PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE [2 ARTICLES]
'PRECAUTION' PRECLUDES INNOVATION
EDITORIAL: Terence Corcoran
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
greatly undermined by a global onslaught of scientific cant and
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
A perhaps more appropriate definition would also incorporate a broader
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
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?
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
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
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?