Wednesday, May 6, 2009

We Must Come to Accept a Measure of Uncertainty

Now that the probability of the swine flu becoming a major worldwide killer appears to be declining, it would be easy to criticize public health officials and the media for overreacting. And you might think that I, as libertarian-leaning and a frequent critic of the media, would do so.

However, in this case, I believe both public health officials and the media performed admirably.

No one could have, apriori, decided with reasonable confidence that this new virus would not become a megakiller. So the wisest approach was to alert the public to take the measured precautions (wash hands, avoid nonessential travel to Mexico), carefully monitor all suspected cases of swine flu, immediately conduct research to see if the new virus's molecular structure suggests high virulence, and wait as long as possible before deciding whether it's worth diverting vaccine manufacturing from seasonal flu vaccine to swine flu vaccine. The world's public health apparatus did all of the above.

They did not take the more extreme steps such as closing borders and prohibiting air and subway travel. Officials wisely recognized that we cannot reduce risk to zero. It rejected the absurd Precautionary Principle, which is many environmentalists' guiding principle. The Precautionary Principle argues that we should not undertake something new if it entails any risk. That black-and-white rule would have stifled immense amounts of scientific research that have benefited mankind--for example, human or even animal testing of any drug that now routinely saves lives.

Yet for example, the environmentalists that oppose "genetically modified foods" are trying to force farmers not to grow, for example, special high-protein, disease-resistant corn despite reasonable although not absolutely dispositive evidence that the resulting food causes no health risk.

Just as Israelis choose to live in that dangerous state despite the clearly non-zero risk of living next to people who elected a political party, Hamas, sworn to the Israelis' destruction. we must accept that there is greater likelihood of a worse life if we insist on reducing risk to near zero.

I believe that we should, for example, be willing to accept greater risk in hopes of much greater rewards in deciding policy regarding genetic engineering and, yes, whether it's worth expending unprecedentedly massive resources--2% of world GDP for decades is widely proposed--to attempt to cool the globe.

No comments:


blogger templates | Make Money Online