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Worrying About Frankenstein’s Monster

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A specter is haunting Europe—called the “precautionary principle”.  As generally defined, the precautionary principle states that a product or technology can be banned even if there is no scientific evidence that it is harmful.  On first hearing, this policy seems to be little more than a restatement of the aphorism: better safe than sorry.  In practice, however, the policy has become a rationale for viewing all innovations with suspicion, for requiring that innovators demonstrate that their product is safe before being allowed to proceed.  But, since no innovation is absolutely safe (although many have made the world safer), this policy would slow or block any innovation.

The precautionary principle, like so many bad ideas, was part of the Rio Declaration of 1992.  It has since found its way into various international treaties (the most important being the Biosafety Protocol agreed to in Montreal).  In Europe, the principle has become a binding rule.  The precautionary principle is cited by the European Union as the rationale for its ban of U.S. beef (growth hormones, you see) and biotech corn (do we really know all there is to know about genetic engineering?).  And, of course, those seeking to advance the global warming program often invoke it. 

It is hard to envision any innovation being able to prove that it is safe.  The rational test is to ask whether the world is made more or less safe by innovation—that is, to compare the risks of innovation and the risks of stagnation.  Only those content with the present—those distrustful that the world could be a better place—are likely to endorse this policy.  But Europe seems of that mind today.  Perhaps, they will rethink.  A world without change is a world without a future.