This essay argues that principles should play a limited role in policy making. It first illustrates the dilemma of timely action in the face of uncertain unintended consequences. It then introduces the precautionary and proactionary principles as different alignments of knowledge and action within the policymaking process. The essay next considers a cynical and a hopeful reading of the role of these principles in public policy debates. We argue that the two principles, despite initial appearances, are not all that different when it comes to formulating public policy. We also suggest that allowing principles to determine our actions undermines the sense of autonomy necessary for true action.
SPRU Professor Andy Stirling is beginning a series in The Guardian on the precautionary principle. Stirling’s first article paints an optimistic picture:
Far from the pessimistic caricature, precaution actually celebrates the full depth and potential for human agency in knowledge and innovation. Blinkered risk assessment ignores both positive and negative implications of uncertainty. Though politically inconvenient for some, precaution simply acknowledges this scope and choice. So, while mistaken rhetorical rejections of precaution add further poison to current political tensions around technology, precaution itself offers an antidote – one that is in the best traditions of rationality. By upholding both scientific rigour and democratic accountability under uncertainty, precaution offers a means to help reconcile these increasingly sundered Enlightenment cultures.
Stirling’s work on the precautionary principle is some of the best out there, and Adam Briggle and I cite him in our working paper on the topic. I look forward to reading the rest of Stirling’s series. Although I’m a critic of the Enlightenment, I don’t reject it wholesale. In fact, I think rational engagement with the thinkers of the Enlightenment — and some of its most interesting heirs, including Stirling and Steve Fuller, who’s a proponent of proaction over precaution — is important. So, stay tuned for more!
Comments now open on proposed policy to allow more fracking on public lands.
I’ve just finished reading Roger Pielke, Jr. and James Wilsdon on the bee question and the buzz generated by George Monbiot’s attack on UK Science Chief Sir Mark Walport.
Pielke and Wilsdon are quick to defend Walport against what they take to be Monbiot’s unfair characterization of Walport as a corporate shill. But they don’t excuse Walport of making a cardinal error when it comes to serving as scientific advisor.
The real problem Pielke and Wilsdon identifies with Walport’s move is the slip into ‘advocacy’. Instead of advocating a particular course of action, Walport should’ve stuck with honest brokering. But what is it that’s wrong with advocacy? It’s that it leads to selective reading of the evidence (that is, cherry picking). But must it? Well, science cannot speak for itself, nor can it make political decisions. All science can do is present the facts (or evidence). So all scientific advising can do is evaluate the evidence, lay out the facts, and outline the options available to policy makers. Anything else, and it’s gone beyond the science.
Here’s the way they put it in the article:
Where Walport actually erred was in advocating how values trade-offs should be made in the case of bees and pesticides: “The European Commission has proposed a temporary ban on the use of certain agricultural pesticides. It should drop this idea.” Here Walport has stepped well beyond evaluating evidence, or clarifying options, and slipped into the role of a political advocate, who seeks to secure one particular outcome. Not coincidentally, it is the outcome preferred by the government for which he works.
This strikes me as artificial. Pielke (and here I think it is fair to pin this on him, not on Wilsdon) has developed a theoretical framework, and it’s one that allows him to critique science policy advice giving. But, come on, is there nothing that falls outside his theory? Is there no way that scientific evidence can be used honestly as part of an argument that advocates a particular outcome?!
To put the question differently, has Pielke reduced all advocacy to what he calls in his book “Stealth Issue Advocacy?” Is even honest advocacy dishonest? The reasons Walport gives for advocating his position appeal to the precautionary principle (albeit in a way that Monbiot objects to). Is that not honest advocacy?