and it’s a throwback to sacrificing things to appease the gods. Risk evaluation is what education taught us to do and we stopped the Precautionary Principle and sacrificing things because it was seen as uneducated.

Reply to  Roy Spencer
January 29, 2018 6:59 pm

In the abstract it sounds good and virtuous.
THe reality would bite… hard and viciously.
If people really thought about the practical implications of the climate alarmists’ pronouncements, climate change hustle would have died a prejudicial death 20 years ago.

Reply to  joelobryan
January 29, 2018 8:31 pm

It is just an argument leading into a modern Spanish Inquistion which was basically formed under the same guise, they even label people deniers … which is the modern day heretic. You see some of the lunatics calling for much the same sort of judgements and laws.

Reply to  Roy Spencer
January 30, 2018 11:57 am

Mr. Spencer
I would not recommend
using PP as an abbreviation
for the Precautionary Principle.

January 29, 2018 10:05 am

Ignorance should not strengthen one’s case. Besides, could one not also argue doing the opposite of what the alarmists want, based on the precautionary principle? After all, there is a small but unknown risk that the earth could enter an ice age in the next 100 years, which would kill billions of people, destroy habitats and drive many species to extinction. So we should pump as much CO2 into the atmosphere now to forestall the onset of the next ice age, you know, just to be safe.

Reply to  WR
January 29, 2018 12:03 pm

that’s a winner of a first line, there. it’s as tidy a summation as i’ve seen.
the precautionary principle is code for ‘because ignorance!”

Reply to  WR
January 29, 2018 1:42 pm

“So we should pump as much CO2 into the atmosphere now to forestall the onset of the next ice age, you know, just to be safe.”
We do not control the atmosphere, nature does.
Our minuscule output of CO2 is easily dwarfed by nature at every turn. If you believe I am incorrect please supply data. Also if you believe I am incorrect, explain why at other times through the history of this planet when CO2 was so much higher than now life was in abundance, and when CO2 was very low all life here nearly expired.
Nature for example —

Ultimately they estimated that U.S. waterways are breathing about 100 teragrams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s roughly equal to the amount of carbon dioxide that cars belch out while burning 40 billion gallons of gasoline.

From http://environment.yale.edu/envy/stories/streams-and-rivers-breathing-carbon-dioxide#gsc.tab=0

Rainer Bensch
Reply to  tom0mason
January 30, 2018 3:25 am

Non-sequitur. Your elaboration has noting to do with what was meant by the quote you stated.

Reply to  Rainer Bensch
January 30, 2018 4:39 am

Yes dear,
I imagine some would …

Reply to  Rainer Bensch
February 1, 2018 9:56 pm

Even as a Non-sequitur it says more on the topic that your comment.

January 29, 2018 10:12 am

Climate “Science” on Trial; The Forensic Files: Exhibit X
Exhibit X: What Einstein concluded Global Warming and more CO2 are bad anyway? Talking Points: Civilizations and nature thrive during warming periods, they die during Ice Ages. Crop yields increase with higher CO2, reducing starvation, improving the standard of living and lowering the cost of food. CO2 has lead to a “Greening of the Earth.“ … Continue reading

January 29, 2018 10:12 am

I appreciate your point about it not actually being a principle and applied in many different circumstances (and excuses?). I had put two references about fisheries in the Lock article comments. Here is a third. Lauck, T., C. W. Clark, M. Mangel and G. R. Munro. 1998. Implementing the precautionary principle in fisheries management through marine reserves. Ecological Applications. 8(1, supplement): 572-578.
One commercial fisherman called these a “Marine Zoo.” Whether these are essential or value judgements for some groups benefit is worth discussion, perhaps including along the line of the previous post on the paper about niche evolution, whatever that is. The niche concept has also been used in many ways, including precautionary. Best available science is in there somewhere as in consensus which is dangerous because can make scientists policy makers. Best I remember this was a thoughtful analysis of the predicament. Sindermann, C. J. 1997. The search for cause and effect relationships in marine pollution studies. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 34(4):218-221.
I recall a legal analysis about its shifting the burden of proof, but don’t have the source. It would be useful to counter its automatic acceptance, which I did once in a discussion about a fishery problem..

Richard Wakefield
January 29, 2018 10:26 am

I’ve researched where the PP came from. Yes, it was 1930s Germany as a method of convincing the populous to do something about the “Jewish problem”.
If we strictly adhered to the PP we would not be building any cities along active tectonic zones.

Reply to  Richard Wakefield
January 29, 2018 12:28 pm

Interesting, I was just reading a paper on the PP, and its prevalence in decision making today (especially in Europe) leads back to Rio 1992. Rio 1992 seems to be the jumping off point of the modern revisionist ways of thinking/manipulation such as political correctness, globalization, community organizers, etc. And of course all of that can be traced back to Nazi Germany or Marxism. I just find it intriguing that all of those dots always seem to connect.

Horace Jason Oxboggle
Reply to  Richard Wakefield
January 29, 2018 11:15 pm

Or coastlines.

January 29, 2018 10:27 am

The worst case scenario is always to have all the negative predictions plus a bad economic situation to face it.

January 29, 2018 10:39 am

The precautionary principle does not work in evolutionary terms. Otherwise humans would still be walking on all fours.

January 29, 2018 10:55 am

I can’t help but feel that many of the commenters failed to fully understand the point that Mr. Ridgeway was attempting to make. As I understand it, PP is avoidance of uncertainty, and not merely avoidance of risk. This is a useful distinction, regardless of the history of the word. And yes, I also believe it’s useful to offer the clarification that our modern perception of PP is not based (solely) on the slippery slope of avoiding more and more risk. Fair enough.
Finally, as noted by the author himself, the application of the PP invariably ignores the double-edged nature of the equation, the opportunity cost of any uncertainty avoidance.

Reply to  ripshin
January 29, 2018 11:15 am

except it’s not. it’s the embracing of ignorance as justification for decisions.
it’s the employment of FUD to exhort and extort.
no, they aren’t ‘just doing it wrong”; it is wrong to do it and this is how they distract you – with debate over how many inches of unrequided love you’ll let them stick in ya without a struggle.
once you have demonstrated that you’ll accept some degree (and will abandon the principle of ownership) of domination, you will give up 2$ worth next time and then 20 and then all of it.
it’s not a slippery slope; it’s a precipice.
if you don’t see that- ima short the hell out of your stock.

Reply to  gnomish
January 29, 2018 11:40 am

I don’t disagree with you necessarily. I’m not arguing for the precautionary principle, and neither was the author:

I think I should stress at this point that I seek to clarify the logic behind the precautionary principle but not to defend it. There are many good reasons for distrusting the principle. For example, as well as the cognitive bias of uncertainty aversion one can add omission bias, the focusing effect and neglect of probability as biases that both underpin and undermine the principle. You can also add to this the fact that the logic of the principle is profoundly self-defeating, since the deep uncertainty that precludes reliable risk calculations can apply whether taking action or not. Thereby, the principle can be used to simultaneously justify proscription of both action and inaction.
In summary, whilst I share Mr Lock’s disquiet with regard to the precautionary principle, I suspect I do so for different reasons.

It’s merely an attempt to clarify what we’re arguing against.

Reply to  gnomish
January 29, 2018 11:58 am

here’s what the guru knows: if he can get you to negotiate your submission, he can not be accused of raep because bargaining is proof that you were selling whatever he got out of you.
‘it’s a cookbook!’
that’s clarity.

Reply to  ripshin
January 29, 2018 11:28 am

Semantics. You both said the same thing a different way.

Reply to  ripshin
January 29, 2018 8:47 pm

The point is and Roy Spencer made the statement above the Precautionary Principle is dead we worked out that sometimes the precautionary principle is itself dangerous as it is a logic fallacy that there is no negative associated with not doing anything and we cite it as such
It’s always used by the same groups as an argument.
In science it got replaced back in the dark ages by Risk Assessment and nothing including the using the Precautionary Principle has 0% risk.
As an example stand in front of a car driving towards you the Precautionary Principle may say moving is dangerous don’t do it, a Risk Assessment will tell you not moving is the most dangerous option.

J Mac
January 29, 2018 10:59 am

A rational assessment of studies evaluating increasing atmospheric CO2 from 300 to 1500 ppm confirms healthier, more robust plant growth. Satellite evidence shows this occurring worldwide, for the ~ 60 ppm planetary atmospheric increase of CO2 during the satellite era. If this increase partially results from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas for human energy and transportation needs, it is profoundly beneficial, as it enhances food crop and meat animal yields without additional investment or resources. Indeed, the entire planetary biome is the beneficiary of this enhancement to flora and fauna production.This must be considered in any risk/reward analysis, on which human existence is dependent.
The ‘Precautionary Principle’ is neither a principle nor a risk/reward analysis. It is an irrational fear-based argument. As applied by the environmental branch of socialism, it says “If we don’t know all of the unknown variables and their effects on the atmosphere, we really must not take a chance on more CO2.” In their next exhalation of CO2, these same SAW’s (Socialist Atmospheric Warriors) will tell you “We have atmospheric models that include all of the relevant variables and their effects on the planetary atmosphere. Our accurate models show that increasing CO2 is going to fry the planet, with 97% consensus certainty!!!” Neither position is rational. They are diametrically opposed irrational fear-based arguments!
I would not buy a used car, or anything else, from such nonscience spewing charlatans.

January 29, 2018 11:20 am

Too bad the PP is not applied to mass immigration.

Russell Robles-Thome
January 29, 2018 11:28 am

I don’t feel moved to comment on ‘The Precautionary Principle’, but I would actually welcome a move of public debate in that direction. Why? Because it is very much closer to the truth. My main gripe with CAGW is policy based on scary scenarios and (at best) half truths required to drive public opinion to support action, and consequent crazy policies predicated on a planetary emergency which doesn’t exist.
If public policy were (correctly) based on significant uncertainty about what might happen, and a sensible view of the degree of urgency required in taking action, I would be fine with economically sensible policies to limit emissions in the long term. The truth is OK.

January 29, 2018 11:30 am

“Precautionary principle in a nutshell: Guilty until proven innocent beyond any doubt.”
Only as you apply it to AGW.
However, as the author states – it must be predicated against the magnitude of what is at stake.
I like this example……
Your daughter is about to take a flight on holiday.
You meet the pilot and ask …”what are the chances of your plane crashing”?
At what number would you remove your daughter from the plane?
0.001%, 0.01%, 1%, 3%, 10%?
OK, I’d suggest that none of us would tolerate higher.
So then as regards AGW, since we cannot each vote on our perception of the magnitude of the loss to ourselves, and that the thing that is at stake it not ours individually – then it must be taken democratically on a worldwide basis.
No doubt denizens will say it is not.
I disagree.
And on the contrary as shown every day here …(.from above) “beyond doubt” is precisely what denizens call for, in terms of the science.
Something that science CANNOT provide.
So you would say that the pilot of the plane your daughter is/was to fly in is “guilty”?
for providing an honest answer to the question of risk ?
That you are for turning that into meaning for yourself ?
Science is not a democracy but the decisions based on it are.
Trump FI.
He thinks it’s a hoax.
The vast majority of democratic leaders do not.
So what probability of some form of undesirable happenings in the future (bearing in mind that these will in all probability be beyond our personal time here), would denizens deem acceptable?
Thinking of those numbers above.
I suspect all of us would go higher – because we do not see an immediate threat to “me and mine”.
But we also have the imperative to act (implicit in the science we either accept or deny as an entirety).
Just like the father having the “one-shot” at stopping his daughter flying.
And yes, yes – I know what most will think of this piece.
“The ‘Precautionary Principle’ is neither a principle nor a risk/reward analysis. It is an irrational fear-based argument.”
Is it irrational to the “father”?

J Mac
Reply to  Toneb
January 29, 2018 11:44 am

Re: ….then it must be taken democratically on a worldwide basis. No. It must not.
I am a citizen of a representative republic, specifically designed by our fore fathers to preclude the irrational fear driven rule of the ‘democratic socialism’ mob. We will run our Nation as we believe is best for us and the rest of the world. By 1st Amendment to our Constitution, Y’all are free to disagree as vehemently as you like… and we are free to ignore your fear based nonscience.

Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 3:05 pm

I am the citizen of a representaive republic also, and one hundreds of years longer in tradition than yours.
Science is not socialism.
It’s an obsveration/investigation of our world leading to our understanding of it.
In the end if the citizen is like you and ideologiaclly denys the scince we need people to rule that are not.
Do you propose we live in ignorance of it and blunder on irrespective of any harm we do?
Do you do that in your own life?
Your family’s life?
Like protect them against harm?
Have them inoculated FI
On the basis of knowledge.
In the latter, scientific knowledge.
Yours is nihilistic thinking.
“and we are free to ignore your fear based nonscience.”
Well, you know, “shit happens”.
Even stuff that is worthy of fear.
To premise that it may happen is not “fear-based” in that it has that as a basis.
It is arrived at (at the top end of the IPCC’s 1.5>4.5C x2CO2) being “frightening” independent of any ones ideology.
Yours arrives at it’s denial via your ideology.
One rationally.
The other irrationally.

Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 3:22 pm

“Science is not socialism.”
“Climate science™” is VERY MUCH socialism hiding behind pseudo-science.

Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 3:26 pm

“It is arrived at (at the top end of the IPCC’s 1.5>4.5C x2CO2) being “frightening” independent of any ones ideology.”
No warming from CO2 in the whole of the satellite temperature data, Tone
It is only your MANIC, FANATICAL, unsupportable, blind belief that keeps you over the edge of PANIC !!
I hope you are happy there, because world-wide CO2 emissions will continue to climb STRONGLY for MANY years to come.
And there is NOTHING that your baseless religion can do about it 🙂
Up that dose of Valium, chicken-little 🙂

Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 3:37 pm

“we need people to rule that are not.”
And there’s that “I’m the greatest” totalitarianism of the below average AGW stall-wart. !!
Leftist, marxist, totalitarian fascism, writ-large.

Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 4:28 pm

“Science is not socialism.”
Most “climate science” is not science either, it’s b0ll0cks.

Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 4:34 pm

“I am the citizen of a representaive republic also”
I thought you claimed to be British, in which case you are a citizen of a constitutional monarchy and a subject of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II.

J Mac
Reply to  J Mac
January 29, 2018 7:22 pm

“Shit Happens” is a perfect description for the prevalent nonscience.
Shit gets funded, in the Climate Change Confirmation Industry, and then ‘Shit Happens’.
Thanks Toneb! You sure know how to turn a phrase!

Reply to  Toneb
January 29, 2018 12:00 pm

However, establishing that there is a 0.01 % chance of the plane crashing, does the father then demand ALL PLANES be immediately grounded, his daughter pulled off of this particular airplane, and then forced to walk across country in the dead of winter from Salt Lake City to Albany?
You do realize that your precious “Precautionary Principle” REQUIRES the death of millions for the next 82 years, and the GUARANTEED HARM to tens of billions for those same 82 years, just on the “chance” that dramatically cutting CO2 by a few percent for 82 years “might” reduce the future global average temperatures by 0.02 degrees?
You are GUARANTEEING harm for 82 years to billions of innocents to possibly prevent a potentially beneficial warming of 0.1 degree.

J Mac
Reply to  RACookPE1978
January 29, 2018 12:22 pm
Reply to  RACookPE1978
January 29, 2018 12:52 pm

comment image
Also guaranteeing the decimation of the electrical supply systems of once developed countries, and denying developing countries that one thing that allows for nations to go forward, reliable cheap electricity supplies.
Which you can BET that toneb makes full use of , correct, little hypocrite.?
The PP used by the AGW Agenda, really is about as ANTI-HUMAN as it gets.
I wonder what toneb gets out of supporting this most evil of agenda.?

Reply to  RACookPE1978
January 29, 2018 4:06 pm

“However, establishing that there is a 0.01 % chance of the plane crashing, does the father then demand ALL PLANES be immediately grounded, his daughter pulled off of this particular airplane, and then forced to walk across country in the dead of winter from Salt Lake City to Albany?”
Classis goal-post shifting.
The analogy was meant as I posited it.
The fact that the father has a very high investment in the prob of the plane crashing because of his daughter.
The rest of your blurb is a stawman.
IOW: Think (as the analogy does) in terms of risk related to personal assesment of the enormity of the possible outcome.
Not considering the of anything that might come later since the high probability of death coming within the next few hours of her life rather concentrated his mind somewhat.
The father would just choose another flight on a safer plane.
It is an analogy.
Not a real life scenario.

Reply to  Toneb
January 29, 2018 4:34 pm

No, not true.
The CAGW alarmists-political-academic groups ARE DEMANDING we adopt policies that will kill millions immediately (condemning 3 or more billion into life-long poverty in fore-shortened desperate lives of illness, cold, darkness drinking impure parasitic-infested water and cooking what little food they can find over smoldering dung-fed fires. The remaining 4 billion are forced into lives of permanent stress and zero-growth, sliding back into poverty and corruption. While the rich eco-enviro’s you admire live in their class-high society of pleasure and jet-set leisure as the heads of state and academic-industry.
82 years of certain death and near-poverty for all. Guaranteed if the enviro-policies required BY your “precautionary principle” are enforced by the point of a gun and the enslavement of the unaccountable environs-bureacrats writing policies you demand. On the “chance” that “some part” of some future potential global average temperatures are reduced by 1/5 of one degree!
It is not even an “insurance policy”! (I pay some money each year now to prevent the known potential for harm later.) Rather, I MUST pay extraordinary large amounts of money now, get no benefit at all, harm many people now- harm many more people later-and many,many more in every future year towards the far future, all to produce NO credible BENEFIT.
But I do get to waste money (er, employ) large numbers of bureaucrats, and even larger number of accademic-enviro’s.

Reply to  Toneb
January 29, 2018 12:45 pm

What a child-minded irrelevant analogy, to be expected from Tone.
Do you check with the pilot every time you flight off to a climate CONference, Tone?
The Precautionary Principle in AGW is more like Hansel and Gretel deciding not to eat the gingerbread.
Its all based on a fabricated fairy-tale.
What the AGW fantasy does is use the PP on a fabricated meme that:
a) warming is bad, b) CO2 causes it …..
So its a LIE from the very start.

Joel Snider
Reply to  AndyG55
January 29, 2018 12:50 pm

You can’t get a more demonstrative example of opportunistic bullshit than this.

Reply to  AndyG55
January 29, 2018 2:35 pm

“What a child-minded irrelevant analogy, to be expected from Tone.”
And an ad hom, to be expected from this poster.
Whatever you said, it’s not worth reading further because of that opening line.
As I said “And yes, yes – I know what most will think of this piece.”

Reply to  AndyG55
January 29, 2018 2:44 pm

I described your post perfectly, Tone, I’d ask you to do better….. but …..
““There is no evidence that CO2 is a net harm.””
Well said MarkW,.
Keep up your fairy-tale, toneb.. its all you have.
What do you get out of supporting this fantasy, btw ??

Reply to  AndyG55
January 29, 2018 2:47 pm

” I know what most will think of this piece.”
You know your comments well, don’t you
Most people think they are a load of farcical tosh !!

Reply to  AndyG55
January 29, 2018 2:52 pm

“““There is no evidence that CO2 is a net harm.”””
Forgett the “net harm” bit
There is no evidence that atmospheric CO2 at ANY possible level in the atmosphere is of any harm what-so-ever. !!

Reply to  Toneb
January 29, 2018 2:29 pm

There is no evidence that CO2 is a net harm.
There is solid evidence that the tiny amount of warming that CO2 will cause will be 100% beneficial.
There is solid evidence that more CO2 in the atmosphere is good for plants, including the plants that we eat, both directly and indirectly.

Reply to  MarkW
January 29, 2018 2:38 pm

“There is no evidence that CO2 is a net harm.”
There are multiple lines of scientific evidence that there is.
That you and most denizens deny it does not make it so.

Reply to  MarkW
January 29, 2018 2:50 pm

“There are multiple lines of scientific evidence that there is.”
RUBBISH!. Any so called evidence based on fantasy anti-science..
….. but you have real issues telling the difference, don’t you.
What do you get out of supporting this trash anti-human, anti-life agenda, tone?

Reply to  MarkW
January 29, 2018 4:38 pm

““There is no evidence that CO2 is a net harm.”
There are multiple lines of scientific evidence that there is.”

No there are not.
There is however considerable evidence that an increase in both CO2 and surface temperature are likely to be an unmitigated benefit, certainly that is the case currently..

Reply to  Toneb
January 29, 2018 3:49 pm

Is it irrational to the “father”? – Toneb

Sorry to burst your bubble but you have just illustrated why your own argument is illogical.
This father has already made the wrong choice, the decision to let his daughter travel in any vehicle other than by plane already exposed her to a hundredfold* increase in risk!
*A 1% chance of death for a car versus 0.01% in a plane!

Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts. – David Ropeik, Harvard School of Public Health.

January 29, 2018 12:28 pm

The “Precautionary Principle” is akin to the decision making matrix I learned while taking a Qualitative Decision Making class in Grad School in 1983. It is a weak method of making decisions.

January 29, 2018 12:56 pm

“… as the quality of evidence falls (or, more cynically, as appetite for evidence weakens) one will eventually arrive at a position where falsifiability and reproducibility of results become irrelevant. It is only at this point that post-normal science can be fairly dismissed as ‘nonsience’ (sic).”

We are already at this point. We arrived there in 2003 after the Climate Cult refused to acknowledge the fraud (as fully and exactingly exposed by M&M) that was Mann’s hockey stick and its application in the IPCC TAR.

January 29, 2018 12:59 pm

I think this article is based on a false assumption: that the the first documented use of the term “Precautionary Principle” (a translation of the German expression ‘Vorsorgeprinzip’, as used in the German Clear Act of 1974) represents the first usage of the principle. Well, try telling that to the ancient Greeks:
Harvard Law School
Precautionary Constitutionalism in Ancient Athens
I. What is Precautionary Constitutionalism? In ordinary subconstitutional risk regulation, a major set of debates involves “precautionary principles.” There is a bewildering variety of such principles, and the debates
often bog down in issues of definition and in subtle differences between formulations. Broadly speaking, however, the common theme is that precautionary principles place the burden of uncertainty on proponents of actions or technologies perceived to be risky.”

John Ridgway
Reply to  Mike Jonas
February 3, 2018 3:40 am

I’m sorry not to have got back to you sooner but it has taken me a while to find the time to read the paper that you cite.
The premise of my article was that the earliest documented use of the expression, “the precautionary principle” was in the 1970s and, as such, it was a reference to a concept that was narrower and more specific than simply the idea that one should take steps to make sure one is aware of the risks one is taking. Indeed, the precautionary principle is meant to apply when such steps are deemed impossible. Furthermore, it is meant to apply when the impacts of the risk materializing are potentially catastrophic or irreversible. To falsify the premise, you would need to offer a documented occurrence of the expression, “the precautionary principle” that predates the 1970s and yet was pointedly not used in the narrow sense conveyed by the modern use of the expression. The paper you cite fails on both counts. Firstly, the paper provides no evidence that the Ancient Greeks used the expression and, secondly, the paper claims that the Ancient Greeks’ political system exemplifies, what they refer to as, “Precautionary Constitutionalism”. As such, it embraces the ideas contained within the modern day precautionary principle (as applied in “subconstitutional risk regulation”).
So the paper does not present a documented use of the expression to mean something different. In fact, it presents a documented use of a different expression to mean the same.
If you think that your cited paper falsifies the premise of my article then clearly you have misunderstood that premise. Nowhere does the article claim that the Vorsergeprinzip was the “first usage of the principle”, nor would I need to make such a claim to support my argument.

Bruce Cobb
January 29, 2018 1:09 pm

The Precautionary Principle
ChickenLittle: Run! The sky is falling!
Doubter: No, it isn’t.
CL: But it might be, and could fall even faster in the future! Better safe than sorry!
Doubter: Except it isn’t.
CL: Yes it is! 97% of us ChickenLittles say so!
Doubter: No.
CL: You’re just a SkyDe…er! We all need to run!
Doubter: Not me.
CL: Yes you are! We’ll force you to!
Doubter: Go ahead and try.
The Precautionary Principle

January 29, 2018 1:20 pm

Thank you, John. My knowledge of the precautionary principle was rudimentary and your exquisite exposition of it is delectable.

January 29, 2018 1:20 pm

Consider this argument.
There is a small chance that the Catholic religion is correct, and that not to accept it will lead to eternal damnation.
Therefore the rational being will accept Catholicism, because the costs of rejecting it if true are huge, but the costs of accepting it, if false, are small.
So far everything seems fine, but on my way to church one Sunday I meet the Imam of my local mosque. We chat. He explains to me that if Islam is correct, my continuing in Catholicism will lead to eternal damnation, and so the rational thing for me to do is move immediately to Islam. After all, the costs of eternal damnation are high, the costs of moving to Islam not so much.
As I stand hesitating, a chap carrying a laptop comes up to us and says, suppose there is only a small chance that global warming will wipe out the human race….

Reply to  michel
January 29, 2018 1:54 pm

Going back to Pascal, it would have been easy for him to accept Catholicism on his death bed, since at that point, what difference would it make?
I don’t know if Pascal knew anything about Allah, or what he would have said. If in doubt, believe in everything? There’s a multiverse for that.
What it all comes down to in practice is: It’s a rationalization. It justifies what you want to do, whatever that is. Which isn’t caution or precaution at all, but FUD.

Reply to  michel
January 29, 2018 2:11 pm

As I stand hesitating, a chap carrying a laptop, a thermometer, a notebook and a few graphs; ocean heat for example, comes up to us and says suppose there is only a small chance that global warming will wipe out the human race….
I’d look at it carefully, check his or her qualifications and then decide for my self where the probability lies. Having unquestioned faith in an unscientific, ancient myth is quite different.

Reply to  zazove
January 29, 2018 2:26 pm

” Having unquestioned faith in an unscientific, ancient myth is quite different.”
Yet many still “believe” in global warming, human CO2 forced climate change etc.
Go figure that one out

Reply to  zazove
January 29, 2018 2:32 pm

Having unquestioned faith in the belief that religion is disproven is quite unscientific.

Reply to  zazove
January 29, 2018 6:12 pm

But if you act to the degree being sold as necessary on that small chance, you almost at p > 0.99 empoverish the humanity and likely send human existence back to life being harsh, brutish, and short. Excepting of course for the ruling elites, the uber wealthy, and their families.
Choose carefully.

January 29, 2018 1:25 pm

The Chinese, 2000 years ago, (1) built the Great Chinese Wall, which can be seen from the Moon, as PP against the Mongol invaders…. and (2) but they opened the wall themselves, once the Mongols stood in front of it…… here we have the application of the PP twice at its best.

Gunga Din
January 29, 2018 1:58 pm

The Precautionary Principle should be, “Don’t do anything stupid to prevent what will profit those “raising the alarm” in either in cash, power or prestige (ego is also a strong driver).”

January 29, 2018 3:02 pm

In “climate science™” the Precautionary Principle is use when their anti-science projections and fairy-tales cannot persuade anyone any more.
It is sign that they have LOST THE SCIENTIFIC ARGUEMENT.

January 29, 2018 4:40 pm

The Precautionary Principle is invoked because many are afraid that higher levels of CO2 will soon fry the Earth. Then, whatever solution is proposed will be rejected by invoking the PP. Around and around we go.

John Robertson
January 29, 2018 5:00 pm

Possibly the true precautionary Principle is;
Fools Names And Fools Faces will alway be found in public places.
In this, save the planet from the imaginary doom of carbon dioxide induced Global Warming, case the true precaution is this. Governments are made up of bureaucrats and fronted by bad actors know as politicians, who engage in Poly Ticks.
History is clear,starkly clear, these groups have an unholy lust for other peoples wealth.
Your time and energy is to be theirs, all profit to the parasites,all losses to the producers.
Nothing different has emerged from one civilization rise and fall to the next.
Our bureaucrats and their political comrades, steal as long and as hard as they can, until civil society falls.
The modern Kleptocracy seems able to destroy a democracy in 30-60 years.
Zimbabwe , South Africa,Venezuela..add your own there are plenty to chose from.
Watch Canada, a country were the freeloaders now outnumber the producers.
Observe how quickly true human rights are stripped from holders of property as this kleptocracy collapses.

Bob Burban
January 29, 2018 5:54 pm

If you truly subscribe to the precautionary principal, you avoid airplanes, ships/boats, cars and bicycles. If you don’t, then your much bigger problem is hypocrisy.

January 29, 2018 7:27 pm

Andrew Klaven dismantles the Left’s use of the alarmist rhetoric/PP (without calling it the PP) as only Andrew can with humor.
So go get a beer or your favorite cocktail. And then start Andrew Klaven’s fun half-hour (28 minutes) of dismantling the Left’s invocation of precautionary principles.

Horace Jason Oxboggle
Reply to  joelobryan
January 30, 2018 12:26 am

Is he more, or less, pissed than Foster Brooks?

Horace Jason Oxboggle
Reply to  Horace Jason Oxboggle
January 30, 2018 12:35 am

Is he more, or less, pissed than Foster Brooks? I was referring to George Soros!

January 29, 2018 7:57 pm

Doesn’t the precautionary principle apply to itself? If applying the pronciple – killing fossil fuel usage to avoid possible catastrophic global temperature rises – has the risk of economic and social collapse or hardship that kills or injures millions, doesn’t the principle say we should do NOTHING until we have more certainty?
Ahhhh. The rub is that non-human life has large value, while human life has little. In fact, per Erhlich, Club of Rome and McKibben, humans are a virus on the planet. No value.
The precautionary principle as used applies only outside the human element. Except for the social, liberal, progressive elite, who, I suppose, are SUPERhuman, and therefore not part of the common human element we despise.

Reply to  douglasproctor
January 29, 2018 8:50 pm

Yes it does it’s a logic fallacy which is why it doesn’t exist in science
It’s always used by the same groups as an argument and science uses Risk Assessment and “using Precautionary_principle” would itself be classed as a risk with a non zero probability.

January 29, 2018 9:17 pm

Precautionary principle summed up . You lost .
Same witch burners different era .
PS…. warming is GOOD … cooling is BAD and as everyone knows climate changes . Get over it .We are not ever going to control it . Nice try though Liberals .. try to find something else to satisfy your personality disorder .

January 30, 2018 5:32 am

Oh boy, here we go again with all this prejudice against the Precautionary Principle and not a jot of actual reference to the environmental issues that led to its formulation and its development. I had a hand in both. Firstly, the main thrust in the early 1980s came from fisheries scientists in Germany – NOT from environmentalists. Prior to the PP, the dominant paradigm for toxic substance disposal was ‘dilute and disperse’ – for organochlorines, mercury, arsenic, lead, sulphur dioxide, radionuclides…..and many others. This spawned a massive expansion of monitoring networks and toxicology labs. That was to constitute a vested interest in the dispersion paradigm (much as computer modelling expanded and led to the current vested interest in AGW).
There thus arose a constituency for the science of modelling the behaviour of pollutants (or ‘contaminants’, if no harm was obvious). This constituency naturally developed a belief in the scientific prowess demonstrated by labs and monitoring, modelling and regulation. And the regulators shared that belief – from government level, to regional conventions to protect the oceans and air quality, all the way to the UN’s special conventions such as the London Dumping Convention (that sanctioned, for example, the dumping of radwaste in international waters).
What the fisheries scientists noticed was how the environment did not follow the models (sound familiar?) – mercury and organochlorines were accumulating where they were not supposed to, as was plutonium discharged to the Irish Sea.
Ah yes – this is then where pre-post-normal science had its finest hours….the defence of indefensible models, in particular by the UN ‘group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine pollution’ (GESAMP). Their belief was of course accompanied by their vested interests in labs, PhD student funding and junkets flying off to UN meetings where they felt they were saving the planet.
Your correspondents do not account they actual story of events leading up to the dreaded Rio summit of 92. A small group of real scientists attacked the modellers – but with the help of dreaded Greenpeace and others to fund attendance at meetings and basic research – without which it would not have been possible. It was not Greenpeace that won the arguments on the floor of the UN or the Paris Commission, Berlin Commission, and other conventions, – it was the scientists. They did not use post-normal science – they used critical analysis, borne of years of painstaking review of real data and published papers to expose the failures of the models.
Lets take one example – polychlorinated biphenals (PCBs) disposed to landfill and oceans with the assumption they were relatively harmless. Decades later, as they begin to accumulate in the food chain of Inuit people, labs studies show that they severely compromise the mammalian immune system. Of course, they cannot now be regulated. Inuit are advised not to follow their traditional indigenous lifestyle. We all still live in the hope that the great whales and dolphins will survive the current high levels of contamination – but there is more and more evidence that they have problems with immunity and breeding.
Now – in all this, it is evident at nobody can prove that a contaminant is causing an effect. There is correlation, but as we all know, that is not proof. Yet ‘normal’ science under dliute and disperse rules held that regulators should allow dispersion until such time as environmental evidence showed ‘harm’. This was the burden of proof – a burden actually, because to do that, environmentalists (including government scientists) would need a lot of money to collect the evidence. And guess what? Little was available. The null hypothesis is good science – except, who is going to pay for disproving it?
In the 1980s, I started out as a scientist-lawyer with my own Oxford-based research outfit funded by foundations and eventually clients (we always held copyright). Government and industry hated us – at first. Within five years, governments were asking our advice, and within 10, I was advising the International Maritime Organisation on redrafts of its Annexes for toxic substances. I also was invited to sit on editorial boards of major journals on pollution control and lectured widely in Universities. The journals also published invited papers on criticising the UN. This personal history is detailed in my book ‘Chill: a reassessment of global warming theory’ – where all references can be found.
The history of regulation – by committees of scientific experts, is replete with error – the most egregious is the 15 year defense by every single science institution of the practice of X-raying pregnant women. I worked with the single lone voice – an expert in epidemiology, NOT an environmentalist, who was opposed and villified – Dr Alice Stewart….eventually, data and science prevailed. I use this as an example whenever I am told (on climate science) ‘you can’t possibly be right because very science institution agrees with the concensus’. Stewart died having saved countless children’s lives (X-rays in pregnancy produced excess cases of leukaemia in the children), and received not a single honour from the scientific establishment. The man who opposed her for all those years received a knighthood.
WUWT performs a great service to the world – in highlighting new research, providing real data, criticising junk science….but it lets itself down in promulgating the views of the ill-informed and prejudiced anti-environmentalists. Furthermore – the post-normal stuff…..it is not all to be rubbished….all of science, and most especially, scientific committees, is pervaded by the social world of values – from the construction of an hypothesis (ie what gets looked at and why), to the funding, the take-up, the rewards and acolades…as any follower of the Mann saga will know…..there is even gender bias! For example, the massive prejudice on both sides of the debate regarding cycles, irregular periodicity, and the dark side of the Sun!

John Ridgway
Reply to  Peter Taylor
January 31, 2018 1:17 am

On your accusation that I am an ill-informed and prejudiced anti-environmentalist, I offer the following response.
Firstly, on the subject of provenance of the PP, I am informed by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. However, If you can offer a documented use of the expression, “the precautionary principle”, provided within the fisheries industry and pre-dating the 1970 draft of the 1974 publication of the German Clean Air Act, then I am sure that the Commission would be interested to hear of it. In the meantime, I respectfully suggest that your accusations of being ill-informed on this matter should be directed at them rather than myself.
Secondly, given that you point out that the article contains, “not a jot of actual reference to the environmental issues that led to its formulation”, it beggars belief that you can therefore conclude that I am an anti-environmentalist. The lack of logic inherent in a deductive reasoning that is based upon zero information is so stark that I struggle to know where to start rebutting it. Perhaps your accusations would be better levelled at someone who wrote an article on environmentalism rather than someone who quite clearly did not.
Instead of providing rambling tales of your exploits and conquests (with thinly veiled plugs for your book) I would be much more interested if you were to actually address the central premise of the article, i.e. that a proper understanding of the precautionary principle requires a full understanding of the relationship between risk and uncertainty and how the presence of the latter can distort perception of the former. You might also wish to explain why it is wrong for me to suggest that the legitimacy of the precautionary principle does not preclude its misapplication, and why such a view should be dismissed as “prejudice against the precautionary principle”.
In may come as a surprise to you but, irrespective of its provenance, the precautionary principle finds application in fields far removed from environmentalism. However, many of us that apply it (such as my colleagues in the safety-critical systems engineering field), do so guardedly and only when there are no alternatives. You might want to ask yourself why that is.

Reply to  John Ridgway
January 31, 2018 3:11 am

Hello John…thanks for your reply, a deserved rebuke for my hasty post…I was over-influenced by the responses to your blog rather than the content…after so many years of following WUWT, I have seen a lot of prejudgement based upon limited analysis. I had little time available to go into the detail your post deserves – and little time now. BTW the reference to the book was to say that it contains a longer story with references – it is available for £2 these days second hand on Amazon, so I make nothing from the plug!. And these days, especially in England, given the amount of ad-hominem ripostes in the climate debate, I try to outline my actual involvement and experience (exploits?? I don’t think of the work in that way – it was a labour of duty with very little excitement or reward).
I am only familiar with the evolution of PP regarding oceanic and atmospheric pollution. Some of that history is contained in Tim Jackson (ed) Clean Production Strategies, Stockholm Environment Institute (1993) – and in a joint paper:
1993 The Precautionary Principle and the Prevention of Marine Pollution. (with T.Jackson). Chemistry & Ecology, 7: (1-4), pp123-134.
My critique of the UN’s position is in:
1993 The State of the Marine Environment ‘A critique of the work and the role of the Joint Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP). Marine Pollution Bulletin 26, 3: 120-127.
Much of what was wrong at the UN in 1993 went unfixed and resurfaced in the work of the IPCC.
The upside of the adoption of precaution was the rapid deployment of ‘clean production’ technologies, which my former colleague, Tim Jackson, pioneered. In almost all industrial sectors studied, it was possible to do away with the most toxic substances altogether – and to save money in the process. A special UN unit was set up to provide industry with examples of best practice, costs etc., and the regulators gave each sector a timescale coherent with the cycles of capital renewal…..win, win strategy.
My purpose is not to rant at the prejudice so often displayed by climate sceptics – rather it is to try to explain that without the PP the marine and atmospheric environment could be a lot worse. We were accused by many in those days of being ‘anti-science’….but the PP simply recognised the limits of scientific knowledge and the methods it uses…the uncertainties, and how best to act in the face of some unresolvable uncertainty. The ecological environment is perhaps a more complex and less predictable environment than that of engineering, but there too, the human factor is ever present and uncertain (as for example at Chernobyl, where engineers broke their own safety rules).
The PP as formulated in the UN’s conventions (I am much less familiar with its history – just the effort it took to overturn the ‘dilute and disperse’ mentality) always contained the caveat, ‘so far as reasonable taking into account economic costs’ – and thus if ‘greens’ seek to apply it to CO2, they have to look at the cost to society of reducing emissions. That is problematic for such a large scale and uncertain exercise – as we saw with the Stern report….externalised costs and impacts are hard to estimate, whereas replacement technologies are easier, and we end up with the analyst too easily choosing factors that will support an initial prejudgement. In the case of climate change…the retooling costs are huge, the impact of renewables also not inconsiderable, yet the impacts of rising CO2 entirely uncertain (especially with so much uncertainty regarding the main driving force!).

John Ridgway
Reply to  John Ridgway
January 31, 2018 8:57 am

Thank you for that clarification. Your willingness to concede an error marks you out as a man of integrity, and for that you have my respect. For my part, I trust that you appreciate that, “rambling tales of your exploits and conquests” were the words of an aggrieved man. I actually found your post to be more interesting than I was prepared to admit.
Undoubtedly, our differing backgrounds and experiences will colour our views on the PP, but we don’t need to explore Brokeback Mountain territory to appreciate that we have much in common. Specifically, we both feel that too much of the rhetoric regarding the PP is ill-informed (this is why I was particularly disappointed to be on the receiving end of that very criticism). I trust that you will agree, little of the commentary that my article attracted was particularly supportive of its main argument and, quite frankly, I did not expect it to be.
Whilst I do not endorse everything that was said in the COMEST 2005 report, I do feel that if everyone at least read it, then the debates on WUWT would be all the more interesting for it. In particular, it would be refreshing to see more said regarding the positive applications of the PP. This can be done without being blind to its drawbacks.

Gary Pearse
January 30, 2018 7:07 am

The perfect analogy for the climateer’s dangerous Cagw fear is Bert Russell’s tiny orbiting ceramic teapot btween Mars and Jupiter.
It was not in CO2 per se but only in human activity sourced CO2, which is telling. It makes it a construct much like the tea pot. Also telling is that it was Maurice Strong, a Canadian comnist and high school drop out who organized the Stockholm Conference in the 1970s(?)formulated the UNFCC, organized the Rio Conference – Kyoto, and created IPCC.
Brilliant guy; non-scientist. He launched his storm in a teacup for a reason more ulterior than for a concern about Global Warming and if you read Russell’s quote to the end, you will see what a fit the teapot is to CAGW.
You suggest that the precautionary principle should rather initiate full study of such issues that may have dire consequences to see if we can get information to understand the nature and possibly semi-quantify its effect. Well, we’ve done that and even foolishly spent trillions already to mitigate something that is yet to stick up above the noise of natural variability. We’ve adjusted data: temperatures, sea level, probably ice extent and ice sheet thicknesses and have begun to change indices of hurricane strength by measuring winds higher up in the funnel this past year where wind speeds are the greatest and reporting these as the strength. This fudge itself is valuable data showing the frustration and impatience of those whose research grants and even jobs depend on man caused disaster being shown.
So, what do we know about Global warming? Well, we know that their science projected temperatures increases from CO2 that are 3x as great as has happened over 40 years, and this including being able to refresh their forecasts every 5 years! Moreover, we know that natural variation is strong enough that during growth in atmospheric CO2 of 30% over two decades coincided with an hiatus in temperature rise! We know that there is a natural, roughly sinusoidal, movement of temperatures and cycle of other weather elements – droughts, floods, etc over periods of 60-70 yrs and that the rise in temperature that caused the alarm and the following hiatus that caused so much panic in the GW research community (Google climate blues that caused career ending depression in a large number of clisci researchers), coincided with this natural cycle (a few researchers actually predicted the flattening of temperatures). This means that the better part of the 80s- 90s warming itself was from natural variation on climate.
Conclusion: 1)With no curtailment of today’s rate of fossil fuel usage, the wager that no disaster scientist would bet against (given the motivation for fudging), even given odds, is that the temperature will not exceed the vaunted 1.5C increase by 2100 8n any case.
2) The true price of carbon is negative. Over 30 years the planet’s forest cover (habitat for wildlife) has expanded 14% (2014), harvests have doubled (a significant part because of increased CO2) the rest of the forests have “fattened” and plankton in the oceans have increased the base of the ocean food chain. Coupled with the modest warming and an attenuation in population growth, the best bet is we are heading for Garden of Eden Earth with growing prosperity for all. This is the most likely conclusion that can be drawn from the data from science to date.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Gary Pearse
January 30, 2018 7:12 am

Mods. Perhaps this would make a good lively discussion thread?

January 30, 2018 9:16 am

As used, it is a club to stop things you don’t like. In a typical case, you exaggerate the risk, minimize the cost of precaution, and make extreme demands. So for climate change, the 3000 year process of disintegration of the antarctic ice sheet under the high warming scenario is treated as if it happens right away, the cost of mitigation is ignored, the opportunity cost (spending on mitigation vs on other things) is ignored, and the benefits of warming and CO2 rise are ignored.
It is like people who have OCD and wash their hands or shower so much that it cause skin problems and uses up their time or someone who is afraid to leave their house. Under the strong precautionary principle, it should not be permitted to develop any new product, the internet should not have been developed, and the risk of crossing the Atlantic to settle the New World or of crossing the Great Plains in wagons would certainly never have been tolerated. In California, we see the “just say no” consequences when they had a drought and did not have enough reservoirs because no one would let them be built and during the fires because reducing fuels might impact the vegetation.

January 30, 2018 9:46 am

Consuming two liters of water in 10 minutes will reduce serum electrolyte levels to dangerous and sometimes fatal levels. According to the precautionary principle water is therefore toxic and should be banned.

Tom Anderson
January 30, 2018 9:59 am

“…By talking about ‘tyranny’ and ‘nonscience’ we run the risk of hyperbole that does not stand up to close examination. Concerns regarding the precautionary principle and post-normal science are valid enough without overstating the case.”
But you do note how snugly the precautionary principle fits with tyranny and non-science or official science. Taking a political view of the principle’s uses and provenance – and the potential for hyperbole notwithstanding—there is ample reality from the past in which it and tyranny have flourished together. Friedrich A. Hayek’s 1944 economic analyses in his Road to Serfdom, particularly Chapter 11, “The Death of Truth,” is apposite here.
In it, he points out that in the centrally planned state, Truth itself ceases to have its old meaning. It no longer describes how an individual, as sole judge of a piece of evidence or its proponent’s credibility, decides if it warrants belief according to experience and good conscience. The “truth” becomes something laid down by authority, something that must be believed in the interest of maintaining the organized effort’s unity (although it may need to be altered as exigencies require). He added, in effect, that it was necessary to personally experience how, when differences of opinion in all of knowledge become political issues, and the sole property of authority, a grim Orwellian anxiety (defeatism?) emerges – the loss of a sense of the meaning of truth and the dispiriting cynicism about it, the vanished spirit of competitive independent inquiry as well as confidence in the power of rational analysis and conviction. Differences of opinion in knowledge become political issues for an authority alone to decide. No short list, he thought, could convey their gravity. Perhaps most alarming was that this contempt for intellectual liberty does not wait for a totalitarian system to appear. In his own time he found it everywhere among intellectuals who embraced, even if unconsciously, a collectivist faith and, as champions of doctrinal purity, were acclaimed and rewarded even in still liberal countries as intellectual leaders. And they not only condoned the worst of anti-intellectual oppression intrinsic to socialism, but even professed intolerance while purporting to speak for the scientists of liberal countries.
While restraining inquiry consistent with the precautionary principle does not necessarily imply tyranny, tyranny needs the precautionary principle to prevent inappropriate inquiry.

John Ridgway
Reply to  Tom Anderson
January 31, 2018 1:26 am

I accept the point you are making. I think what I was trying to say was that there is nothing inherently tyrannical in the precautionary principle. I fear that making such a strong claim detracts from the argument against the principle’s abuse.

January 30, 2018 12:14 pm

After the last precautionary principle article here,
I was hoping that would be the last one for a long time,
but then came this long-winded article,
that might make a point somewhere,
but I fell asleep repeatedly while reading it.
The writing is poor,
with far too many
extra long sentences.
It should have started
with a conclusion
and then
defended that conclusion.
It should have ended
with a brief summary,
written as talking points.
The author is less interesting
than watching snow melt
on a warm winter day.
However I do agree
with his first sentence (below):
“The precautionary principle has so often been
the subject of articles on this website
that one is slightly embarrassed
to be adding to the pile.”
I agree the author should be embarrassed,
and his article could be compared
with a pile !
Here’s my view of the precautionary principle
as it is used by leftists — what it really
means does not matter — how it is used
does matter:
(1) Leftist:
The science is settled.
So do as we say,
or life on Earth will end
as we know it
(2) Leftist:
Even if the science is not settled,
do as we say, because we say
life on Earth will end as we know it.
The summary of (1) and (2)
“We leftists are not going to debate
our (junk) “science” with you skeptics,
so just do as we say, or we will
call you a science denier”.
My climate blog
for people with common sense:

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