The Misguided Insistence on Certainty

The spin on the Precautionary Principle convinces the public that unless a product such as lead can be conclusively proven harmful, it should be allowed.

OPINION -- Let’s say a product has the possibility of being harmful to our health or environment. Which sentiment most closely matches yours?

“Product X has never been proven to be harmful. Therefore it SHOULD be allowed on the market.” 

“Product X hasn’t been extensively tested and it’s unknown if it’s safe beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore it SHOULDN’T be allowed on the market.”

If you chose B, chances are you’re an adherent of the Precautionary Principle: “Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

The Precautionary Principle has several components, but its essence is the proverb “Better safe than sorry.” To me, this is common sense. Innocent until proven guilty is appropriate in a courtroom, but highly dangerous for our health and environment. 

Yet time and again, this corporate siren song convinces the public: Unless you can conclusively prove something is harmful, it should be allowed. 

Why do so many people accept this argument? Industry spin doctors are the main reason, while their lobbyists in Congress and state legislatures bring politicians into the stable, stopping or neutering strong regulations. 

Take lead, for example, which for hundreds of years was known to be harmful. High doses caused convulsions, comas and even death. There was extensive research by the early 1900’s linking lead-based paint to childhood poisoning. However, that didn’t stop the lead industry from making it a prime component of paint. 

The lead companies and their trade association, the Lead Industries Association, shamelessly sacrificed public health for their profits. In 1923, their ad in National Geographic trumpeted that “lead helps to guard your health.” The famous Dutch Boy brand put out the “Paint Books for Boys and Girls,” showing how beneficial paint was. 

When an influential Time magazine article critical of lead paint appeared in 1943, the LIA sued a co-author, Dr. Randolph Byers. And they insisted that mental retardation and lead poisoning had “never been conclusively proven.” The industry was so powerful that lead wasn’t banned in paint until 1978 and gasoline until 1991. (For an excellent Bill Moyers video on this scandal, see here.)  

The tobacco companies were willing students of the lead industry. By the mid-1950’s, there were several studies showing significant evidence between cigarette smoking and disease. In 1964, the Surgeon General’s report concluded there was enough evidence to declare smoking a health hazard.

Yet in 1968, the Tobacco Institute stated “no scientific proof, then, has been found to convict smoking as a hazard to health.” In 1978, Philip Morris asserted: “Scientists have not determined what causes cancer . . . cigarettes have never been proven unsafe.” As late as 1985, an RJ Reynolds ad said: “Science is science. Proof is proof. That is why the controversy over smoking and health remains an open one.” Brown & Williamson captured it up best in an internal memo: “Doubt is our product.”

Climate change is the most significant current issue for the “It’s not proven so we shouldn’t do anything” argument, even though there’s widespread scientific evidence that burning fossil fuels is creating a disastrous situation. Just as tobacco followed lead, oil followed tobacco, as chronicled in a 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists report.  

Exxon Mobil led the charge, funneling about $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to numerous advocacy organizations that “manufacture(d) uncertainty.” Exxon Mobil’s website revealed the underlying talking point: “. . . gaps in the scientific basis for theoretical climate models and the interplay of significant natural variability make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was one beneficiary of Exxon Mobil’s war chest. The brainchild of the Koch Brothers, it’s influential in shaping right wing legislation and talking points, primarily for the Republican Party. 

Indeed, it’s nearly impossible for Congressional Republicans (and oil and coal state Democrats) to support fossil fuel regulation. They’ve learned the script well:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL):  “Global warming continues to be an issue of significant debate . . . there are still many questions that must be answered before we take steps to address this issue.” Dec. 14, 2007

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX): “Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans . . . there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science.” May 19, 2013

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa): Climate change “is not proven, it’s not science. It’s more of a religion than a science.” Aug. 7, 2013

Insisting on certainty before taking precautions obstructs the public interest. Let’s not allow corporate spin to turn our heads.

Rick North is the former CEO of the Oregon American Cancer Society (1994-99) and former Project Director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Campaign for Safe Food (2003-2011). He retired in February 2011 to become a volunteer confronting undue corporate influence in elections and the government.

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The combination of big money lobbying, misleading advertising, taking advantage of general ignorance or naivete about many important issues, and labeling regulation advocates as "anti-business" has done a wonderful job of preventing appropriate changes in regulation. Prudent concern is not hysteria. Now, the sort of activities mentioned surely can make reasonable folks start to feel negatively about "business" when it is practiced in those ways. No reason for that to be surprising. Strong advocacy for good-sense regulation is needed, and must be relentlessly persistent.