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Critical Thinking Part 6: A precautionary tale

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Not acting until you have a good idea of any adverse consequences is called the precautionary principle. This happens every day. Products are tested before they go to market, to prove that they're safe. Because there's a chance that they're not. But it's difficult to remove all concerns about the risks associated with every single action. Let alone those based on the complex series of tests and observations required by science. And here we run into some confusion about how science works. Some say global warming and evolution aren't facts, they're just theories. But there's no 'just' about it. In science the word theory doesn't mean 'I reckon' it means a well tested rule, which is based on logic, explains repeated observations, and has been used to make accurate predictions. This makes them incredibly useful and difficult to ignore. Newton's theory of gravitational attraction, is a theory. It explains how objects with mass move the way they do. It's a theory so useful that some three hundred years after it was first published, it's still used to send objects from Earth to the far reaches of the solar system. Observable or proven facts are only part of science. When we're faced with the risks, it's natural to want to wait until there's a hundred percent certainty about it. Unfortunately, that's impossible. The best that can be achieved is that given all our current theories, repeated testing, logic, and the facts, that we're reasonably confident something is safe. And this is where the precautionary principle can be misused. Waiting for more information is useful but waiting for that unattainable one hundred percent certainty prevents anybody from doing anything. Consider mobile phones and fears that their radiation emissions may cause cancer. If we choose to wait until mobile phones were proven to be one hundred percent safe, or not, we would have no mobile phone technology. Cancer is not something to be taken lightly, and concerns should never be dismissed. But waiting for irrefutable data, which is logically impossible, is a bad way to make decisions. And by doing so, we may lose amazing opportunities or encounter new risks. Asking about risks is sensible. But demanding one hundred percent safety, stops technology from evolving.

Video Details

Duration: 2 minutes and 53 seconds
Country: Australia
Language: English
Producer: Bridge 8
Director: James Hutson
Views: 1,886
Posted by: ffuentes on Feb 29, 2012

Part 6 of the TechNyou critical thinking resource.

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