How do wejudge whether it is right to go ahead with a new technology? Applying
Theprecautionary principle property and you won’t go far wrong, says Colin Tudge.
As atitle for a supposedly unprejudiced debate on scientific progress,
"Panicattack: interrogating our obsession with risk" did not bode well. Heldlast week at the Royal Institution in London, the event brought togetherscientists from across the world to ask why society is so obsessed with riskand to call for a "more rational" approach. "We seem to beorganising society around the grandmotherly maxim of ''better safe than sorry''" exclaimed Spiked, the online publication that organised the event."What are the consequences of this overbearing concern with risks?"
Thedebate was preceded by a survey of 40 scientists who were invited to describehow awful our lives would be if the "precautionary principle" hadbeen allowed to prevail in the past. Their response was: no heart surgery orantibiotics, and hardly any drugs at all; no aeroplanes, bicycles orhigh-voltage power grids; no pasteurisation, pesticides or biotechnology; noquantum of America.
Theyhave absolutely missed the point. The precautionary principle is a subtle idea.It has various forms, but all of them generally include some notion ofcost-effectiveness. Thus the point is not simply to ban things that are notknown to be absolutely safe. Rather, it says: "Of course you can make noprogress without risk. But if there is no obvious gain from taking the risk,then don’t take it."