LISTSERV mailing list manager LISTSERV 16.5

Help for SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE Archives


SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE Archives

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE Archives


SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE@LIST.UVM.EDU


View:

Message:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Topic:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Author:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

Font:

Proportional Font

LISTSERV Archives

LISTSERV Archives

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE Home

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE Home

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  July 1999

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE July 1999

Subject:

THE USES OF SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY

From:

"S. E. Anderson" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 2 Jul 1999 19:59:15 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (282 lines)

Date: Wed, 30 Jun 1999 19:35:02 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Rachel #657: The Uses of Scientific Uncertainty
From: [log in to unmask]

=======================Electronic Edition========================
.                                                               .
.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #657           .
.                      ---July 1, 1999---                       .
.                          HEADLINES:                           .
.              THE USES OF SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY               .
.                          ==========                           .
.               Environmental Research Foundation               .
.              P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD  21403              .
.          Fax (410) 263-8944; E-mail: [log in to unmask]           .
.                          ==========                           .
.    All back issues are available by E-mail: send E-mail to    .
.   [log in to unmask] with the single word HELP in the message.   .
.  Back issues are also available from http://www.rachel.org.   .
.      To start your own free subscription, send E-mail to      .
.              [log in to unmask] with the words               .
.       SUBSCRIBE RACHEL-WEEKLY YOUR NAME in the message.       .
.    The Rachel newsletter is now also available in Spanish;    .
.     to learn how to subscribe, send the word AYUDA in an      .
.              E-mail message to [log in to unmask]               .
=================================================================


THE USES OF SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY

A revolution is occurring in the way science is used in
environmental regulation. Like most revolutions, this one is
causing some pain and some disruption, and of course it is being
opposed viciously by those who profit from the present system.
But the revolution is occurring nevertheless, and the ultimate
outcome seems assured. When the revolution is complete, it will
be a great day for public health and for the environment.

Scientists often define "scientific certainty" as "being 95% sure
that cause and effect have been correctly identified." It is
exceedingly rare for a large group of scientists to be 95%
certain about anything, especially about anything as complex as
an environmental problem. When you're talking about living
systems, great scientific uncertainty is the norm. Even in the
case of an ultra-well-studied chemical like dioxin, scientific
uncertainty far outweighs firm knowledge of cause and effect.

How is scientific uncertainty currently treated in environmental
protection? For 50 years it has been used permissively. It has
been used to postpone actions that would protect public health.
The classic case is the introduction of tetraethyl lead into
gasoline. (See REHW #539, #540.) When chemical and automobile
corporations announced they were starting to put highly-toxic
tetraethyl lead into gasoline in 1922, numerous public health
officials thought it was a dangerous idea and they urged delay
and careful study. But the corporations argued that there was no
scientific agreement about the threat; in the absence of
convincing evidence of widespread harm (which had not yet
occurred, so couldn't be documented), they insisted they had the
right to proceed. Basically, they argued, "Until you can line up
the dead bodies, we can do whatever we want." On that basis, the
corporations pressed ahead heedlessly with the new toxic
technology, thus setting the standard for corporate behavior over
the next 50 years. The consequences of that particular decision
are now a matter of record -- tens of millions of Americans
suffered brain damage, their IQs permanently diminished by
exposure to lead dust.

Because we have allowed scientific uncertainty to postpone
controls on dangerous activities, we now have hazardous levels of
mercury in most of the nation's fresh-water fish; the Earth's
ozone shield has been dangerously depleted; global warming is
upon us, with attendant droughts, fires, floods, hurricanes,
tornadoes and typhoons; the ocean's major fisheries are in
serious decline; the normal sex ratio of male-to-female babies
has been changed in numerous industrialized countries, and human
sperm counts have declined 50% in 50 years; immune system
disorders like asthma and diabetes are steeply rising; many of
the world's coral reefs are dying; cancers of the brain, the
lymph system, the blood system and the testicles are increasing;
cancer in children is escalating; many species have gone
extinct.... This list of contemporary calamities could be readily
extended.

But now people are waking up. They are waking up to the fact that
scientific uncertainty should be cause for caution, not for
plunging ahead recklessly. When flying blind, if you are not sure
whether that shape looming just ahead is a cloud or a mountain,
slow down. A stitch in time saves nine. If you aren't sure what
you're doing, you should proceed slowly and carefully, or perhaps
not at all. Better safe than sorry. That is the philosophy of
precaution.

In truth, the principle of precautionary action has seemed a bit
abstract, until now. It has seemed like a fine philosophy, but
how would it work in actual practice? Now a new handbook from the
Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) fleshes out this
important philosophy of environmental protection, describing how
it can work at the local level.[1]

The United States is already under obligation to operate by the
precautionary principle. The federal government signed and
ratified the Rio Declaration from the 1992 United Nations
Conference on Environment and Development. The Rio Declaration
says, "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary
approach shall be widely applied by States [meaning
nations--P.M.] according to their capabilities. Where there are
threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full
scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing
cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
Therefore, it is not a matter of WHETHER the U.S. will abide by
the precautionary principle, but HOW.

The precautionary principle is now embedded in numerous
international treaties and conventions: the Second North Sea
Declaration; the Bergen Declaration on Sustainable Development;
the Ministerial Declaration of the Second World Climate
Conference; the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union; the
Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary
Watercourses and International Lakes; and others.

Thus the stage is set. All that remains is for organizers and
activists to press the precautionary principle into service at
the local and state levels. The new guidebook from SEHN shows
us how.

The precautionary principle says that decision-makers have a
general duty to take preventive action to avoid harm before
scientific certainty has been established.

The test for knowing when to apply the precautionary principle is
the combination of threat of harm and scientific uncertainty.
Some people would say that the threatened harm must be serious or
irreversible, but others point out that this does not allow for
the cumulative effects of relatively small insults.

Instead of asking how much damage or harm we will tolerate (which
is the approach taken by risk assessment), the precautionary
principle asks how to reduce or eliminate hazards, and it
considers all possible means for achieving that goal, including
scrapping the proposed activity. (Of course, alternatives to a
hazardous activity must be scrutinized as carefully as the
hazardous activity itself.)

The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof.
Proponents of an activity should prove that their activity will
not cause undue harm to human health or the ecosystem. Those who
have the power and resources to act to prevent harm have a
responsibility to do so. That responsibility has 2 parts:
financial liability for anything that goes wrong. [A performance
bond posted up front (common in the construction industry) is the
best way to handle this. See REHW #510.] The second part of
responsibility is a duty to monitor, understand, investigate,
inform and act. Ignorance and uncertainty are no longer excuses
for postponing actions to prevent harm.

The steps in taking precautionary action are not complicated:

1. Describe and understand the problem or threat. How big is it?
How far could it extend in space and time? Are there indirect
impacts (for example, after the product is thrown away)? How
serious could the effects be? Similar questions are raised
whenever an environmental impact statement is written in response
to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), so there is not
much new here.

2. Describe what is known and what is not known. There are many
kinds of uncertainty (which the SEHN HANDBOOK does an excellent
job of describing). Are we dealing with something that is
unknowable, or about which we are totally ignorant? (If so, this
is a good reason not to proceed.) What would it take to reduce
the uncertainties? (Some uncertainties can be reduced and some
cannot.) The SEHN HANDBOOK provides a good guide for
understanding uncertainties: "Environmental and public health
advocates have to ask difficult questions of industry and
regulators to expose the depths of our ignorance. Once this lack
of knowledge has been exposed, the notion of needlessly exposing
humans and the environment to hazards without information on
their effects seems irrational, and precaution seems logical."

3. Identify alternatives to the activity or product. First
restate the problem to describe the purpose of the activity. A
development provides housing; a solvent provides degreasing; a
pesticide provides pest management. Now examine all of the
alternative ways of fulfilling the purpose, to find the one that
minimizes damage to people and to the environment.

4. Determine a course of action. How much precaution seems called
for? Stop the proposed activity? Demand alternatives? Demand
modifications to reduce bad impacts? Demand that a performance
bond be posted up front?

5. Monitor. Those undertaking the activity should bear the cost
of monitoring, but it should be conducted by an independent party
(when possible). The monitoring information might warrant
additional actions, or different actions.

The HANDBOOK then compares precaution to the way decisions are
made now -- by risk assessment. Risk assessment does not fare
well in the comparison.

The HANDBOOK ends with a section called "Answering the critics."
Critics of the precautionary approach say things like, "It is not
based on sound science" and, "This is emotional and irrational"
and, "This will halt development and send us back to the stone
age," and, "We comply with regulations so we are already
practicing precaution." The HANDBOOK patiently provides reasoned
responses to each of these dumb statements and several others as
well.

The precautionary principle has American industry scared to
death. Precautionary action immediately makes sense to people.
Everyone can understand the wisdom of, "Do unto others as you
would have others do unto you" and, "Better safe than sorry." The
precautionary principle combines scientific validity with ethical
force. No wonder corporations (and their handmaidens in
government) consider it a threat to business as usual. It IS a
threat to business as usual.

Industry's best hope is to adopt the language of precaution with
great fanfare, while pressing ahead with the same old risk-based
projects and programs, hoping no one will notice. To this end,
the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a chemical industry think
tank, held a conference last month to develop strategies for
countering the precautionary principle. Participants openly
scoffed at precaution. One participant described how his mother
used to make him wear a sweater whenever he went outside, even
though he lived in southern California. That pathetic little
anecdote drew a loud, nervous laugh from the assembled throng, as
if it had scored big points against the wisdom of precaution.

Participants had paid good money to attend the Harvard seminar,
hoping to learn how to shore up the sagging fortunes of risk
assessment. But even Big Heads from Harvard cannot salvage a bad
idea whose time has gone. All risk assessments are fiction, shot
through with assumptions, guesstimates, judgments, and biases --
all disguised disingenuously as "good science." The only thing
that allows risk assessors to hold their heads up in public is
that most people don't have the faintest idea what risk assessors
do for a living or the consequences their work entails.

The principle of precautionary action, on the other hand,
embodies all aspects of science -- including uncertainty -- in an
ethical procedure aimed at ELIMINATING risks (something no risk
assessment has ever aimed to do).

In the long run, the ethical way will prevail.

                                                --Peter Montague
                (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

===============

[1] Joel Tickner, Carolyn Raffensperger, and Nancy Myers, THE
PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE IN ACTION-- A HANDBOOK (Windsor, North
Dakota: Science and Environmental Health Network, 1999). E-mail:
[log in to unmask]; mail: SEHN, Rt. 1, Box 73,
Windsor, ND 58424; telephone and fax: (701) 763-6286.

Descriptor terms: precaution; precautionary principle; risk
assessment; carolyn raffensperger; joel tickner; science in
decision-making; decision-making; regulation;

################################################################
                             NOTICE
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 this material is
distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving it for research and educational purposes.
Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic
version of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY free of charge
even though it costs the organization considerable time and money
to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this service
free. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution
(anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or $500.00). Please send
your tax-deductible contribution to: Environmental Research
Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036. Please do
not send credit card information via E-mail. For further
information about making tax-deductible contributions to E.R.F.
by credit card please phone us toll free at 1-888-2RACHEL, or at
(410) 263-1584, or fax us at (410) 263-8944.
                                        --Peter Montague, Editor
################################################################

Top of Message | Previous Page | Permalink

Advanced Options


Options

Log In

Log In

Get Password

Get Password


Search Archives

Search Archives


Subscribe or Unsubscribe

Subscribe or Unsubscribe


Archives

May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
February 2002
January 2002
December 2001
November 2001
October 2001
September 2001
August 2001
May 2001
March 2001
February 2001
January 2001
December 2000
November 2000
October 2000
September 2000
August 2000
July 2000
May 2000
April 2000
March 2000
February 2000
January 2000
December 1999
November 1999
October 1999
September 1999
August 1999
July 1999
June 1999
May 1999
April 1999
March 1999
February 1999
January 1999
December 1998
November 1998
September 1998
August 1998
July 1998
June 1998
May 1998

ATOM RSS1 RSS2



LIST.UVM.EDU

CataList Email List Search Powered by the LISTSERV Email List Manager