Watching our wretchedly confused and unscientific regulatory officials willingly destroy public trust in vaccines with their “abundance of precaution” line as they suspend yet another vaccine due to very rare cases of correlation with a handful of blood clots, I was reminded of an article I had written some six years ago. The decision to suspend certain vaccinations is based on the wrong interpretation of precaution: that a vaccine can only be used if it can be proven (with certainty) to be 100% safe.
In the last decade, this interpretation of precaution has risen to the fore given the obvious opportunities for activists. But it is not a scientific use of precaution and provides no means to allow any technology, under any circumstances, to be allowed to go forward. In times of a pandemic, it is time to stop tolerating these affluent activists as they play their political game and apply a more scientific-oriented approach.
The following is an article I had written in May, 2015 on my old BlogActiv site. Given the nature of the confusion with what acting with an “abundance of precaution” means, and the risks of its misuse on an already petrified public, I thought it was a good opportunity to put this little idea back into play. In a postscript at the end of the article, I will revisit the two precautions in light of the present applications of suspending the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines. In short, an abundance of the wrong precaution is leading to an abundance of fear and vaccine hesitancy.
Here is the original article:
There are many interpretations of precaution used in policy debates today. But how is it that environmentalists can switch from one incantation to another without realising that they are contradicting other issues that they themselves are campaigning on? The Risk-Monger has never hidden his views that the precautionary principle is a tool used to manipulate policy – one that can be twisted to fit whatever an activist campaign requires. This blog will consider how precaution, as a “principle” has been perverted during the two great activist campaigns of the social media information era: climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is intriguing how precaution can allow for contradictions, incongruities and complete absence of logic and rationality.
Precaution as the “triple negative” or as “reversing the burden of proof“?
In 1992, the precautionary principle was articulated in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development as a triple negative – roughly (when applied to climate change): Because we are not certain whether the world is warming or not, this is not a reason to not act (given that the consequences would be so great). The onus was on the sceptics to prove climate change was not a risk (something hard to do even after the IPCC had got their forecasts so badly wrong over the last decade).
Precaution on GMOs has not been framed in the triple negative context, but rather defined by the European Environment Agency’s reversal of the burden of proof: Until proponents of GMOs could prove that this biotechnology is safe (with certainty … something hard to do as safety is a relative concept), precaution must be taken. The onus is on the scientists to prove to the sceptics that the technology is safe, and, it should come as no surprise, the GMO sceptics can make that a burden.
So while precaution is merely an uncertainty management tool (note this is not a risk management tool since it only deals with hazards and does not give a toss about potentially lost benefits), its uncertainty focus shifts. The triple negative climate change precaution says that being uncertain is not a reason to forego precautionary actions while the reversal of the burden of proof precaution used to reject GMOs demands certainty before precautionary action is lifted.
Just for fun, let us reverse the application of these two precautions.
If we were to apply the triple negative perception of precaution to GMOs, it would sound like this: The desperate situation of agriculture needing to feed a growing global population while protecting valuable natural habitats from getting ploughed under (and further diminishing biodiversity) demands that we act to develop agricultural technologies. So even if we were not certain of the science on biotechnology (after two decades, not a serious risk anymore), this is not a reason to not act in developing GMOs (given that the consequences of food insecurity would be so great). The onus would be on the sceptics or critics of GMOs to prove that they could feed the growing global population with organic agriculture. On the basis of this version of the precautionary principle, we would have to act immediately to adopt GMOs.
If we reverse the burden of proof on climate change, we would be demanding the IPCC to prove with certainty that climate change is happening due to human interaction on the environment and at a level that it would be worth making the demanded sacrifices to human development. Clearly their past models have not done a very good job at that, and until they can, we must remain sceptical.
So from this exercise, perhaps we can conclude that the reversal of the burden of proof perception of precaution (forced on Brussels by the activist civil servant, David Gee) is corrupt and must be discarded. It should come as no surprise then that this version is widely used by the European Commission (and sits at the foundation of REACH and the Pesticides Directive) … mystifying.
Do environmental campaigners and their activist scientists realise the contradictions when they bounce from one perception of the precautionary principle to another or are they just blasting out of both ends in order to win an argument and raise funds? If that were all, we could just write them off as hypocrites and ignore them. But as their precautionary bipolarity goes undiagnosed, their refusal to listen to dissenting voices in each case further poisons the well.
Precaution and the refusal to listen
In climate debates, the mainstream scientists refuse to listen to the sceptics. They are pushing for a consensus and immediate action while moving the issue away from debate and further research. This is not a role for scientists – who should continually challenge their paradigms – and yet the pro-climate change scientists are pushed (pushing) forward to recommend policy conclusions.
On GMOs, the sceptics refuse to listen to the mainstream science. In the EU, we are told that the general public (ie, those the activists claim they represent) does not want biotechnology. Even if a vast majority of scientists are correct and GMOs are not at all a risk, the activists are adamant that the scientists belong in the lab and must not be involved in the policy debate. If anyone wonders why the European Commission no longer has a chief scientific adviser, well … Professor Glover spoke up in favour of GMOs.
Precaution as a principle (as used in Brussels) implies that you do not need to listen to views you do not like.
Furthermore, the grey literature (the large volume of unpublished scientific papers that did not prove an intended objective) on climate change is largely ignored – in fact the number of unsuccessful research projects is considered too large to even consider. However, on GMOs, the grey literature is scoured for any whiff of uncertainty or potentially inconclusive sentiment.
Blame it on the man
The only way, I can understand how activists can live with these contradictions is that their hatred of humanity acts as the irrational glue that keeps their idealism free from logical gravity.
It is man who has caused climate change (even though only 2% of greenhouse gas emissions are anthropogenic and climate has been changing for millennia), and for this reason we must intervene to correct it and “restore nature to its pristine dignity”. Imagine for a moment, if we had conclusive evidence that climate change was, gulp, a natural phenomenon. Would we even be having this debate or seeking to strangle the developing world with cuts in CO2 emissions? The eco-theological eschatology implies the good man (the environmentalist) rising up against the evil man (the industrialist).
Those who hate human intervention on nature have an inherent mistrust of any human innovation. “Leave nature alone” is core to the virtue of sustainability (allowing activists to overlook all of the advances of science since Francis Bacon). In eco-theological terms, any scientific development of GMOs, of man acting on nature and the food chain, can be considered as a mortal sin. So they can reject Golden Rice or increased yields (and the millions of lives they could save) and still feel certain of their moral superiority.
This hatred of human action on nature allows the two precautions to coexist despite their incongruity. The triple negative works on climate change issues because it addresses the evil man had unleashed on nature. The reversal of the burden of proof works on biotech issues because it allows us to resist any destruction man may be intending on Mother Nature. Precaution is selectively applied (in its most effective form) to what man has done that we (the collective, environmentally enlightened) choose not to accept.
Postscript: The Two Precautions on Vaccines and Blood Clots
Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic and man is now a victim (if we exclude the lunatic fringe’s claim’s that the coronavirus was caused by lost biodiversity, climate change, 5G, livestock industry, glyphosate and, of course, Bill Gates). In the docilian demand for certainty and 100% safety (precaution as the reversal of the burden of proof), it is becoming clearer how the precautionary lockdowns have wreaked untold hardship on humanity.
But regulators are still applying this unscientific version of precaution, with the most recent case being the suspension or restrictions on the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines. This “abundance of precaution” position uses the European Environment Agency’s reversal of the burden of proof: Until you are certain that these two vaccines do not (potentially) cause any blood clotting, we are going to pause their implementation. What the public perceives from this declaration is that vaccines are not safe and the entire endeavour will be put at risk due to vaccine hesitancy. The mistrust of human innovations is on display here: We would much rather let more people die from a natural virus than a few (possibly) from the use of a man-made vaccine.
But what if the public were presented with the triple negative approach on the risk of blood clotting? There is indeed a small uncertainty on vaccines, but just because they cannot deliver 100% safety (Negative 1), given how serious the coronavirus risks are (including a far higher risk of blood clotting from the virus), this is not a reason (Negative 2) to not continue using these two vaccines (Negative 3). Under this version of precaution, the uncertainty of the possible link to blood clotting would not be enough reason to fall under the “abundance of precaution” spell and suspend the vaccines. What the public perceives from this declaration is that vaccines are safer than the consequences of COVID-19 and they should be able to make a more rational decision to vaccinate. The mistrust of human innovations is not on display here: We would be much better off with a small potential risk from this man-made vaccine than leaving us exposed to the ravages of nature.
So why are we using the perverted precautionary principle that imposes such hardship on humanity?
Our regulators are doing it wrong (again). In trying to deliver a hopelessly unscientific dream of safe and certain on an expectant docilian public, they are providing anything but that. The lack of risk management capacity in most Western countries, with the added poison of precaution, has created horrific consequences for humanity. With vaccines being the only remaining hope authorities have of protecting their populations, a further misuse of (the wrong) precaution has increased vaccine hesitancy and, sadly, imposed far greater human suffering and loss of life. This is all the more tragic for developing countries where the J&J vaccine was seen as the best solution in regions where vaccine hesitancy is even higher.
When will people wake up and stop listening to these opportunistic precautionistas?