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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Reflections on Science & Alternative Facts: Part 3 – Final

How do we make wise decisions during times of disagreement regarding facts? As I stated in my previous blog: “Even more important than disagreements regarding the facts of a situation are disagreements regarding the future consequences of decisions or actions. My final blog in this series addresses the challenge of making logical, rational decisions in a world of where current and future reality exists as potentials rather than indisputable facts.”

People far wiser than I have given serious thought to this challenge. One approach is to apply the “precautionary principle.” The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” Other statements emphasize that the precautionary principle is particularly relevant when an “action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public.” In cases of legitimate disagreement, the burden of proof that any resulting harm would not be severe or irreversible falls upon those who are proposing the policy or action, not on those who might be harmed.

The most common application of this principle in the U.S. is in the field of medicine. Whenever a new drug is proposed for release, the burden of proof that the drug not only is safe but effective falls on the drug company, not on the public. The drug company is supposed to provide compelling evidence that any potentially harmful side effects would not be severe or irreversible—meaning the drug is unlikely to disable or kill those who take it. The results of this process are not always as intended, as the side effects of drugs do sometimes disable or kill people. Such drugs eventually are removed from the market. Nonetheless, applying the precautionary principle in medicine undoubtedly saves lives and reduces human misery.

In many other countries of the world, the precautionary principle is used in making environmental policy decisions. Any attention given to the precautionary principle in U.S. environmental policy is more a matter of political posturing than political principle. For example, the potential harm to the public resulting from global climate change is potentially severe and almost certainly irreversible. If there is a scientific consensus, it is among scientists who believe climate change is real, humans are contributing to it, and we humans should do everything possible to mitigate it. Still, the burden of proof, beyond any “possible doubt,” seems to fall upon the public to prove harm from climate change, rather than upon those who benefit from doing nothing to prove no harm.

While the U.S. uses the precautionary principle in approving medicines, it curiously is not used in the case of food. There is highly credible scientific evidence that our industrial food system is causing severe and irreversible harm to human health. We have an epidemic of obesity and diet-related illnesses in the U.S. that not only are destroying public health, particularly health of children, but are also resulting in healthcare costs that threaten the future of our economy. Perhaps there is no scientific consensus of severe harm, but the burden of proof is being placed on those who are and will be harmed, not on the food producers who are benefiting economically. In the case of food, the precautionary principle clearly is appropriate—but is routinely ignored.

Genetic engineered foods (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a specific example of the more general case of ignoring the precautionary principle in the case of food production. The potential consequences of introducing GMOs into the agricultural environment are potentially severe and are clearly irreversible. Scientific tests were never done to determine the risks of introducing genetic engineered plants into the food supply. They were simply declared to be “generally accepted as safe,” claiming they were “substantially equivalent” to conventional crops. Still, GMOs were considered “sufficiently unique” to be patented. More than 90% of U.S. corn and soybeans contain genetically modified genes that have never been tested for their safety to public health or the environment.

The only significant claim of GMO advocates is that food products containing GMOs have been on the market for decades with no proven cases of GMO foods resulting in illness or death. Perhaps not, but there have been dramatic increases in a variety of humans illness since the release of GE crops that could logically be associated with eating foods containing GMOs. The correlation between increases in logically related health problems and the prevalence of GE foods does not constitute causality or proof  of harm. However, the burden of proof of public safety should be on the corporations that hold the patents on GMOs, not on the public that is potentially severely and irreversibly harmed by eating GE foods. GMOs are clearly a case in which the precautionary principles should be applied–but is not.

A second way to make wise decisions during times of disagreement regarding facts was the subject of Adam Smith’s “other book,” The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book dealt with moral principles rather than economic principles. In brief, Adam Smith’s book explained a four-part test to determine whether an action is morally right or wrong. First, we should put ourselves in the place of the person who is proposing the action. What is the motivation? Is it logical and reasonable? Should the potential effects on others be considered? Second, we should put ourselves in the place of those who will be affected by the action. How will the action affect their health, well-being, or quality of life? Should the motivation for the action be considered?

Third, we should put ourselves in the place of an impartial observer—someone who would not be affected by the action. Would he or she think the motives of the person taking the action justify any potential negative effects on others? Fourth, if the potential negative effect on specific individuals seems unfair or wrong, is there some greater social benefit that would justify the action. For example, all those directly involved in military conflicts invariably suffer, but there may be occasions where war is morally justified to protect or achieve some greater good.

Adam Smith admitted situations might arise where these four questions leave uncertainty regarding the morality of an action. In these situations, he suggested, we must look deeply within ourselves. In other words, we must listen to that quite spiritual voice within. When I consider the cases of climate change and genetically modified foods, economic self-interest is the only logical motive I can see for not trying to mitigate climate change and for allowing genetic engineering of food crops and animals. Any consideration of the impacts of inaction on others by those who benefit economically seems to focus on misleading or manipulating the public rather than addressing legitimate public concerns. The public doesn’t know what to believe.

I believe a truly “impartial observer” would be appalled at the callousness and recklessness of our government in refusing to apply the precautionary principle in dealing with climate change and GMOs. I fail to see any socially redeeming reason for the continued inaction. We can afford to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and we don’t need GE crops or livestock to feed the U.S. or the world. Finally, my small voice within tells me the inaction is far more about greed than any attempt to do good–it is ethically and morally wrong.

John Ikerd

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