Safe or Sorry?
Sometimes an idea that appeals strongly to our common sense will be seen as clearly wrong or empty if we examine it more closely. The idea that it is better to be safe than sorry, usually called the “precautionary principle”, tells us to err on the side of caution. This principle makes intuitive sense. Who in their right mind would rather be sorry than safe? But let’s take a closer look.
The precautionary principle, when applied to government policies, tells us that governments should err on the side of caution, to reduce potential future risks where scientific understanding is still incomplete. Many public policies have been justified on this principle.
If there is only one course of action available (i.e., do X or don’t do X), and that action leads to safety, then doing anything else will definitely make us sorry. But often real life is not that simple. Often there are several courses of action, which pursue different policy mixes, each with different levels of risk and potential impact. Then the choice is no longer a simple binary, do X and be safe, or don’t do X and be sorry. Then we have to look at a mix of uncertain risk, uncertain impact and uncertain cost of each course of action. That’s called exercising judgement.
This precautionary principle has led many policy-makers and politicians to assume that scientific uncertainty equals high risk, and to promise to achieve safety by eliminating that risk. But the precautionary principle isn’t really helpful. It offers no limits on measures to reduce one risk, including measures that increase other risks — risks which may have a higher probability of occurring, and with a greater impact. When faced with scientific uncertainty there are no risk-free and cost-free solutions, only better or worse trade-offs.
Our Very Human “Action Bias”
The decision to apply the precautionary principle may be triggered by our very human tendency to have an “action bias”. That is our bias to “do something”, rather than just doing nothing, or not doing enough. This reminds me of scenes from the English TV comedy series “Yes Minister”:
Minister: This is a terrible problem! We must do something!
Public service advisors (offering a ridiculous solution): This is something!
Minister: Okay, let’s do it.
This compulsion to ‘do something!’, rather than waiting until we know better what we should be doing, often results in doing a bad thing, or doing too much of a good thing too quickly, both of which create bad results. Then we have to undo all this in the coming decades, which is usually more painful than if we had we waited for the uncertainty to be reduced. There is a better way.Continue reading “Fighting Climate Change: Is it Better to be Safe Than Sorry?”