No Risk? No Progress!

GELFAND’S WORLD--A couple of decades ago, some of my environmentalist friends started talking about something they called the precautionary principle.

In essence, it was an argument that genetic modification technology should be avoided because we couldn't be absolutely sure, to the fourth decimal place, that such procedures would be harmless. Caution was indicated, they argued, in the use of this new technology. Some of them took it to the extreme by calling for a complete moratorium. 

There is a point to being careful with new technologies, but in this case, they were applying it in the wrong way. Recombinant DNA techniques combined with an invention called monoclonal antibodieshave been effective approaches in new therapies for everything from diabetes to cancer to autoimmune disorders. The risks were relatively small compared to the prospects for improved therapies. For example, it is possible to avoid hepatitis B by taking a series of immunizations. 

In another sector -- and the focus of all that environmentalist rage -- genetically modified crops have been used for a quarter of a century without recognizable damage to humans.




In other words, it is useful to take precautions when you can, but you should evaluate risks and potential gains intelligently. Had mankind avoided all new technologies, we would have avoided the use of fire, horses, the telephone, and motor vehicles.




It is also possible to go too far in the opposite direction. 

I'd like to consider the way that the political right wing in this country has also misused and abused the precautionary principle. 

On the one hand, political conservatives like to talk about protecting ourselves from crime. Political conservatives are making use of a version of the precautionary principle when they adopt the attitude that when it comes to convicted criminals, we should lock 'em up and throw away the key. 

Now that's the precautionary principle argued forcefully, if perhaps stated a bit emotionally. Still, we can recognize that political conservatives agree with most of us on this one thing -- that when there is a risk of criminal acts, we should spend the money and take the actions that are most likely to prevent those crimes. Conservatives have shown this tendency in all manner of rules, everything from mandatory minimum sentences to protocols allowing the police to stop and frisk total strangers. 

But what happens when political conservatives are confronted with arguments regarding the risk of global warming? They take that otherwise respected precautionary principle and turn it on its head. Let's summarize the case in its most simple form: 

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been going up steadily for most of a century. (There are lots of criminals.) 

Average surface temperatures and heat contained in the oceans are both rising. (Burglaries, rapes, and car-jackings continue to occur, even in your neighborhood.) 

An increase of just a few degrees can and will have disastrous effects.(Releasing burglars from prison will lead to more burglaries.) 

We can evaluate the global warming assertions (along with the criminal justice analogies) as follows: The first is established absolutely. The second is highly likely -- probably to a 90% certainty at this point. The last point is partly speculation, but the increased violence of hurricanes, increasing surface temperatures as summers become warmer, and scientific prognostications are all tending in this direction. 

In other words, there is a substantial risk that global warming is occurring, and there is a substantial risk that the result will be severely damaging to humans and other species. 

On the other hand, an effective approach to global warming need not be the end of civilization or even the end of giant corporations. It just requires effort and expenditures.




So how has the political right wing reacted to the risk of global warming? If they were to react to criminal violence in the same way, they would be demanding that prisons be emptied and that nobody be allowed to have a lock on a door. 

When it comes to the threat of climate change, they have been demanding a level of proof that will only arrive when we experience the worst results of continued global warming. Conservatives are basically saying that we shouldn't take precautions. Instead, they pretend that there is no risk. They have nit-picked every element of climate theory, used ad hominem arguments against careful scientists ("they're in it for the grant money"), and they have basically adopted an attitude that any imperfection in theory or measurement is cause to throw the whole theory out. 

There is a risk of something happening that could kill billions of human beings, destroy tens of thousands of other species, and extinguish whole civilizations. The right wing treats it as unimportant because the risk is not yet proved to ninety-nine point-nine percent.





So let's start to ask the conservative movement the following question: If the chance of global warming caused by human action is more likely than not, then isn't it like the risk of violent crime, and therefore worth taking the precaution of controlling CO2 emissions? 

That would be an appropriate application of the precautionary principle. And besides, there's lots of money to be made by clever investors and inventors as we convert to a solar powered world spiced with a bit of nuclear power.




Cultural Things 

The LA Times Festival of Books was held over the weekend. There were hundreds of display tents featuring everything from KPFK radio to Vroman's bookstore to sellers of all manner of books. There were children's stories, serious political analysis, and fiction, some sold by distributors and some by self-published locals. 

There were also panel discussions and readings and musical performances. For me, the highlight was a performance on an outdoor stage with the odd title of "Fight On Figaro." 

The gimmicky title referred to the fact that we were going to hear operatic pieces performed by graduates of USC's music school. Figaro of course refers to the twin operas The Marriage of Figaroand The Barber of Seville. On Saturday, we were able to hear two gifted young performers sing excerpts from these operas. Bass-baritone Cedric Berry was outstanding in voice as well as acting style. (Remember that opera involves plot as well as music, so the singers are required to project emotions both vocally and physically.) Equally outstanding was soprano Hannah Goodman, who connected to the audience with an operatic love song. 

She explained that the soprano aria involves a young girl who is reacting to a truly handsome gentleman.  She then suggested to the audience that lovers in the old days lived under different cultural customs than those in modern times. To the audience's amusement, she then pulled out a cell phone, frowned, and swiped left a couple of times. Then, with a radiant smile, she swiped right and delivered the aria beautifully. 

In conversation, the singers explained that they finished their graduate programs fairly recently. They have had parts on the big stage of the LA Opera in the chorus, and Berry understudied a Wagnerian role. Goodman referred to the fact that young singers do a lot of traveling to perform in other venues, and she also performs in clubs here in the Los Angeles area. 

One of the people standing behind me said that although he had not gone previously, this performance made him want to attend the LA Opera. Maybe the experience of hearing trained voices doing Mozart is all it takes. 

Irene Gregorio (also a graduate of the USC program) accompanied on the keyboard, managing to substitute for what would otherwise require an orchestra.




Talks and Panels

LA Times writer Michael Hiltzik interviewed Tim O'Reilly, author of a book titled WTF. Most of us recognize this as the exclamation that begins with "What the ... !" but O'Reilly explained that this title is asking what is the future? OK then, I'll buy it. I reminded myself that there is an internet site that uses the title DailyWTF, and claims that WTF refers to computer software mistakes that are "worse than failure." 

In any case, O'Reilly is interested in how social media and the internet will affect our civilization. He got right to Facebook and its recent scandals. His argument goes something like this: As cities developed, they were faced with the construction of taller and taller buildings. These had problems because they could (and did) fall down. O'Reilly pointed out that the way to deal with this problem is not to ban the construction of tall buildings. It is to get better at doing it. As construction improved, the problems of building height were reduced. 

He then applied this argument to the internet and social media. We need to get better at doing what the internet and social media do. Nobody in the room had a ready answer as to how such improvement will be accomplished, but we were dealt a reminder that things are changing fast and we don't really know where they will end up.




I dropped in on panels about California history and about Virtual Reality as the new technology. I suspect that VR is going to be a big thingin the near future, but there are a few technical issues yet to be ironed out. For example, we are well into our second century of cinema (since 1895 actually) and the movies were figuring out how to tell a story effectively by 1908 or so. VR is still in that phase that cinema was in back in 1902 -- the depiction of objects and scary heights. VR can show you a full sized whale swimming past just a few feet away, but he's not Moby Dick. Anyway, one of the panelists explained that the story is the important part of the new technology that needs to be developed.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at