November 13, 2013

The Precautionary Principle and Castle’s Wager

An unknown is always better than a known harm
The Precautionary Principle and Castle’s Wager
John Castle

Intro

There is a political doctrine at the core of anti-vaping efforts in the United States and in many other countries around the world. What that doctrine is became clear to me in discussions I’ve had in person and around the internet, and now I’m going to reveal it to you.

The doctrine in question is known as the Precautionary Principle. What I’m going to do today is explain to you in the most basic terms what the Precautionary Principle is so that you can recognize it when you read it. Then I’m going to suggest a couple of methods for dealing with it when you encounter it, whether you’re reading an attack article against vaping based on it or whether you encounter it in a conversation with someone who is concerned about the risks of vaping.

The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is a political, legal and philosophical position in which the proponent basically maintains that because a product or activity could be suspected of being potentially harmful, it should be restricted until such time as thorough scientific study has found that it is not. That’s basically all there is to it.

And that’s the one core objection on display in every single attack piece in the news about vaping. “We don’t know what’s in these e-cigarettes!” “We don’t know what the long term effects are!” “There haven’t been enough studies!” All of those statements are based on the Precautionary Principle.

Of course, I have a whole armada of problems with the Precautionary Principle. First, it’s anti-freedom. It’s anti-individual. It is even anti-progress. Had the Precautionary Principle been applied at any point prior to the late 20th century, humans would still be stuck anywhere from never having harnessed fire to never having harnessed steam to never having harnessed electricity.

Our species would never have picked up the knack for transatlantic or transpacific navigation, never would have developed flight, never would have developed most technologies, for that matter, with the granted exception of technologies created to wage or support war and espionage since, presumably, governments would get an exemption to the Precautionary Principle. So our species various factions would certainly still be terrifically well equipped to spy on and kill each others’ members, but for anything else, we’d have to wait to be handed whatever advances the elite see fit to allow us to have, as if we were dogs being fed technological scraps at table.

It’s fortunate for us, then, that the Precautionary Principle is so rarely applied. Waiting for scientists to declare that a thing is safe before people are allowed to make use of it has one other flaw: science doesn’t work the way law works, and it shouldn’t be applied to social engineering the way law is. (Frankly, law shouldn’t be applied to the purpose of social engineering, either.)

Science, as a process, acknowledges the impermanence and interpretability of its results. It’s founded, to a greater or lesser degree, on the idea, “I don’t know. I must find out.” Once an answer is arrived at, that changes to, “I think I know, but I could be wrong. I must find out.”

But law is founded on a different and incompatible statement: “We know. Do as we say.” Laws, once introduced, are incredibly difficult to do away with. The proof is that so many laws which serve no good purpose are so long-lived, even when they are patently absurd. You’ve heard of laws like these, such as Ord. 947, 4-14-1997 in the city of Deming, New Mexico — which makes it unlawful to hunt in a cemetery.

So what statement do we end up with in the Precautionary Principle, where science and law intersect? Nothing more complicated, or more trustworthy, than this: “I don’t know. Do as I say.”

That doesn’t work for me.

Unknown Risk vs. Known Harm

The strategy I’d like to describe to you in order to help you counteract scare tactics based on the Precautionary Principle, as well as the fear those tactics instill in people who aren’t aware of the scare tactics’ real nature and purpose, is the following:

First, research all you can about what is known about vaping. There are studies that go way, way back on the long term health risks of inhaling Propylene Glycol and Vegetable Glycerin vapor. Here’s one that was done all the way back in 1947:

It’s vitally important to know all the you possibly can, because when the Precautionary Principle is applied deceptively — and it often is — it depends on convincing listeners and readers of the inherent danger of the unknown. Sometimes all it takes to short-circuit the deception is to point out that the subject under attack is in fact not unknown.

Second, research all you can about the very well established negative effects of smoking. Anti-vaping activists were also at one time anti-smoking activists — many are both — and you can often cause their scare tactics to crumble simply by understanding this fact, and applying that understanding to the arguments they promote.

Here’s how:

“We don’t know the long term effects of inhaling these vapors!”

“Actually, we do. Here’s a study on it — the effects have been known for over sixty years.”

“Well, we don’t know the effects of second-hand vapor!”

“Actually, we do. Here’s another study from Drexel University. And here’s another study.”

“But what if other side effects come to light?!”

“What’s your reason for believing that will happen?”

“Well… it just could!”

“Do we know what the effects are if smokers don’t switch to this? If they keep smoking?”

“Well, yes, they could contract any number of diseases that could eventually kill them!”

“So on one hand, you can’t offer me any reason to believe that vaping can lead to disease or death. On the other hand, there’s a flood of evidence that smoking will. Would you rather that smokers switch to electronic cigarettes, even if it means that they’re only getting a chance to avert disease and death? Or would you rather that disease and death be a certainty for them?”

 

Castle’s Wager

So let me propose something that I am (immodestly, I admit) going to call Castle’s Wager. It’s basic, but I believe it’s a powerful argument, maybe even undefeatable:

An unknown is always better than a known harm.

Those are probably not the words you would use, but whatever words you do use, that’s an idea to put behind them, a mental starting-point with which to counter the Precautionary Principle, in whatever form it’s presented, on whatever subject it’s presented.

When the “known quantity” is proven to be harmful, and the unknown quantity isn’t proven to be harmful, prefer the unknown quantity.

At the very worst, the unknown quantity is harmful, which means that at the very worst it made no difference which you chose. But with each new study that comes out and declares that vaping isn’t as harmful as smoking, some that it’s so minimally harmful as to be no worse than coffee or chocolate… the more we know, the farther we get from that worst case.

It does make a difference. And so can each of us who knows it.

John Castle

Biography
John Castle has been a working writer for over a decade. His Website Here He has produced over four dozen short stories in various genres from action yarns to macabre thrillers to supercharged and unusual fare for adventurous adult readers. He is also the screenwriter and story consultant behind the award-winning experimental psychological thriller Lighthouse Lane. John Castle begins his stint with Spinfuel eMagazine this week with his first of many commentaries. John will contribute commentaries and reviews on an ongoing basis.


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