Sunday, May 03, 2009

Meditations on the Precautionary Principle

Much of my past week was consumed by family drama over whether or not to attend a family wedding in Tulum, Mexico next week - and, as the week progressed, whether the wedding should even go forward.

Without getting into the details, I have come to believe that travel to Mexico presents a small risk of something very unpleasant (the flu), something extremely inconvenient (quarantine in Mexico for several days) and something significantly uncharitable (spreading the virus to others). Even if you believe that the reaction to the flu is overhyped, the fact that it is contributes adverse consequences associated with the last risk, i.e., schools and businesses closing. (I suppose that there is still some risk of an illness more severe than the normal flu and even death, but I think that's very small.)

Assessing these risks and deciding what to do is the kind of thing that we have to do all the time. It mirrors major policy debates like those over global warming and the appropriate responses to the threats of terror.

One of the things that strikes me about these debates is how reluctant we are to admit what we don't know and the extent to which we believe that we can surf the net and pick and choose among various factoids to suggest that we know what we can't. Isn't it better to acknowledge that we have to live with a certain amount of risk and that sometimes we have to take precautions that will turn out to be unnecessary?

All of this is related, I think, to our desire to want decisions to be easy and answers to be clear. We see the latter expressed in the political blogosphere in the ease which we think that the proper response to people we disagree with is insults and ridicule.


Dad29 said...


But one could also argue from mathematical probabilities that 'surfing-for-byte-form-answers' is just as efficacious as NO system--or ANY system.

Anonymous said...

Don't be afraid, Prof. Get on with life.