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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

critical thinking no. 5 - the precautionary tale

script by mike mcrae and james hutson, recording and music by audrey studios, animated and directed by James Hutson, produced by Bridge 8found via brainpickings 

in summary

- not acting until you have a good idea about any adverse consequences is called the precautionary principle

- this happens every day - products are tested before they go to market to prove they are safe - because there is a chance they are not

- but its difficult to remove all concerns about the risks associated with every single action - let alone those based on the complex series of tests and observations required by science

- and here we run into some confusion about how science works - for example - some say evolution or global warming are not facts - they are "just" theories - but there is no "just" about it - in science theory doesn't mean "I reckon" 

- it means a well tested rule which is based on logic, which explains repeated observations, and which has been used to make accurate predictions - and this makes these theories very useful - and difficult to ignore

- so newton's theory of gravitational attraction is a theory - it explains how objects with mass move the way they do -and its a theory so useful 300 years after it was 1st published it is used to send objects from earth to the far reaches of the solar system

- observable or proven facts are only part of science

- when faced with risks its understandable to wait until we have 100% certainty about it - unfortunately that is impossible

- the best that can be achieved is that - given all our current theories (see definition above) - and repeated testing, logic, and the facts - that we are reasonably confident something is safe

- and this is where the precautionary principle can be misused - waiting for more information is useful - but waiting for that unattainable 100% certainty prevents anybody from doing anything

- consider mobile phones and fears that their radiation emissions may cause cancer - if we choose to wait until mobile phones were proved to be 100% safe - or not - then we would have no mobile phone technology 

- cancer isn't something to be taken lightly - but waiting for irrefutable data (which is logically impossible) is a bad way to make decisions

- and in doing so we may lose amazing opportunities or encounter new risks

- asking about risks is sensible - but asking for 100% safety stops technology from moving on

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