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July 16, 2000


Math and Precaution



With Vandana Shiva, we all had to wonder what a physicist
might know about biotechnology. Now we have to wonder, with
Dr. Saunders' alleged opinion, what a mathematician can
offer on the topic.

Dr. Saunders allegedly wrote (with my deletions):

"In fact, the precautionary principle is very simple. All it
amounts to is this: if one is embarking on something new,
one should think
very carefully about whether it is safe or not, and should
not go ahead
until reasonably convinced it is. It is just common sense."

>This seems, of course, quite reasonable.

"Too many of those who fail to understand or to accept the
principle are pushing forward with untested, inadequately
technologies, and insisting that it is up to the rest of us
to prove them
dangerous before they can be stopped."

>Here, we can easily see that a mathematician has been
sucked in by rhetoric from outside his discipline, and is
parroting the "untested" mantra.

"The perpetrators also refuse to accept liability; so if the
technologies turn out to be hazardous, as in many cases they
have, someone else will have to pay the penalty."

>Even a lawyer who specializes in defending parking tickets
and charges of public intoxication knows that product
liability law is far better established than this.

"The precautionary principle hinges on concept of the burden
of proof,
which ordinary people have been expected to understand and
accept in the
law for many years."

>Actually, the vaunted "precautionary principle" is scarcely
a decade old, a creation of the protest industry. It has no
roots in jurisprudence whatsoever.

"The precautionary principle states that if there are
reasonable scientific
grounds for believing that a new process or product may not
be safe, it
should not be introduced until we have convincing evidence
that the risks
are small and are outweighed by the benefits."

>There are other formulations; this restatement is obviously
bogus and oversimplified when it comes to offering a
presumptive guide for human conduct but *arguendo* this is

"The principle does not, as some critics claim, require
industry to provide
absolute proof that something new is safe. That would be an
demand and would indeed stop technology dead in its tracks,
but I do not
know of anyone who is actually demanding it."

>Actually, there are many eco-reactionary groups and
individuals who demand this.

>Now emerges the fatal flaw in the reasoning. Saunders
allegedly says:

"What the precautionary principle does is to put the burden
of proof onto
the innovator or perpetrator . . . [i] t is up to the
perpetrator to demonstrate
beyond reasonable doubt that it is safe . . ."

>But then, Saunders allegedly says:

"Just as society does not require the defendant to prove
innocence . . . [i]t is
for those who want to introduce something new to prove . . .
beyond reasonable doubt, that it is safe."

>As logicians are fond of pointing out, you can prove
anything if your premise is a contradiction. Does the
defendant technology have the burden of proving something
beyond reasonable doubt, or does the prosecution? Saunders
allegedly asserts both.

>Saunders is said to repeat the jurisprudential distortion:

"It is for the [defendant] innovators to establish beyond
reasonable doubt that what they are proposing is safe. The
burden of proof is on them."

>In Western jurisprudence, the defendant need only posit a
plausible suggestion that there is reasonable doubt that the
accusations are false. The prosecution has the burden of
proving that the accusations are true beyond any reasonable
doubt the defense might suggest.

>The mathematician is said to urge a statistical
interpretation of the precautionary principle:

"You toss it [a coin] three times, and it comes down heads
all three times.
* * *
Surely if a coin comes down
heads three times in a row, that cannot prove it is
unbiased. No, of
course it cannot. But this sort of reasoning is too often
being used to
prove that GM technology is safe.

The fallacy, and it is a fallacy, comes about either through
misunderstanding of statistics or a total neglect of the
principle - or, more likely, both. In brief, people are
claiming that
they have proven that something is safe, when what they have
actually done
is to fail to prove that it is unsafe. It's the mathematical
way of
claiming that absence of evidence is the same as evidence of

>This might be an acceptable argument in mathematics, but
not in physical science. Consider: if the precautionary
principle is this mathematically strong, all science must be
rejected. All scientific statements are provisional, they
are falsifiable in terms of the emergence of new facts. One
toss of the coin could overturn assumptions based on
patterns from previous tosses; a new discovery threatens to
overturn previous scientific theories every day of the week.

>Then Saunders allegedly says:

"Yet that is precisely the sort of argument we see in
scientific papers
defending genetic engineering. A recent report, "Absence of
toxicity of
Bacillus thuringiensis pollen to black swallowtails under
conditions" (2) is claiming by its title to have shown that
there is no
harmful effect. Only in the discussion, however, do they
state correctly
that there is "no significant weight differences among
larvae as a
function of distance from the corn field or pollen level".

>One has to wonder how many times a coin must be tossed to
satisfy a mathematician; Saunders allegedly says:

"The way to decide if the antique coin is biased is to toss
it more times
and record the outcome; and in the case of the safety and
stability of GM
crops, more and better experiments should be done."

>Then Saunders allegely returns to a transmogrified version
of Western criminal jurisprudence:

"What is baffling is why our regulators have failed and
continue to fail to
act on the precautionary principle. They tend to rely
instead on what we
might call the anti-precautionary principle. When a new
technology is
being proposed, it must be permitted unless it can be shown
reasonable doubt that it is dangerous. The burden of proof
is not on the
innovator; it is on the rest of us."

>If technology is the defendant, obviously the burden is on
the prosecution. Ever since the Magna Carta, actually. But,
since Saunders says that technology does, and does not, bear
the burden of proof, of course his conclusion derives from
his contradiction.

>Frege would be embarrassed to have mathematics associated
with such reasoning. Then Saunders allegedly concludes:

"There is nothing difficult or arcane about the
precautionary principle. It
is the same sort of reasoning that is used in the courts and

>This is quite obviously false.

>Saunders also allegedly said:

"If we have genuine doubts about whether something is safe,
then we
should not use it until we are convinced it is all right."

>What Saunders fails to mention is how to determine whether
a "genuine" doubt is factually based, or results merely from
misinformation, superstition or worse. Physicists and
mathematicians should stick to their respective specialties,
I submit, and respect the specialties of others. This is
just as bad as RAFI dictating terms to farmers in developing
nations. Leave molecular biology to molecular biologists,
leave 'reasonable doubt' to lawyers, and let farmers farm.
Interdisciplinary efforts are laudable, but a Ph.D. does NOT
make the doctor an expert in all fields.

Kindest regards,
Andrew Apel, B.A. (Phil.) M.A. (Phil.) J.D.


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