Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Conservative Precautionary Principle

I've been avoiding any discussion of Michael Crichton's new book on climate change, mainly because I consider him to be a sensationalist and a crank. Among other things, I have to laugh at complaints against fearmongering from someone who's devoted his career to promoting public paranoia about everything from gorillas, to unmanned space probes, to nanotechnology, to the Japanese. If fearmongering were made illegal, Crichton would be looking at 25 to life.

That said, Chris Mooney has an excellent post on Crichton's more bizarre pronouncements about "science." For instance:

We can't "assess" the future, nor can we "predict" it. These are euphemisms. We can only guess. An informed guess is just a guess.
It's pretty amusing to imagine Crichton standing before the American Enterprise Institute (as he will on Friday) and declaring that it's pointless to predict the future. If we really must give up "assessing" the future, under pain of Crichton's displeasure, then what on earth are we to do with the PNAC? To say nothing, as Mooney notes, of the stock market.

There's a perfectly simple distinction to be made between a "guess" and an "informed guess": the informed guess is more likely to be correct. To suggest otherwise is to invite epistemological nihilism; if we adopted Crichton's views en masse, our society would be absolutely paralyzed.

Am I being an "alarmist" by saying that? I don't think least, not in comparison to Crichton himself. Consider his doom-haunted fantods over the precautionary principle:
The "precautionary principle," properly applied, forbids the precautionary principle. It is self-contradictory. The precautionary principle therefore cannot be spoken of in terms that are too harsh.
That's a statement of such obvious dishonesty that I won't bother to explain all the ways in which it isn't valid, other than to remark that "properly applied" apparently translates here as "reduced to an absurd formulation for my own purposes."

What I will point out - putting Crichton's blitherings aside - is that an exceptionally rigid form of the precautionary principle is at the very heart of conservative thought. Conservatism is, or pretends to be, dedicated to pointing out the risks inherent in change (e.g., economic conservatives warn against the risks of governmental interference in markets); in short, it's largely a philosophy of risk management, one which relies heavily on invoking the precautionary principle.

As I described here, conservatives once stated that a proposed ban on DDT would cut US agricultural output by fifty percent. What was that statement? It was a prediction about the future. What was the purpose of making such a prediction? To urge lawmakers to apply the precautionary principle before enacting "dangerous" legislation. In essence, conservatives were arguing that unless it could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that anti-DDT legislation wouldn't hurt American agribusiness, it shouldn't be enacted.

You'll find versions of the precautionary principle invoked by all manner of conservatives, bolstered by plenty of irrational and irresponsible scaremongering. Here's another example: gay marriage can't possibly be allowed, because conservatives predict - without any evidence at all - that it will "destroy marriage." The argument makes no sense whatsoever, but nevertheless, application of the conservative precautionary principle says that unless you can prove that gay marriage won't destroy heterosexual marriage, it must be forbidden.

And of course, the Right's argument against climate change is another example of the precautionary principle: unless an overwhelming majority of scientists can prove - to the complete satisfaction of every right-wing blowhard on earth - that doing nothing would be more dangerous than taking action, we must stay the course. If we don't, the sky will fall: the economy will be destroyed, or we'll lose our sovereignty, or (as Crichton argues) we'll end up living under "totalitarianism."

And this, mind you, is supposed to represent tough-minded, skeptical thinking.

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