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Turning Uncertainty Into Certainty – Reinventing The Precautionary Principle

Environmentalists will continue to be divided by the precautionary principle as it continues to embarrass them and their claim to be grounded in science and reason. The precautionary principle will be reformulated and hidden again, and then reinvented, ad nauseum, long after environmentalism’s demise.

The last few posts have been about the application of the precautionary principle. In some green perspectives, precaution operates overtly, and arguments about risk are made explicitly. In other cases, the precautionary principle still operates, but is hidden from view, which is to say that the precautionary principle prefigures in the argument, but it is not until the argument is unpacked that its influence is revealed. In this respect, the anti-GM protesters of last week were more more honest, consistent and reflective about their own argument than their pro-GM critics in the green camp, even if their arguments are irrational. The pro-GM critics didn’t notice their own use of the precautionary principle; it is hidden by the sheer volume of literature, policies, and institutions that are involved in the debate. In other words, the fact of a scientific consensus obscures the content of that consensus and the way in which it was established.

Back in the climate debate, I think I may have stumbled across the most remarkable attempt to formulate — or reformulate — the precautionary principle I have ever seen:

It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend. We have seen that greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern. We have seen that all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought. We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated, and that the allowance we must make for sea level rise will also be greater than anticipated. All of those results arise from simple mathematics, and we do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how greater uncertainty translates into greater risk.

These words belong to Stephan Lewandowsky, who is Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow at the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia. Lewandowsky has a series of posts up at the ‘Shaping Tomorrows World’ blog, which is funded by the University of Western Australia and the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University. So, presumably, these words are no joke. But they are an incredibly tortured attempted to alternate between word play and maths abuse.

Lewandowsky, over the course of three posts – onetwothree — reinvents the precautionary principle without ever calling it the precautionary principle. This is interesting in itself… An academic in the field of climate policy has forgotten that the precautionary principle already exists, is already applied to the science, and is already manifested in policy.

Angry computer scientist, Steve Easterbrook, tweeted a link to the posts:

Steve Easterbrook ‏@SMEasterbrook: Denialists often use uncertainty over future climate change to argue for inaction. But uncertainty is nobody’s friend

As previous posts have pointed out, the issue is not whose friend the precaution principle is — indeed, the point was made that the precautionary principle might apply to the precautionary principle. Thus, precaution may leave us in a dizzy spin of infinite regress. The issue for ‘denialists’ is instead that the application of the precautionary principle passes weak theoretical risk off as certainty; it turns possibility into story lines, about which ‘something must be done’.

This is the point I made to Keith Kloor — and I was perhaps a bit unfair to him, by lumping him in with the Easterbrooks of this world. After all, it was Kloor who pointed out that Easterbrook’s advocacy of climate science was out of kilter with his distrust of GM technology:

For the climate science community, climategate was a galvanizing event, in which many of them, such as Easterbrook, have risen to publicly defend their honor and profession. Thus, you might think that he (and other environmental scientists) would naturally come to the defense of plant scientists whose work and profession has also come under assault–by anti-GMO activists.

Not when it comes to genetic engineering.

It seems that many in the environmental community have a visceral dislike of biotechnology, especially GMO’s (genetically modified organisms.) It’s an interesting little quirk, which is worth exploring in more depth.

Meanwhile, Easterbrook has just offered up a long treatise that essentially lays out his misgivings about genetically engineered crops. […]

Easterbrook’s tweets about ‘denialists’, and his offering the link to Lewandowsky reformulation of the precautionary principle do much to make my point: that climate-preoccupied environmentalists really aren’t that interested in what ‘science says’; precaution is in fact the operating principle.

I won’t attempt to discuss Lewandowsky’s workings here, because his opening statement on the third of his posts — quoted above — is sufficiently… well, mad… to make my point. I hope that others may want to take a closer look, and I suspect that each of the paragraphs on each of the three posts could be the basis of an entire blog post, so stuffed full with presuppositions, special pleading and prejudice that they are… A case study in the mechanics of climate alarmism. So let’s visit the above quote, line-by-line…

It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend.

This may be true. But then, some have more to gain by championing precaution than others. Those of a green persuasion are invariably inclined to emphasise catastrophe in their arguments for political action. The predominant mode of contemporary politics is, with or without environmental issues, a politics of fear. This was the point made four years ago on this blog, in reply to Naomi Oreskes’ ‘merchents of doubt’ thesis:

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.

The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could), provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies.

Oreskes had written the precautionary principle out of the history of environmentalism’s development, and written it back in as the construction of climate sceptics in response to scientific certainty. Now Lewandowsky’s reformulation writes it back in to the unfolding story. ‘Uncertainty is nobody’s friend’, he says, but he makes a lot of capital out of it. Or tries to.

We have seen that greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern.

In other words, ‘the less we know, the more we should worry’. This has a curious implication. Whereas Oreskes had claimed that science had always been certain — that an unequivocal consensus had always existed — Lewandowsky must now claim that the consensus had not advanced its understanding of the climate: that we don’t know more than we did. And indeed, this reflects an ideological presupposition of environmentalism: that progress is itself a problem. For if certainty was actually achievable — if the parameters of climate change were actually understood — then ‘tackling climate change’ would become a straightforward technical problem. Instead, policies intended to tackle it are founded on the idea that the possible impacts of climate change are uncertain, precisely in order to head off any possibility of a solution that is not mitigation. In other words, if you know what kind of problem you are facing, then you deprive those who have made the <i>undefined</i> problem central to their perspective and their arguments about of the urgency of their cause.  The urgency of the problem is owed only to the fact that we don’t know what kind of problem it is.

We have seen that all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought.

This is a palpable nonsense. All other things being equal, things are the same, no matter no matter what we think about them, or how certain we are about what we think about them. Things in the world are not dependent on the degree of certainty we have about them. Leaving the distracting pseudo-jargon to one side, and taking the part of the sentence that could make sense reveals only at best a tautology: ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’. Indeed, the condition of uncertainty means precisely that what you think about a thing could be mistaken. Moreover, even certainty is no guarantee of security; things could be ‘worse than we thought’, in spite of certainty. Certainty and actuality are not the same.

We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated…

This is an extraordinary claim indeed, which requires some unpacking. This part of the sentence puts the degree of uncertainty into a necessary (i.e. it cannot be otherwise) relationship with what we have anticipated, and the outcome of events. The condition of uncertainty itself multiplies the anticipated result, to yield an impact of greater magnitude. This is an absurd claim, because the condition of uncertainty has no bearing on things. If you’re unsure about what the result of a throw of a dice will be, but that you anticipate that it will not be the number you want it to be (the odds are just 1 in 6 that it is, so it’s a good bet that it isn’t), your uncertainty does not reach out to the dice to prevent it turning the face with your number on it downwards.

That is the implication of the term ‘necessarily’ in the sentence. But let’s mediate it, to see if it makes any more sense: ‘greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily may possibly be greater than anticipated’. Again, this is at best a tautological truism, identical to the previous sentence’s meaning: ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’. Notice, then, that the ‘will necessarily’ in this sentence contradicts the previous sentence’s ‘could be’.

… and that the allowance we must make for sea level rise will also be greater than anticipated.

Again, this language is tortured. The object of the sentence is ‘the allowance we much make for sea level rise’. The meaning of the sentence then, is that the ‘allowance will be greater than anticipated’. This cannot be true, because the ‘allowance we make for sea level rise’ will be at least equivalent to what we anticipate sea level to be. (I say ‘at least’, because the precautionary principle allows us to expand our estimation of what sea level rise may be.) Perhaps this academic struggles with the English language. Perhaps logic and proportion escape him. Or perhaps this is some kind of clumsy attempt at a sleight of hand. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s imagine that what he wants to say is that ‘sea level rise will be greater than anticipated’. But this still doesn’t work, because the anticipation is clouded by uncertainty… Uncertainty, then, necessarilyimplies under-estimation, on Lewandowsky’s view. He is wrong. My not knowing if I’ve got the winning lottery ticket does not make my winning the lottery any more or less likely.

All of those results arise from simple mathematics, and we do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how greater uncertainty translates into greater risk.

Let’s be far too fair to Lewandowsky: he is nothing more than a bullshit artist. ‘Simple mathematics’ have nothing to do with his claim, and the mathematics he offers on his blog posts are as tortured as his language and logic. Uncertainty has no relation to actual risk. The degree of risk is the same, no matter what the degree of certainty is. To say otherwise, is to say that the world is moved by nothing other than the confidence we have in our thoughts, and that I could will a dice to produce a 6 on each throw, merely by being sufficiently confident in the outcome: a Disney version of reality. Even the best sense we can make of his claim — that uncertainty implies the underestimation of risks — is a nonsense, because we know that it is possible to over-estimate risk, even in the face of uncertainty. And we have precedents: the Y2K bug; BSE; flu pandemics of recent years; acid rain; ozone depletion; and the entire torrent of turgid crap produced by Malthusians such as Paul Ehrlich over the last half century. This is yet another of one of those Emperor’s New Clothes moments, in which an academic has attempted to identify with the environmental issue. Rather than advancing knowledge revealed not only his own inability to reason, but also his actual contempt for knowledge. Only sophistry underpins his conclusion.

Environmentalists have claimed to speak for science, but only have the monopoly on over-estimation of risk. Indeed, it is only by virtue of their over-estimations of risk that environmentalism has achieved any influence at all. And this is the reason why environmentalists cannot abandon the precautionary principle. To eschew this tendency to produce wild speculation, and the use of ‘science’ to construct superficially plausible story lines from that speculation, would mean to abandon the political capital and urgency that is generated by the mere possibility of risk. Take away the environmentalist’s licence to speculate, and the idea that the world needs special forms of politics and powerful political institutions to deal with the ‘climate crisis’ is suddenly redundant.

The precautionary principle — risk analysis without numbers, and without a sense of proportion — gives greater weight to speculation than to knowledge. That is the nature of the politics of fear: you can’t rule something out, so in order to survive, you have to assume that anything you can speculate about is actually the case and act accordingly. In the wake of criticism of the precautionary principle, environmentalists and those invested in the environmental agenda attempted to distance themselves from it, to emphasise certainty instead: the unequivocal consensus that ‘climate change is happening’. But the precautionary principle did not go away. It took on a new form, and lurked in the background. Rather than saying that the risks of climate change were beyond estimation, environmentalists invented a horizon of uncertainty: the limit of 2 degrees, beyond which lay ‘dangerous climate change’. But this limit was intangible. It wasn’t detected by science; it was invented to meet the needs of policy-makers. It mediated some of the excesses of the precautionary principle by reasoning that we know more about what will happen before 2 degrees of warming than what will happen following it.

But hiding the precautionary principle from environmentalism’s critics concealed it also from the environmentalists. They too forgot the ground on which their perspectives were formed. And now we see in Lewandowsky’s silly posts that the ugly creature wants to crawl back out of the hole it has been buried in. Lewandowsky’s posts will, by themselves, likely achieve no great influence, but what this shows is the irrepressible, irrational and incoherent nature of environmentalism. Environmentalists will continue to be divided by the precautionary principle as it continues to embarrass them and their claim to be grounded in science and reason. The precautionary principle will be reformulated and hidden again, and then reinvented, ad nauseum, long after environmentalism’s demise.