The Independent (UK)
January 29, 2006


The 'precautionary principle' can override science and common sense

By Ragnar Lofstedt

[RPR introduction: Here we see a well-meaning "risk expert" trying to
tell us that our emotions should be excluded from judgments. But this
view fails to appreciate the essential role of emotions in human
judgment. In his book Descarte's Baby, Yale child-development
research Paul Bloom makes a very strong case showing that humans
cannot make judgments without emotion. A human who did not use his or
her emotions in thinking about what's important in the world would not
be a human, but would be some kind of machine -- a monster, really.

What this argument really boils down to is, "Don't bother your pretty
litle head about all these complicated things like toxic chemicals in
your breast milk -- leave these decisions to the experts. But we've
been doing that for 50 years -- and the experts have created a world
that is totally contaminated with a toxic soup of chemicals. And
they're in the process of making it worse with bad decisions about
biotechnology, nanotechnology, and a new generation of nuclear power
plants and weapons. It's time we brought ordinary common sense back
into decision-making, which is one of the best aspects of the
precautionary principle -- it calls for the people affected by a
decision to participate in the decision. We must use all the
scientific knowledge we can get our hands on, but we must NOT leave
decisions in the hands of scientists -- they have no special expertise
in deciding what's best for us all. Only we can know that -- and we
know is by using a combination of reason and emotion. --RPR editors.]

In May 2005, Tony Blair gave a speech on risk in a seminar at the
Institute for Public Policy Research. While his words received little
attention at the time, a critical letter from the Financial Services
Authority to No. 10 brought a small storm. And elsewhere, in the inner
circles of government, the speech resounded -- so much so that a
multitude of inquiries and risk papers are now being launched and
drafted across Whitehall, one of them led by the House of Lords Select
Committee on Economic Affairs.

Many of us pay little attention to what the Lords are up to but that
would be a mistake this time, as the committee is chaired by Lord
Wakeham (once on the board of Enron), and among the participating
members are two former chancellors (Lord Lamont and Lord Lawson). The
aim of the inquiry is to shed light on the Government's policy for the
management of risk.

The discussions to date have been wide-ranging, oscillating between
how human life is valued, the role of the media and how the European
Commission affects UK policymaking on risk.

A key issue, and one they still appear to be wrestling with, is the
so-called "precautionary principle" and whether this tool should be
used to deal with risk issues that are unknown or poorly understood.

The precautionary principle is difficult to define; there have been 19
formulations of it. But the one quoted the most is the 1992 Rio
Declaration, which says: "Where there are threats of serious or
irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be
used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent
environmental degradation."

On the face of it, most of us would support this principle. We would
rather be safe than sorry and, yes, most of us would be happy to have
certain chemical substances banned if these could have profound health
effects on our children.

The problem is, of course, that in many cases the principle becomes a
law unto itself, and emotion and politics override science and common

One misuse of the precautionary principle, for example, was the
European Commission's decision to ban the importation of ground nuts
on the basis that these contained the carcinogen aflatoxin and could
therefore cause liver cancer.

What the European Commission failed to mention, unfortunately, was the
existence of scientific studies showing that eating ground nuts
increased the rate of liver cancer by one death per 100 million

Why is all this of interest to our committee of peers? Let's use an
example. The statistics are unclear, but up to 50 per cent of all food
and environmental regulations in the UK are in some shape or form
based on a European directive or regulation, and the costs of some of
these rules for the British economy can be high.

Yet historically, senior UK policymakers have been notably absent from
the discussions in Brussels, where regulations are planned and

One could at least hope that the members of the House of Lords
committee come up with a number of sensible recommendations. They may
wish to consider the following three.

First, there should be an increased emphasis on regulations being
risk- and science-based.

Second, if we are using the precautionary principle as some form of
regulatory framework then, in agreement with the European Commission's
own so-called "Communication" on the subject, it needs to have an
underlying scientific rationale or be an element of a risk assessment,
rather than a law unto itself.

Third, there should be some form of requirement that senior civil
servants involved with regulatory issues spend time in Brussels,
helping their colleagues in the European Commission on the crafting of
draft directives.

The deadline for calls for evidence is tomorrow, so put your bowl of
cereal to one side and get out your laptop.

Prof Ragnar Lofstedt is director of King's Centre for Risk Management,
King's College London

Copyright 2006 Independent News and Media Limited