The Precautionary Principle (with application to the genetic modification of organisms)

This article was first published on the Cornell University Library website.

We present a non-naive version of the Precautionary (PP) that allows us to avoid paranoia and paralysis by confining precaution to specific domains and problems. PP is intended to deal with uncertainty and risk in cases where the absence of evidence and the incompleteness of scientific knowledge carries profound implications and in the presence of risks of "black swans", unforeseen and unforeseable events of extreme consequence. We formalize PP, placing it within the statistical and probabilistic structure of ruin problems, in which a system is at risk of total failure, and in place of risk we use a formal fragility based approach. We make a central distinction between 1) thin and fat tails, 2) Local and systemic risks and place PP in the joint Fat Tails and systemic cases. We discuss the implications for GMOs (compared to Nuclear energy) and show that GMOs represent a public risk of global harm (while harm from nuclear energy is comparatively limited and better characterized). PP should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs.

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