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Date:

June 19, 2000

Subject:

THE UNPRINCIPLED PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE

 

Times_New_RomanTHE UNPRINCIPLED
PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE [2 ARTICLES]


'PRECAUTION' PRECLUDES INNOVATION

EDITORIAL: Terence Corcoran

National Post


We hereby officially declare this the beginning of our second annual
Junk Science Week. Henry Miller

and Gregory Conko launch our reports with an analysis of the impact of
junk science on biotechology.

By their account, the great promise of biotech in food development has
already been

greatly undermined by a global onslaught of scientific cant and
regulatory barbarities.


The phrase "junk science" irritates many, especially scientists. But
the concept can be usefully

defined. One U.S. scientist once identified two common elements

of junk science as distortion of scientific fact and exaggeration of
risk.

A perhaps more appropriate definition would also incorporate a broader
concept: the

politicization of science. Junk science occurs when facts are
distorted, risk is exaggerated

and the science is steeped in politics and ideology.


The murk surrounding biotechnology fits the definition of junk science
as a political process.

A key concept in modern science is the "precautionary principle,"

a political construct that has the effect of freezing economic
progress.

According to its proponents, the precautionary principle says

that precautionary action should be taken to avoid irreparable harm

to the environment and to human health. If a practice or

substance could cause harm or does cause harm the practice should be
prevented or eliminated.


The late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky asked: "What could be

wrong with bounding uncertainties in this way to preserve the nation?
Everything. This

formula diverts attention from the best available knowledge to the
hedging mechanism. Before you know it,

the formula itself predetermines the results." The results, in biotech,
are clear. Risk is exaggerated

to the point of being the only issue, and the benefits are all but
ignored.


The precautionary principle is a political vehicle whose primary

objective is the use of government power to control science

outcomes and development. At its worst, it can be used to enforce

fanciful theories and unproven science. Climate change remains a

theory without proof, yet the call for application of the precautionary
principle is constant: We

should act to stop climate change to protect the environment as a

precaution against the possibility that the science is sound.


The ideological politicization of science appears constantly in the

media, even in the best. CBC Radio's sometimes excellent science

show, Quirks and Quarks, drifted off into junk science this past

weekend during a special panel session on genetically modified

food. An attempt to be balanced produced confusion and distortion.

Two of the guests were scientists who might be called proponents of
genetically modified food,

while two were opposed. One of the opponents of GM food, however,

spent most of his time venting junk science and ideological science.


Author and food activist Rod MacRae consumed an unbalanced

portion of the science show with claims that scientists had spent too
much of history beholden to

"industrial capitalism," whose objective has been "the production of

marketable products." What Mr. MacRae wants is to limit the

ability of science to participate in the economy and to advance
knowledge.


Claiming that because the toxicological and ecological risks of GM
foods are not known with

certainty, Mr. MacRae offered the precautionary principle as the

alternative. "Instead, what we need to do is put in place what might

be called precautionary science and precautionary regulation."

Regulation would use "precautionary science" to determine whether or

not products should be allowed on the market.


Like many other junk science activists, Mr. MacRae spends most of

his time fighting an ideological war. When asked when products should
be allowed on the

market, Mr. MacRae's answer was that safety should even come second.

"The first issue in any evaluation is not actually the safety. It's

'Does the product actually have any societal benefit?' "


Well, here we are in heart of junk science: First we have regulators

determining what is beneficial to society, then we'll have them

applying the precautionary principle to determine safety.


This has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with Mr.

MacRae's long-standing leftist take on food economics. He is a

Marxist of food. His current post is as a research associate at

something called the Ryerson centre for Studies in Food Security.

Attached to Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, the centre is

actually funded by Ryerson's dean of arts and community services.

In another life, Mr. MacRae was an activist attached to the Toronto

Food Policy Council, a city-funded political action group whose
objective was to treat food as

a social policy issue.


The point is that Mr. MacRae's junk-science agenda, food as a

social and political issue, was given a powerful voice on the CBC's

prestige science show. In the meantime, the real issues around the

politicization of science are mostly ignored. And there are real ones.
Why, for example, do Canada's

governments continue to subsidize biotechnology and GM food

development? Has that subsidy hurt the industry more than helped it?