Saturday, February 07, 2004

Two Visions of Precaution: Paranoia Against Proportion

My most recent BetterHumans column attempts to discuss the democratizing implications of the Precautionary Principle, when it is reasonably applied to radical technological development. Libertopians who dream of the unilateral imposition of development on terms favorable to the elites with whom they identify, and all in the name of a fantasy of "spontaneity" that never matches the reality on the ground, are displeased that any actual supporters of the libertory promise of technology would break ranks and support this "luddite" principle. But I am far from the only one of us to think this way.

In their recent paper "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology", Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology distinguish what they call a "strict" version of the Precautionary Principle from a more moderate "active" version that provides guidance for the reasonable assessment of costs and benefits of development. The good news is that the so-called "strict" or "luddite" form of the Principle is very much a minority viewpoint among actual advocates of the Principle. So much so, in fact, I think it would be better to describe "do nothing that might be dangerous" as the *Paranoid Interpretation* of the Precautionary Principle, rather than a "strict" form of it.

Although some environmentalists do indeed seem to support such an interpretation (Bill McKibbon might be one, for example), it seems confined mostly to the overheated imaginations of market fundamentalist types looking for a straw man to torch, and also climate-change deniers (proud carriers of the sociopathic flame "safe cigarette" pseudo-science championed in recent memory), and others who face higher costs should even the most reasonable and *Proportionate Interpretation* of the Principle apply to their activities. In other words, the Paranoid Interpretation is mostly a smear promoted by the usual ideologues and interested parties. What a surprise.

Canonical statements of the Principle, like "Wingspread", recognize that *risk* in the general sense that facile critics like to seize on is in fact *ubiquitous*. They qualify both the circumstances under which stringent caution is invoked *and* the interventions it would recommend. Wingspread worries about developmental threats (1) to health and to the environment particularly, (2) where "politicized" scientific results sponsored by interested parties undermine a reasonable consensus that likely harms should be addressed, (3) where delay introduces conspicuous remediation costs that are more cheaply dealt with in advance, or sometimes produce irreversible damage. That is a profoundly qualified and thoughtful deliberative framework. The "Rio" Statement even qualifies further, restricting cautious interventions to those that are "cost-effective," an Industry Out if ever I saw one.

Ronald Bailey's many libertopian screeds railing against the Principle in Reason Online and elsewhere distort the reasonable versions of this sensible (but certainly improveable) Principle. My many libertopian critics seem mostly to be offering warmed over retreads of what are already bad arguments. What matters to me is that there is a reasonable core in the Precautionary Principle and it is absurd for people who worry that the Principle might frustrate beneficial development to deny what is obviously sensible in it. Isn't it manifestly better to encourage what is reasonable in the Principal and discourage what is unreasonable in it?

The Principle has force because what is reasonable in it is *palpably* so: Caution before harm. To deny this marginalizes even reasonable critics of Paranoid Interpretations of the Principle. I think more reasonable critics of the Principle like Gregory Stock, for example, would benefit from championing a Proportionate Interpretation of the Principle rather than denying the core of reasonableness in the Principle or tarring everybody who sees the sense in it with the brush of immoderateness that attaches to the Paranoid Interpretations.

Although I think it is true that the most vocal critics of the Principle wildly distort both it and its advocates, I want to say that I think even discussing it in these terms is a missed opportunity. As I mention in the article itself I think the advocacy of democratization of development advocated in the "Wingspread" statement and elsewhere is the most promising dimension of the Principle. This key but less developed part of the Precautionary Principle suggests that when developmental deliberation is more open, information-based, and democratic this is doubly beneficial. First, it promotes reasonableness and foresight because better more accurate assessments emerge from open encounters between all the stakeholders to a question. (The peer review traditions of science are the obvious example illustrating this sort of insight.) Second, it facilitates fairness, by distributing the costs, the risks, and the benefits all more proportionately among these same stakeholders. The unilateral imposition of developmental risk and cost by those who disproportionately benefit without risk should surely be a thing of the past.

I find the results of the ongoing BetterHumans poll on the Precautionary Principle to be a bit disheartening. The vast majority of respondants seem to think the Principle impractical because *all* activity carries risk. But this is a recognition that is the point of departure for many formulations of the Principle itself, which suggests that many pro-technology critics are opposing a Principle they haven't even read, let alone thought about carefully. The second most popular poll response suggests that the Principle is impractical because it doesn't take benefits into account.

But there is no such thing as "benefits" in the abstract. There are benefits *to whom*. Risks *to whom*. Costs *for whom,* harms *for whom*. The democratizing thrust of the Principle demands that we ask who benefits and who pays along the developmental way to the future we will share. Are the ones who pay most and risk most also the ones who benefit most? If not, why not? Contra the libertopians, the Principle does not foreclose a reasonable deliberation based on developmental tradeoffs, but seeks to ensure that when that deliberation occurs *all* the actual traders are present to deliberate about the costs, the risks, and the benefits. To them and to us all.

These are not "luddite" concerns. Technology should empower people, not exacerbate savage inequalities or facilitate the exploitation of the relatively less powerful by the relatively more powerful. All of that should go without saying, but I'll say it for the record. I am a progressive futurist. You all should be, too. Everybody needs to grow up and help out. --Dale Carrico

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Politics of Choice from Reproductive to Morphological Freedom

A piece in Slate today by Liza Mundy nicely surveys some of the perplexities pro-choice politics confronts in the era of genetic medicine. Clearly, choice activists recognize that bio-conservatives can easily exploit ignorance and anxieties about new reproductive technologies to introduce back-door restrictions on our reproductive choices, even though support for Choice is overwhelmingly widespread. But the truth is that many of the supporters of reproductive freedom are ambivalent themselves about the implications of the new era of genetic medicine, and so no real consensus strategies are emerging yet to counter the bio-conservatives. It is clearer by the day that the politics of Choice must change to accommodate new technology and ensure that these developments expand rather than restrict the scope of human freedom.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Eric Lee: Mydoom as a class issue

British Labour blogger Eric Lee delves into the class dimension of viruses and virus protection: viruses are increasingly becoming a class issue. of the Mydoom virus which is now racing around the net deliberately chose to target home users rather than corporate, government or military users. Home users are 'soft targets' for virus writers. They often barely understand the computer that they have purchased....

And then there's anti-virus software. Buy a new computer and you will probably get something installed with it. But if you don't pay to renew the license, you don't get protection....

Home users suffer both a lack of funds and a lack of knowledge and they are increasingly the intended target of malicious attacks like Mydoom. They are also, increasingly, working class people. The very rich will have the latest and best anti-virus software on their machines. They will be accessing the net through secure corporate networks, behind firewalls, and will rarely be exposed to problems. And if they do have a problem, they simply ring up the folks in the IT department who will come and fix it.
The answer?
Unions should be promoting open source software like Mozilla, Open Office and Linux because it is free and because it is more secure. They should be partnering with software companies to distribute inexpensive (or free) tools to members that will protect their investments in their home computers. Tools like ZoneAlarm (a free firewall), anti-virus software, and programs like MailWasher Pro that allow users to preview their email on servers, downloading to their computers only emails that they know they want to read. Unions have an interest in keeping their members online -- meaning that we have an interest in keeping them virus-free as well.

Letters to the Editor about Smalley/Drexler Nanotech Debate

Ralph Merkle writes: "The December 1st 2003 issue of Chemical & Engineering News carried a debate between Drexler and Smalley about the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. The January 26th 2004 issue devotes a little over two pages to letters on the debate. Of the eight letters published, five supported molecular manufacturing, one was clearly opposed, and two seemed skeptical."

Extracts from the letters at the link.

Europe's Plans to Go To the Moon and Mars

Reuters is reporting that the EU space agency has more advanced plans to go to the Moon and Mars than those proposed by Bush and co.
A European could step out onto the surface of Mars within three decades, under European Space Agency (ESA) plans spelled out on Tuesday. The plans are more precise than the broad U.S. goals of sending a man back to the moon by 2020 and to Mars by 2030, revealed last month by President Bush. 'We think it is technically feasible to have a manned mission to the moon between 2020 and 2025 and then to Mars between 2030 and 2035,' said Franco Ongaro, project manager of the ESA's fledgling Aurora space exploration program. "

Monday, February 02, 2004

Teaching Kids to Clone

My ten year-old daughter excitedly showed me this site where you can clone a mouse:

Then I had her clone herself and pick out gene tweaks for her child at: