I visited my Libertarian cousin this summer and the talk turned to the Precautionary Principle--the idea that we ought to err on the side of caution in our dealings with the planet. We shouldn't, for instance, let a species go extinct if we don't know what the consequences of that extinction will be. And we shouldn't let new, never-before-seen-on-the-planet chemicals into our food and water and lives until and unless we have good evidence that they won't cause significant harm.
We can never achieve omniscience, so there are plenty of things we ought to be cautious about.
The Precautionary Principle is a good, conservative principle. It says we should tend to stick with what works and not implement radical changes. If Marxist socialism is a pig in a poke that any good conservative resists implementing, so too is putting new plastics into the market (and eventually into ecosystems) with no thought of consequences. A good Conservative should be against both, right?
I thought my conservative cousin would embrace the Precautionary Principle, especially since he worked his whole life in the environmental field. But no....
My conservative, Libertarian cousin doesn't like the Precautionary Principle. He appears to think that such things as the introduction of new chemicals into our planetary ecosystems don't need to be regulated; the Libertarian in him is all for absolute freedom of invention and use here, as everywhere else, I guess.
Ah, for the olden days when people were so few and far between, and their actions were so small and weak--not yet amplified by petroleum--that their total impact on ecosystems was well within the planet's capacity to absorb abuse. When there were only half a billion of us, an "anything goes" freedom in our relationship to the planet didn't have immediate and horrible consequences.
I have to guess what my cuz has to say because he hasn't sent me his full critique of the Precautionary Principle yet; he promises to send it soon. In the meantime he sent me a piece about junk science and how some are using it to support the Precautionary Principle.
The piece was by Steven Milloy, titled "Activists Hit the Plastic Bottle Again". Milloy castigates activists who want to ban a substance called BisPhenol A, or BPA, from plastic baby bottles. The activists rely on scientific reports indicating that there is a link between BPA ingestion and a variety of human diseases, syndromes, and unhealthy developments. As thirty eight of the country's leading PBA scientists said in a consensus report to policy makers,
"prenatal and/or neonatal exposure to low doses of BPA results in organizational changes in the prostate, breast, testis, mammary glands, body size, brain structure and chemistry, and behavior of laboratory animals."
(A full account of the science behind, and the conservative misinformation that disrupts rational policy about, the detrimental effects of BPCs can be found at the website for Our Stolen Future, a book about endocrine disruption caused by chemicals, co-authored by Dr. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and Dr. John Peterson Myers.)
I read through the piece, and, having never heard the name Steven Milloy before, I was cautiously respectful of what he had to say. So I wrote to my cuz:
I didn't know that the CDC was so sloppy. If what this author says is true, we need more and better science from the CDC. But I would not conclude from the sloppiness of the CDC (if indeed it was sloppy) that BPA is safe.
Should I trust this one account of the CDC's work? The precautionary principle suggests that the rational answer is "no"--I should be skeptical until I read an informed but disinterested account. What Milloy writes may be informed--it may even be accurate--but it isn't disinterested, as you can plainly see from the text itself. Let me show how by responding to a few chosen passages in the piece.
At one point in his argument, Milloy says that if BPA were dangerous, workers who process and produce it should show symptoms of the diseases attibuted to it. "Yet there are no reports of higher rates of heart disease and diabetes among these workers," he says.
BUT: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. "More science needs to be done" is a different statement than "we have no reason to worry." Why does this author commit to the latter, and conclude that absence of evidence supports his case? When we don't know, we have to say we don't know, not that the thing unknown means that this or that other thing is true.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the FDA told the Washington Post this week that it has no reason to think that BPA in food packaging and liquid containers is unsafe.
Again, the absence of a reason to accept a hypothesis is not the presence of a reason to accept the null hypothesis, though Milloy strongly implies this to be the case. This is not careful, scientific thinking; I begin to suspect that this flawed reasoning is being exercised in pursuit of a fixed conclusion.
Vom Saal and Myers advocate in their editorial that U.S. regulators abandon science and risk assessment as a standard for regulating chemicals, and instead move to the European model of regulation that requires that substances be proven not to cause harm under any conditions — knowing full well that "proving a negative" is impossible to do.
Here Malloy offers us the fallacy of the excluded middle. Those who advocate for following the precautionary principle do not ask that research prove a negative, knowing full well that that is impossible to do. Those who advocate for following the precautionary principle ask that before a new drug (or chemical or procedure or whatever) is introduced into general use, it be studied, and that prior to general adoption something like a preponderance of evidence gained in that study should indicate that the new thing is either harmless, or that its benefits clearly outweigh its risks/costs. This cautious, conservative approach is the middle path that Malloy excludes. The middle path seems reasonable to me. What do we have now? Some things are studied this way--the FDA does this with drugs, one hopes--but many, many products pass no such review at all. They are introduced to our lives and practices by the people or corporations who invent or process them, and those people are motivated not by a desire to increase the amount of benefit over cost in the world, but by a desire to increase the amount of benefit they can put in their private pocket.
There's very little evidence that the unregulated profit motive conduces to the maintenance or improvement of public health, and a lot of evidence to the contrary.
This so-called "precautionary principle" would essentially provide regulators with arbitrary power to ban virtually any chemical, regardless of its risks, benefits or realities.
Another excluded middle, or perhaps a slippery slope, fallacy. The choice is between absence of regulation or arbitrary power? I don't think so.
Ronald Reagan evidently used to believe that. But he was a notoriously dimwitted man--like many another Repubican officeholder and candidate, I'd say. What is it about the Republican mind that can't handle nuance? McCain says--or, at least, he used to say, until Lehman Brothers went south--that's he's for less regulation, always and everywhere. That's as stupid as saying "whenever I come to an intersection, I turn left. Always."
I guess there are some human minds that just don't have the basic wattage to acknowledge difference, subtlety, and a variety of sometimes contraditory guiding principles. No, some people need to reduce everything to a single rule--like a flat tax in lieu of a responsible tax policy that accomodates a variety of policy goals. Interesting that these simpletons tend to identify as conservative Republicans.
It occurs to me that acceptance of Milloy's (and Reagan's, and Rove's, and Bush Jr.'s) excluded middle approach is profoundly subversive of confidence in the rule of law. If you accept what Milloy proposes, you believe that there is either arbitrary power or no power. But rule of law is a way to regularize the administration of power, to keep it from being arbitrary; rule of law is the excluded middle.
Republicans have an evident--VERY evident--disdain for rule of law. Rove resists legitmate subpeona to give testimony--a subpeona to investigate his outing of a CIA agent for partisan purposes. Palin administration officials in Alaska now follow Rove's lead and say that they don't have to respond to subpoenas issued in the investigation of possible Palin corruption --an investigation begun by unanimous, bipartisan vote of the AK legislature. A Dept of Interior official changes scientists' reports in order to de-list an endanged species that is found on her property, and sees no conflict of interest there at all. Citizens of muslim background are "extraordinarily rendered" to countries where they can be tortured far away from families, lawyers, and their rights as US citizens. And on and on. Perhaps the Republican dimwitted acceptance of this excluded middle fallacy explains their lack of faith in the rule of law.
Either that, or they just never really grasped the essential beauty of the Golden Rule, and its requirement that we have the capacity to empathetically enter into the experience of another person and understand their experience--not just out of Christian generosity, but for the very pragmatic reason that there but for the accident of circumstance go I. It does indeed take moderate intelligence to have that capacity of imagination and understanding. I think everyone is capable of that level of intelligence; it comes with the turf, comes with the human brain. But some humans dull their reason (too much TV, too much FOX news, too much Spectatorship at the bread-and-circus extravaganza that modern, profit-motivated economies offer them) and evidently lose the capacity to think and feel in the ways that have to be widely shared among the populace if we are going to maintain a functional, effective civil society.
No, for these numbskulls slogans and sound bites are the substitute for policy, and the choice between political parties is like the choice of what NASCAR driver's number to stick on their car window as evidence of their totem identification. I think we've lost the capacity for self-rule in this country, and I don't see how to get it back.
After sending that off to my cousin, I did a little research into this guy Milloy. I can't believe that my cousin, an educated man, is citing him as an authority about anything. He is a thoroughly discredited shill for corporate interests, which he serves by taking a stupidly knee-jerk libertarian line against any- and everything.
The New Republic has a piece that mentions Milloy, saying that he was the one who "ginned up" the false report that millions of children were dying in Africa from malaria, thanks to liberal do-gooders' successful efforts to halt use of DDT. (That's simply false--a lie--and the truth is much more complicated.)
The website of the Center for Media and Democracy also has a bit to say about Mr. Milloy; he was fired as a science journalist by Scripps Howard because he's on the payroll of companies like Exxon Mobil and Philip Morris, and--funny thing--he wrote in support of climate change deniers and those (few, very few) voices who say second hand cigarette smoke causes no damage. Interestingly, Fox News has kept Milloy on as a paid science pundit, despite his obvious conflicts of interest.
If a guy like my cousin -- a college educated man, a professional, a generally smart guy -- can fall prey to the unsubstantiated propaganda that's cranked out by conservative shills, what hope is there for democracy in this country?
On my dark and depressed days, I think, not much. C'mon, somebody, cheer me up.