The Precautionary Principle and Mad Cow Disease
This article was first published as "Flack Attack" in PR Watch, Volume 3, No. 1, First Quarter 1996. It original article was authored by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.
"The Precautionary Principle holds that a manufacturer must prove that its product does no harm, before it can be marketed," Mongoven wrote in the March 1995 issue of Eco-logic, an anti-environmentalist newsletter. "Activists want to use this weapon to control the behavior of other Americans . . . [to] revolutionize American thinking about regulation, constitutional law, and government's role in society."
You probably didn't know the Precautionary Principle was such a radical idea. You probably first learned it from your mother when she warned you to look both ways before crossing the street. You've heard it repeated in simple, common-sense phrases like "look before you leap" or "better safe than sorry."
Mongoven and his colleagues in the PR business have helped government and industry to insulate themselves from the Precautionary Principle. Instead, they use the "Bart Simpson" method of risk appraisal: "I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, you can't prove a thing." When evidence emerges showing that they are engaged in a harmful practice, they trot out scientific studies and experts who quibble and quarrel with the evidence, arguing that nothing has been proven yet.
The tobacco industry has used the Bart Simpson Principle for decades to dismiss evidence that their product is responsible for millions of human deaths. More than 40 years after scientists documented persuasive evidence of tobacco's role in cancer and lung disease, the industry is still claiming that the data is "inconclusive."
But what about cases where the scientific evidence actually is still inconclusive? Should we wait until harm is proven before we take precautionary action?
This was the philosophy behind the British and U.S. farming practices which spawned the Mad Cow epidemic. The stories beginning on page 9 of this issue show how the same philosophy led Dow Corning to put silicone breast implants in a million women's bodies--before bothering to conduct safety studies.
Spin doctors like Jack Mongoven would like the public to believe that this approach is "scientific" and that believers in the Precautionary Principle are irrational fearmongers. In reality, the spin doctors are the ones who have violated science. They have taken the uncertainty inherent in all scientific investigations of new phenomena, and turned it into an excuse for reckless endangerment of the public.
In England, epidemiologist Sheila Gore recently observed that the British government's handling of the Mad Cow epidemic "continues to play Russian roulette with no information on the odds."
If they are lucky, they may still dodge the bullet. Scientists may yet discover that Mad Cow is not the cause of the fatal dementias now emerging in human beings. Reliable scientific evidence may also prove someday that silicone is not the cause of the serious health problems that have been noted in tens of thousands of women with breast implants.
We hope they are right, and that we turn out to be completely wrong, because if our worst fears are realized, thousands of people will die horrible deaths.
It is certainly reasonable to invoke a Precautionary Principle when the stakes are this serious.