The Precautionary Principle
Drastically dissimilar reactions to COVID-19 have played out in the cities where I’ve split my past year. One reflects the little-known Precautionary Principle; the other Epistemic Optimism. The results have been disastrous, or life-saving, depending on where you live.
Wikipedia defines the Precautionary Principle as “a broad epistemological, philosophical and legal approach to [ideas] with potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new [behaviors] that may prove disastrous. Critics argue that it is vague, self-cancelling, unscientific and an obstacle to progress.”
Its opposing counterpart, according to an article published this week in The Atlantic, “is something like Epistemic Optimism: We don’t know enough, and we should always try to learn more.”
Glass Half What?
These two principles essentially represent both sides of the “glass half empty or glass half full” argument. The familiar expression uses a compelling image — a drinking glass containing equal parts water and air — to illustrate that when people share an experience, they invariably see it quite differently; and that further, this leads to a wide range of conclusions about the event — and the world — that are built on perceptions, not reality, and that regardless, most of us will insist they are facts.
Just look at the stomach-churning political landscape in the United States. Half of the country lives one “reality”, in which media is used to pump out dystopic propaganda, specious (fake!) science is wielded to manipulate and ruin lives, governments represent threats to precious freedoms, and the only thing standing in the way of societal collapse are guns. The other half lives another “reality” altogether, in which media is the final defense against despotism, science offers our greatest hope of survival in spite of ourselves, governments temper the…