The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Precautionary Principle

I ran across this term by accident on Wikipedia. I didn’t realize this philosophy had a name! I should have known better. It describes a point of view that I generally take. Here's the quote:

The precautionary principle . . . aims to provide guidance for protecting public health and the environment in the face of uncertain risks, stating that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment. An alternate formulation states that the lack of certainty regarding the threat should not be used as an excuse to do nothing to avert that threat.

You hear about so many benefits/risks for everything from food to medicine to chemicals to lifestyle habits. Some people find statistics, correlations and anecdotal evidence to support their claims. Many are contradictory. Yet, science is by nature slow moving. It can take generations to isolate a variable and run it through tests to determine a true cause and effect. When dealing with our health and environment, there are thousands of variables at play at any moment. What’s a person to do in the midst of all this?

It would be wrong to lock yourself in your bedroom with the covers over your head (especially since your blankets probably contain numerous dust mites and chemical toxins). But it is wise to go forward with caution. In the interests of business, many people push products that are untested onto the public. You often hear: “It hasn’t been proven to be a problem, so we are using it.” In response, I wolud say: "It hasn't been proven safe!"

We live in a world highly influenced by science, but make no mistake: Much of what we do in life we do without the benefit of science.

A doctor once told me: the study of medicine is a science, but the practice of it is not. That is something to remember whenever you go into the doctor’s office. They can’t (and won't) scientifically prove what’s wrong and have an exact plan for what to do about it. What they can do is look at your symptoms, looks at health indicators, and put that together into a likely diagnosis. It is scientifically informed and an educated guess, but it is not a verifiable fact.

We need to live between what science can prove and what common sense can indicate. Too many people throw out science, assuming that anything with the label "natural" or "traditional" is better. Too many people do the opposite, clinging to only what has been proven by science but neglecting warning signs, trends and conventional wisdom.

A perfect example is smoking. All the evidence was clearly pointing to the fact that smoking causes cancer, but it was quite a bit later when science was actually able to say for certain. I respect that about science, it has to do what it has to do (assuming it wasn't unnaturally delayed in reaching this decision due to special interests). But we have to make decisions in the meantime--informed, common sense decisions.

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