Precautionary Principle: Possibly the biggest sham of our time.

April 26th, 2008
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About Precautionary Principle:

Precautionary principle sounds logical: When you aren’t sure if something might cause harm, be careful and don’t do anything that could be dangerous, especially to anything really important like human lives, the environment and so on. It also seems like it would not be a new or revolutionary concept. However, Precautionary Principle is really a lot more extreme and a lot less common sense than one might think.

The term actually dates back to 1998, when The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network was issued the statement: ”

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

And with this one statement, “Precautionary Principle” became the next big thing and was totally the “in” concept for everyone in the enviro-political movement to go to workshops on and state talking about – just to show how up to date they are.

The concept was pushed as if it were somehow amazing and should be the guiding principle behind EVERYTHING. The EU formally adopted Precautionary Principle in 2000 as the fundamental basis of environmental policy, without really ever defining what it was or how it should be applied. Not surprisingly, San Fransisco in the US has adopted the policy as well.

But there’s a problem. precautionary principle assumes that something should be considered harmful or potentially harmful until proven otherwise. Depending on your definition of “proof,” you may run into some problems here. If one goes by the principle that nothing in science is ever proven true beyond any doubt, then you automatically have a paradox where it is impossible to ever do anything on the grounds that it might possibly maybe be harmful.

In precautionary principle, no evidence is needed that something is harmful or even could be harmful. No plausible reason to believe it could be harmful is needed either. In many cases no amount of scientific evidence against the thesis that something is harmful ever seems to be reasonable to counter the argument that something is “not proven safe.” Good scientists are often reluctant to state something is “impossible” – for example, the designer of a nuclear reactor may be highly confident that the reactor will never melt down and that even if it did the containment vessel would hold the material. But despite this, the designer would understandably be reluctant to say it *cannot* happen. After all, it’s not impossible that the containment structure won’t be breached by a hit by a massive meteor, even if it is astronomically unlikely.

In this circumstance, precautionary principle moves the burden of proof, creating a ridiculous burden to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that any claim of harm, no matter how far fetched is 100% false. Since no evidence is ever needed to make a claim and no reasoning for the claim is required either, it’s possible to claim anything might be harmful in one way or another.

Therefore by this logic:

“I think CF lightbulbs will increase the number of herpes cases.”
“Why?”
“I just do. I think I had a dream about it or something.”
“Is there proof to the contrary?”
“No no studies have ever been done into the use of CF lightbulbs and the transmission of herpes”
“Can we do one?”
“Yes, but it’s hard, if not impossible to be totally conclusive about that kind of link, especially if it’s small.”
“Therefore we must ban CF lightbulbs”

On the risk of doing nothing:

Another big issue with “precuationary principle” is that it assumes that it is always best to do nothing when the action is not proven beyond the smallest shadow of a doubt to be harmful. However, since it always favors inaction, this can be significantly worse than taking an action. For one thing, refusing to accept anything new or anything which might possibly be harmful will tend to have economic and societal consequences, which although indirect, can lead to a much greater harm to life health and the environment.

Furthermore, failure to take an action or adopt a method or technology will always favor approaches of inaction which will commonly have a greater impact. For example, if seat belts were a new technology, one might be able to use precautionary principle to argue that there is no proof that they will not injure the body by trying to stop it too quickly or that they will not trap people in burning cars. One might even go as far as to say that there is no proof that they will not have the effect of making people feel secure and therefore drive more erratically and therefore cost lives. Thus, by precautionary principle, no matter how many crash test studies are done and no matter how much theory and design goes into seat belts, there would be grounds for banning them.

This presents another paradox because precautionary principle does not allow for any kind of “risk management” or “acceptably small risk” no matter how small. It can be taken to the point of being ridiculous and often is. It does not allow for any assessment of the risk of inaction. Building a cell phone tower near a school would be considered to be against precautionary principle because there “may be some risk,” but it does not consider that if it were not built near the school it may be more difficult to build and therefore put the lives of workers in more danger. It may also offer poorer coverage and therefore cost the life of a motorist who is unable to call in an emergency. These possibilities, though small, are certainly no smaller than the risk of building near a school.

Example of Applying Precautionary Principle to Inaction:

“The house is on fire. We had better put it out with this extinguisher before the fire spreads and consumes the house.”
“How do we know the extinguisher will not make it worse? Perhaps the extinguisher is full of gasoline and pressured with propane instead of CO2.”
“But how could that happen?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps someone filled it with gas as a joke. Perhaps someone who did not understand the English writing on it believed it was a gas container and filled it.”
“That sounds far fetched.”
“Yes but you cannot prove it could not happen. We have no proof this is not the case.”
“You are right, by precautionary principle we should not attempt to put out the fire.”

Some common sense and when to be cautious:

If you’re not absolutely certain something is safe, then you probably shouldn’t bet your life or anyone else’s on it. Sounds like common sense, right? And in general it is. This is why, even if an aircraft company is pretty damn sure their latest design is totally safe and reliable from wind tunnel testing and calculations, they still build a prototype and give it a good shakedown with an experienced test pilot before it gets the all clear to carry passengers. This is why drugs are tested on tissue cultures, animals and controlled volunteer groups many times before they are put out on the market. It’s also why lifeboats are installed on ships, even if the owners are really damn sure that the ship is not going to sink. It’s always a good idea to take that extra measure of security in case you’re wrong.

In engineering a concept which is goes along these lines is called “factor of safety.” It basically means the margin between what stresses an item is going to be subjected and the stresses that would cause it to fail. Factor of safety tends to be very high for items where there is any uncertainty involved and where a failure could be catastrophic. Exactly how much of a factor of safety is considered necessary depends on certain things. In circumstances where a failure could result in a loss of life, factor of safety is generally high. This is especially true whenever there are uncertainties, such as when a certain type of structure is being built for the first time or in high risk environments like space flight or submarines.

For example, if a bridge is intended to carry a certain amount of traffic, then the design will call for enough strength to support the maximum possible load expected on the bridge, plus an extra load beyond its intended capacity. The reason is simple: to insure a comfortable margin of safety so even if one of the calculations is a little off or if one of the gutters has an undetected flaw in it or even if there has been some damage to the bridge, everyone can rest assured that it won’t come crashing down. (At least, it is not supposed to. If not maintained properly or too much load is placed on it.. well that’s another thing.)

Engineers are asked to work between opposing forces of safety and cost. In many cases, a large factor of safety is practical because the cost of adding more material than is absolutely necessary is nominal. However, in some cases, there is also a need to keep effeciency of materials and construction to the maximum. An example of this is aircraft. Building an aircraft considerably stronger than it needs to be for routine operation would add too much weight and could actually effect safety (as well as effeciency and performance) negatively. In such circumstances, the factor of safety may be smaller, but in order to achieve this while still maintaining acceptable confidence in the safety of the aircraft, the degree of uncertainty must be reduced, thus necessitating rigorous testing and quality control.

Another application of “factor of safety” can be found in pharmaceuticals. In general, doctors are not permitted to prescribe the amount of a medication which would theoretically kill a patient. They’re not even allowed to prescribe anything close to it. Furthermore the greater the difference between a therapeutic dose of a drug is from the lethal dose of the drug is, the greater the factor of safety and thus the safer the drug is considered. Drugs with smaller factors of safety are always monitored very carefully, but those which have very little chance of causing problems are not subjected to the same scrutiny. A drug with a small factor of safety might be considered unsuitable for situations where it is not completely necessary to preserve life or health.

In a few circumstances, there is known to be a very high probability of danger or there are great unknowns. In these circumstances it is considered justified to expend more on safety than would be normally considered necessary in other circumstances. A case in point would be sending men to the moon. The Apollo program had vigorous safety measures, which were increased after the tragic Apollo-1 accident. Despite being tested on static stands and simulations, all rocket stages were tested without humans on board before being used for a manned flight. The Apollo command and lunar modules were completed by Apollo-7, but they were tested in earth orbit and then in lunar orbit before the first attempt to land on the moon. The first landing was brief and carried sparse equipment to save capacity. Later landings increased capability and duration. These safety measure would prove worth their price when Apollo-13 was nearly lost. Despite all the safety measures taken on the program, it was still understood to be a high risk mission and was undertaken by astronauts who understood the dangers. Richard Nixon’s speech writers had even prepared a speech to be given in the event of a loss of the crew.

Precautionary Principle: This is where common sense gets twisted into something very nonsensical.

Case in point: Cell Phone Towers and Wireless Transmitters

According to some, precautionary principle should be applied to cell phone transmitters and other RF devices. The proposals are to restrict the deployment of such towers and to especially assure that they are never placed remotely near to residential structures, schools, population centers and similar. Furthermore, proposals have been made for shielding on buildings in order to reduce exposure.

The consequences of doing so would include great expense on both mobile companies and customers, dramatically reduced quality of service and the need for cell phones to transmit at higher power levels in many areas, thereby actually increasing local RF field intensity. Such restrictions would also dramatically reduce the potential revenue to site owners from leases, including excluding schools and public property from lucrative site leases. Furthermore, the reduced quality of service can impact the use of cell phones for reporting emergencies as well as the ability of the system to triangulate the location of emergency calls. Because many of these protests also address government and dispatch radio services, such as TETRA, restrictions can also have an impact on the quality and reliability of communications to first responders, law enforcement and other emergency services.

Reasons not to worry:

-Extensive scientific study has failed to find any proof or even solid evidence showing any adverse health effects.

-Several extremely large and well controlled studies have been done on the subject and approved by well respected and credible scientific bodies.

-The inverse square law assures that any RF radiation exposure is extremely small at a normal distance from the transmitter.

-The levels at the base of a transmitter are often lower than those near a phone or even around wireless headsets, baby monitors, remote controls and alike.

-More than a half century of use of UHF and microwave communications, many much more powerful has failed to produce any noticable effects on health at low levels.

-The exposure limits set for RF radiation from transmitters are significantly lower than the levels at which damage to health has even been shown to be possible.

-No credible mechanism by which low-level RF radiation could have chronic health effects has been proposed.

-All or nearly all the claims of electrosensitivity, acute effects, health problems around transmitters and alike have failed to be verified by scientific tests, but they are very easily explained by very well established psycological and sociological effects which are analogous to numerous other cases seen throughout history.

Reasons to worry:

-RF radiation fields are rare, but not unheard of in natural settings where humans evolved.

-A lot of people have claimed that they could be harmful, although no valid evidence has been produced.

-RF radiation is known to be hazardous at very high levels, although this is primarily due to dielectric heating.

- It is remotely possible that a long term health effect from exposure to RF fields exists, but is so extremely weak and exists in so few cases that it has failed to stand out from the statistical noise despite the extensive studies done. Long-term associations with conditions like cancer can be difficult to verify when the link is not statistically strong and clear-cut.

The Interest in Precautionary Principle:

One might think that something as general as “Precautionary Principle” would not really be exciting enough to have any organizations devoted to it. This is not the case, however. There are several organizations which not only support Precautionary Principle, but have made it a major part of their reason for being or are entirely dedicated to the idea of precautionary principle. Seems a bit strange really to sit around and talk about precautions and how they can be stretched to the extreme, but that’s what they do!

Organizations:

The Precautionary Principle Project
Precaution.org – The Environmental Research Foundation
The Science And Environmental Health Network
Taking Precaution – The Bay Area Precautionary Principle Working Group
Environmental Commons
Be Safe Precautionary Campaign
Southeast Regional Precautionary Conference
The Center For Health, Environment and Justice
A Small Dose of Toxicology
Oregon Center for Environmental Health


This entry was posted on Saturday, April 26th, 2008 at 2:54 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Not Even Wrong, Obfuscation, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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27 Responses to “Precautionary Principle: Possibly the biggest sham of our time.”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    The most serious problem with the Precautionary Principle is that it offers no guidance – not just that it is wrong, but that it logically forbids all courses of action, including inaction. Thus we can say under the terms of the Principle: if we avoid actions that carry a small risk of significant harm, then we should not spend a lot of money to reduce risks because those expenditures also carry risk. As a consequence the Precautionary Principle is in fact The Paralyzing Principle. Therefore the problem with the Precautionary Principle is not that it leads in the wrong direction, but that – if taken for all it is worth – it leads in no direction at all. A rational system of risk regulation certainly takes precautions. But it does not adopt the Precautionary Principle.


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  2. 2
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Yeah that is the problem. It’s a paradox and the only way you can ever really not end up in a crippling logical paradox is to use it in the most narrow way that does not look at the greater indirect problems caused and which always favors inaction over action.

    Strictly speaking it’s basically impossible to have a situation guided by precautionary principle, but if you focus it on just opposing anything new or involving technology than you can kinda implement it – as long as it’s narrow.

    You have to use it in application to something but at the same time not use it as applied to the precautions themselves. I mean you could be hit by a car by wearing a bee suit because it impairs your vision or you could drown because it holds water if you fell into a body of water – it protects against bees but would be harmful in other events. Thus you must exempt the precaution taken and see it narrowly as only in regards to one item which is always selective.


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  3. 3
    Q Says:

    You’re right. It’s only possible at all if it’s narrow and selective. There is also a sort of use of it in the manner that it seems to favor that which is already existing or established practice. That doesn’t really offer any kind of assurance though that it is safe, because the risk might be there but too small to notice.

    How do we know incandescent light bulbs don’t increase herpies? I mean there’s never been a study.

    But there’s a knee-jerk reaction here which is totally unjustified and illogical and that is that “what is new might be dangerous but what is not new must be safe or we’d all have been killed by it by now” which is totally bunk because it’s talking about small danger.

    It is selective and favors inaction because it has to. If you did it universally you would end up chasing your own tail in indecision.


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  4. 4
    DV82XL Says:

    The problem is people dislike losses far more than they like corresponding gains. The result is that deviation from the status quo, seem much worse than benefits lost as a result of keeping things the same. In the context of risks, people often tend to focus on the losses that are associated with some hazard, and to disregard the gains that might be associated with that activity.

    A closely related point is that unfamiliar risks produce far more concern than familiar ones, even if the latter are available, whereas other risks are not. When the Precautionary Principle seems to require stringent controls on one risk, even though other risks are in the vicinity, availability is a common reason. And when availability is at work, certain hazards will stand out whether or not they are statistically large. The hazards associated with heat waves, for example, receive little public attention, while the hazards associated with air travel are a significant source of public concern; one reason is that the latter hazards come readily to mind. That is a serious problem because the less salient risks, can be the serious ones.


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  5. 5
    Chem Geek Gregor Says:

    The point of this is an appeal to fear and ignorance. It always is selective because it has to be and it plays on the public’s lack of understanding of something – it always goes after the most conspicuous danger even if it’s tiny and not the greatest.

    It’s like the fact that someone going on a plane trip somewhere is likely to stress over the danger of a plane crash and I even know people who would check their life insurance and make sure it’s up to date. Is there a danger of a plane crash? Yes a small one. Did they stop to think about the drive to the airport or getting off the plane and driving around in a vacation area full of drunks for a week? No. That is what precautionary principle BS plays on: what the obvious and conspicuous uncertainty is in the public’s mind and not what matters.

    Don’t confuse precautionary principle with something like factor of safety or risk management or testing out drugs or aircraft or cars before approving them for public use. Those are totally valid applications of precautions.

    Precautionary principle is fine if you had a reasonable definition of “risk” and a reasonable idea what evidence is needed to decide on something. Precautionary principle is not really “use precautions when not sure” or something like that. It’s an excuse for an appeal to fear which hides behind what are otherwise sensible words but which leave an open end that gives license for opposing anything for no reason.


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  6. 6
    Gordon Says:

    Well I knew that “precautionary principle” was bull and it’s taken to the point of being absurd, but I’m very surprised that there would any organizations or working groups on precautionary principle. That’s surprising. How can you have a “conference” on it? How can you have an organization dedicated to it? that’s crazy.


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  7. 7
    Finrod Says:

            Gordon said:

    Well I knew that “precautionary principle” was bull and it’s taken to the point of being absurd, but I’m very surprised that there would any organizations or working groups on precautionary principle.

    That’s surprising. How can you have a “conference” on it?

    How can you have an organization dedicated to it?

    that’s crazy.

    Possibly the conferences are needed to sort out just how far and in what circumstances it can be applied without having the scam backfire on them.


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  8. 8
    Gordon Says:

            Finrod said:

    Possibly the conferences are needed to sort out just how far and in what circumstances it can be applied without having the scam backfire on them.

    It’s amazing what a cottage industry can be made out of with enough hype. Yes, it’s totally stupid. “precautionary principle” is not new at all, it’s just the simple concept of being cautious with unknowns only it’s extended to an absurd level that makes it a joke.

    Idiotic. these kind of things come up every once in a while and there are those who seem to think it’s actually something worth having a conference about.


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  9. 9
    Soylent Says:

    I think the precautionary principle ties in to the bizarre standards applied to nuclear safety.

    The justification for LNT, when one is given, seems to be that we don’t know exactly how the response to ionizing radiation at very low doses looks so we must use LNT because it’s known to be an upper bound, even though we know LNT vastly overestimates the danger at low doses(which some studies have found to be beneficial and most studies have found to have no effect).

    Repeatedly you see assumptions like people responding to a punctured used fuel cask by camping outside it for a whole year before thinking about maybe doing something about it.

    If similar standards where applied to solar cells you’d find that a solar cell production plant could kill many thousands of people in the worst case accident. e.g. if hydrogen flouride gets out and is somehow vaporized and applied in precisely a lethal dose to thousands of people. Or if cadmium or other toxic heavy metals sometimes used in solar get loose, they have a half-life of forever and we can’t be sure exactly how fast they will sediment out so pretend they don’t and kill people for millions of years.


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  10. 10
    DV82XL Says:

    The Precautionary Principle is a pure creature of bureaucracy The February 2, 2000 European Commission Communication on the Precautionary Principle notes: “The precautionary principle applies where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU, thus the lack of certainty regarding the threat should not be used as an excuse to preclude regulation”


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  11. 11
    Gordon Says:

    Uh huh. And why is it that whenever someone calls for “precautionary principle” when placing a cell phone tower or a nuclear reactor or something the part about “preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern” seems to get left out.

    I’d agree if there is a good scientific reason to think that something might be harmful you should proceed with caution until you know otherwise. That’s the reason for the examples given, like even if a new aircraft should fly just fine based on wind tunnels and design calculations, you still test the design and then have a test pilot put it through its paces slowely until you’ve established it’s safe to take passengers. Because we know that there’s reasonable concern that there might be something wrong with it we didn’t catch on the paper design. That’s why if there is reasonable scientific evidence that a drug might cause a problem before it’s on the market they will require it be shown not to before approving it.

    The enforcement of it is nothing like the toned down statement. They leave out the whole “reasonable” part and throw around the term as an excuse.


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  12. 12
    Q Says:

    It has nothing to do with reasonable precautions. It’s just white-washing extremism and scaremongering. It’s worse than worthless.

    But yeah, the groups who use it as some kind of basis for a conference or research or advocacy are just lame. It it’s in the same league with political correctness.


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  13. 13
    J Carlton Says:

    There is something to be said for a precautionary principle in a setting where some degree of precaution is merited as in an industrial facility. Here’s a case where there are no precautions taken for safety in an environment where such things would be considered normal, the Westinghouse factory in the turn of the last century:
    http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/papr/west/westhome.html
    Look at the film of the casting floor and the film of the railroad motor shop and cringe.
    Yet even today I have seen, in places where you think that stupidity should not exist, for instance physics grad students wearing shorts and sandals on open grate platforms. Even in the period of of OSHA the best way to keep yourself safe is to take reasonable precautions and understand the difference between real hazards and false ones made up by some people with an agenda.


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  14. 14
    Chem Geek Gregor Says:

    You’re missing the point. Precautionary Principle is sound in the fundamental idea that you should be careful in dangerous circumstances. It’s not even just sound, it’s something any idiot ought to realize. The concept however is warped and completely overdone.

    The fact that there are groups pushing it and that there are so many big deals about it just shows how bunk the movement is. It’s an excuse for what’s really stupid in practice.


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  15. 15
    Kevin Brennan Says:

    Nice article! A couple of weeks ago there was a convocation here at Rose-Hulman where John Graham gave an excellent talk on the precautionary principle and how it has effected the EU. If I remember correctly, Graham worked for a number of years in the George W. Bush administration in an attempt to cut regulatory costs and is an open supporter of proper risk management. What he had to say really opened up my eyes to why some parts of Europe have grown to be so anti-technology.

    Personally, I don’t see how anyone who knows even the basics of statistics can take the precautionary principle seriously. If it gains much more legal influence it could very well be the biggest sham of our time, so I definitely agree.


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  16. 16
    FXXX 22 Says:

    Very good writeup. It is also a very good article on engineered safety systems and factor of safety. I will recommend it. Good basic explanations of how you can have some sanity in being careful and using good safety margins versus taking it much too far! I would recommend this to those interested in starting off in engineering to understand this.


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  17. 17
    Kim Says:

    I can’t believe “Precautionary Principle” would be the topic of a conference or organization. What a special interest sham!

    It’s like having a conference on “using materials” or “not forgetting important things” or some other concept so general and meaningless it’s nothing but a front for a mentality that is completely useless.

    It’s a front for an excuse to deny and oppose everything.


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  18. 18
    DV82XL Says:

            Kim said:

    I can’t believe “Precautionary Principle” would be the topic of a conference or organization. What a special interest sham!

    It’s like having a conference on “using materials” or “not forgetting important things” or some other concept so general and meaningless it’s nothing but a front for a mentality that is completely useless.

    It’s a front for an excuse to deny and oppose everything.

    I can’t keep up with what’s been going on
    I think my heart must just be slowing down
    Among the human beings in their designer jeans
    Am I the only one who hears the screams
    And the strangled cries of lawyers in love


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  19. 19
    Yojimbo Says:

    Good write-up. Just an observation about aircraft and flight testing: Unless they have significantly changed plans in the past year, there will not be a prototype for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in spite of it using an unprecedented amount of composite material and some essentially new construction methods. All prototyping is to be done through computer simulation, and the first airplane to be built is supposed to be delivered to a customer.

    That is not to say that they won’t do extra flight testing on the first one – they probably will – but they are really trying to move away from the idea of designated prototype for flight testing. (That being said, who knows what will happen now that the 787 is running behind schedule.) We may not see prototypes (at least for commercial jets) in the future, becuase computer sims will have gotten good and reliable enough to eliminate the need. This certainly is not in the “spirit” of the Precautionary Principle. :)


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  20. 20
    Russel Says:

            Yojimbo said:

    Good write-up. Just an observation about aircraft and flight testing: Unless they have significantly changed plans in the past year, there will not be a prototype for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in spite of it using an unprecedented amount of composite material and some essentially new construction methods. All prototyping is to be done through computer simulation, and the first airplane to be built is supposed to be delivered to a customer.

    That is not to say that they won’t do extra flight testing on the first one – they probably will – but they are really trying to move away from the idea of designated prototype for flight testing. (That being said, who knows what will happen now that the 787 is running behind schedule.) We may not see prototypes (at least for commercial jets) in the future, becuase computer sims will have gotten good and reliable enough to eliminate the need. This certainly is not in the “spirit” of the Precautionary Principle. :)

    Yeah it is a little different than it was, but mind you that despite not having a dedicated prototype aircraft they will still test all the major components (especially the new ones) at full scale. They test the engines on a static stand and on a test aircraft and then they build full scale any components which are new in design and do the testing on the ground or in some cases in an aircraft.

    This is actually seen as being safer and being a better evaluation because you can take them to the breaking point where you could not on a full scale plane, even with a test pilot. (Unless maybe you really did not like the test pilot.)

    There are still flight tests required but not a full prototype evaluation in most cases. It depends on the country but it doesn’t carry paying passengers on the first few flights.

    I don’t know if the first 787 will be an airline sale though. Most times they seem to build the first one as a kind of marketing plane which they send around to take some pictures and try to sell up airlines. They they might take a few passenger flights for different airlines and try to show how great it is.

    That’s what the new Airbus did with the superjumbo. They flew the first all around to get pictures taken and all that.


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  21. 21
    Yojimbo Says:

    True – but the idea of selling the very first plane to a paying customer was touted as one of the 787 innovations. As I said, things may have changed in the past year, but that was the deal during the time when I was working on the 787 program. And, of course, the advances made in computer sims, as well as the testing methods you mention, make aircraft performance less of a murky area than it once was – they don’t tend to come up with odd performance quirks (though Airbus found out they still sneak in on occasion – both in Paris and New York).


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  22. 22
    Biff Henderson Says:

            Yojimbo said:

    True – but the idea of selling the very first plane to a paying customer was touted as one of the 787 innovations. As I said, things may have changed in the past year, but that was the deal during the time when I was working on the 787 program. And, of course, the advances made in computer sims, as well as the testing methods you mention, make aircraft performance less of a murky area than it once was – they don’t tend to come up with odd performance quirks (though Airbus found out they still sneak in on occasion – both in Paris and New York).

    Yeah that might be the case with the 787, I don’t know. I assume regulations will be that it doesn’t take off on the very first flight with paid customers anyway. That thing seems far enough behind that they might need to make the first one go right to the airlines because they can’t afford to dedicate a whole airframe to testing ;-)

    But anyways, that just goes to show something with aircraft and other stuff: We’ve tested enough prototypes to realize by now that unexpected stuff doesn’t usually crop up. It’s still static tested and held to high safety standards. AS our knowledge of materials and fabrication increases we have more confidence in the safety.


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  23. 23
    Doug Says:

    Well they would never send an aircraft up to carry passengers unless it was at least based on very very well proven technology and had good well known safety systems.

    The fact that they might fly one without a full battery of prototype testing only proves that they believe that it’s reached the point of being high enough confidence to do this after decades of engineering. Precautionary principle always assums you have no confidence at all.


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  24. 24
    Dave G Says:

    By precautionary principle the Wright Brothers would have been imprisoned or ordered to stop making that crazy flying thing before it kills someone! Or… because it has the potential too.

    Yeah I agree though. If the 787 does not have a prototype it’s because we’ve reached the point where engineering has enough confidence. And still it’s static tested on the ground!


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  25. 25
    Arthur Dent Says:

    Ok, I will put my head on the block in defence of the Precautionary Principle. (Pauses to put on protective clothing including asbestos suit to protect from flame wars)

    First point to mke is that the Precautionary principle actually dates much further back, to Germany in the 1960s, when it was the called the Vorsorgeprinzip, but lets not quibble about a few facts.

    Second point the principle IS poorly defined and this has allowed unscrupulous green groups to metaphorically get away with murder by invoking a bastardised version of the principle at every opportunity. Their propaganda is so good that this article and most of the comments believe the green propaganda instead of looking at the underlying issue.

    Third point: There are some key words and phrases in the most accepted form of the principle (Adopted at the UN Conference on the environment in Rio) This states that “Where there is a risk of significant and irreversible damage the lack of scientific certainty shall not be used to prevent cost effective action from being taken.”

    So there needs to be an “identifiable risk that damage will occur ” NOT some vague concern with no basis in fact. The damage must be both “significant” and “irreversible” if it isn’t both then the principle does not apply. The action taken must be “cost effective” and it is a lack of “scientific certainty” that cannot be used to prevent action not the absence of any scientific data.

    The principle was primarily established to justify action being taken in the face of those who would otherwise say – “But there is no absolute proof that this happens” For example there is no direct proof of what the causative agent in tobacco is that increases lung cancer risk in smokers, but it makes sense to restrict its sale to minors.

    The principle was seen to be valuable in order to try to avoid some of the difficult environmental contamination problems that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these were caused by the widespread use of substances whose proprerties were not fully recognised until they had been applied in such widespread uses that the whole planet was contaminated – PCBs, chlorinated insecticides, freons etc. By the time it was realised that perhaps more stringent controls on diffuse uses might have been appropriate it was too late to put the stopper back in the bottle, and in most cases these substances have very long half lives thus leading to a contamination problem that would continue for at least several generations.

    Was it possible to manage these issues better? One way was to suggest that substances with the potential to be distributed across the global environment, and with very long half lives, should only be used cautiously until there was more certainty that they did not possess any unfortunate properties. Even in the absence of proof that they would cause problems, a higher degree of caution seemed to be sensible: and this led to the Precautionary Principle.

    It has been dreadfully misused, without a doubt, mainly because scientists have been scared to take on the green NGOs, as a result we in Europe have ended up opening Pandoras (precautionary) Box.


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  26. 26
    DV82XL Says:

            Arthur Dent said:

    Ok, I will put my head on the block in defence of the Precautionary Principle. (Pauses to put on protective clothing including asbestos suit to protect from flame wars) ……..It has been dreadfully misused, without a doubt, mainly because scientists have been scared to take on the green NGOs, as a result we in Europe have ended up opening Pandoras (precautionary) Box.

    You are right, of course. In its original form it was less strident than how it has manifested itself in regulation, nevertheless it is the regulations and the hyperbole of the Nannies and the Greens that we have to live with. In the end it is these interpretations that are causing problems.

    UNCED’s version is just a officious restatement of commonsense ideas that have been around for long before even Vorsorgeprinzip; it’s their abuse that we are railing about here.


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  27. 27
    The Power of the ‘Death’ Chant will protect Us | Rogue Medic Says:

    […] Image credit.   […]


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