F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2004



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Book Reviews

The Precautionary Principle in the 20th Century–Late Lessons from Early Warnings

Poul Harremoës, David Gee, Malcolm MacGarvin, Andy Stirling, Jane Keys, Brian Wynne, and Sofia Guedes Vaz (Editor), Earthscan Publications, London, 2002, xx + 268 pp., $29.95 US, ISBN 1-85383-893-4.

This book is devoted to case studies of adverse environmental or public-health consequences resulting from 19th and 20th century technological progress. Three of the case studies cover environmental issues (fish stock overexploitationm, Chapter 2; halocarbons’ impact on the ozone layer, Chapter 7; and tributyltin’s effects on mollusks, Chapter 13). Eight studies examine the unforeseen negative health consequences arising from some industrial innovations (ionizing radiations, Chapter 3; benzene, Chapter 4; asbestos, Chapter 5; synthetic hormones, Chapters 8 and 14; antimicrobials, Chapter 9; and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Chapter 15). Finally, four studies are devoted to situations where both environmental disturbance and public-health adverse consequences are found (organochlorine compounds, Chapter 12; PCBs, Chapter 6; sulphur dioxide, Chapter 10; and methyl tert-butyl ether or MTBE, Chapter 11).

All of the authors, all associated with the European Environment Agency, were asked to follow a similar structure in presenting their case study, by answering four questions:

•    When was the first scientifically-credible early warning of potential harm?

•    When and what were the main risk-reduction actions or inactions taken by regulatory authorities and others?

•    What were the resulting costs and benefits of the actions or inactions, including their distribution between groups and across time?

•    What lessons can be drawn that may help future decision-making?

Also, each chapter includes a table summarising the historical development of the problem studied.

None of the case studies illustrates a positive application of the precautionary principle. In all instances, action was undertaken too late to avert adverse consequences. Hence, it could be said that the book justifies the legitimacy of the precautionary principle by illustrating how its absence in the scientific assessment of technological innovations has led to undesirable results. While the majority of the case studies compare the approaches undertaken in different countries, there are no clear instances where application of the precautionary principle by some countries spared them the undesirable consequences suffered by less foreseeing countries. In that sense, the precautionary principle would be strengthened by additional comparative studies.

One interesting observation that comes through in many of the case studies is that a desirable industrial property – stability – becomes quite undesirable when a product finds its way in the environment, or in living beings. Immune to break-up by biological processes, that product permanently affects the biological tissues or ecosystem where it accumulates.  Indeed, asbestos and PCBs derived their industrial importance from their stability, and their bad reputation in environmental circles from the very same property.

In the final two chapters, the editors infer some general lessons from the fourteen case studies discussed. These fall into three groups: lessons on the need for scientific thoroughness; lessons on the responsibilities of experts acting as influential stakeholders; and lessons on the need for honest communication with the non-experts.

Conceerning scientific thoroughness, the editors highlight the need for experts to recognize the areas where scientific evidence is shallow or assumptions are unrealistic, and to actively advocate the need for better science while avoiding ‘paralysis by analysis’ (waiting for irrefutable evidence at the price of letting potential problems become actual). The paralysis-by-analysis dilemma is most colorfully stated by Peter Infante (p. 44): “Studying a subject to death often results in the death of those we are trying to protect.” The editors also insist on the need for long-term monitoring, based on the observation that, in all of the case studies, acute manifestations were the exception rather than the rule. One such exception was ionizing radiation exposure.

As policy-makers or advisers to decision-makers, scientists have a special duty to avoid an overly reductionist approach in favor of an integrated approach. This would entail considering local and lay knowledge as well as scientific knowledge, assessing not only the technological innovation under scrutiny but also all of its alternatives, and thinking globally instead institutionally or disciplinarally. This duty also entails the ethical obligation to maintain independence from the various stakeholders, which appears to have been an issue in the handling of bovine spongiform encephalopathy by the government of the United Kingdom.

Finally, as communicators of scientific evidence to the public, the editors emphasise the need for scientific experts to properly explain to the public the limitations of scientific knowledge: the areas where ignorance rules, and the tentative nature of scientific knowledge, in contrast with the myth of certain scientific proof. The editors also highlight that effective public communication requires the scientist to understand the assumptions and values of the various stakeholders.

Claude Plante
Canadian Intellectual Property Office
Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age

Bill McKibben, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2003, 271 pp., ISBN 0-8050-7519-4 paperback, $14

Many of us are uneasy with the rapid pace of technological advance during our lifetimes, perhaps particularly those of us who are past 50. For some it is the difficulty in programming our VCRs or learning to use our new digital cameras that makes us feel insecure and inadequate. Others are concerned with the sense that our world is limited and that we may be doing things that are irreversible or at least extremely harmful. In this regard the threats of global warming and species extinction come to mind. These threats to our well being and security are in some sense understandable to us and to many suggest clear courses of action.

In our age of increasingly powerful computers, continual miniaturization of machines, and incredible advances in biology, some see new and much more ominous threats that could strike at the core of how we define ourselves and of what we might become. In his book Enough, Bill McKibben is concerned about new technologies that he claims could eliminate our species as we presently know it and replace us by biologically programmed organisms or perhaps by superior robotic beings. Most of his book is concerned with genetic engineering, although some space is devoted to the possibility of rapid advances in miniaturization of integrated circuits and memory devices leading to the science fiction writer’s prediction of intelligent, perhaps even self-aware, robots with abilities far superior to our own. McKibben is also concerned with the potential of nano-technology to provide machines capable of producing almost anything we desire essentially free of any cost in human labor and effort. But by far his greatest concern is with the potential of genetic engineering to alter our genome and create a new species of humans with enhanced intellect, superior athletic ability, more stable or sensitive emotions, and even immortality. The title succinctly sums up the author’s premise, namely that we are on the verge of going too far too fast and that now is a critical time to reign in these new technologies before in the name of progress our humanity is engineered out of existence.

Many of us might immediately agree that real dangers lie ahead and that it would be best to slow down or suspend some initiatives to give us time to evaluate their consequences. But I believe that McKibben overstates his case by taking for granted the most optimistic predictions of the potential of these new technologies and giving only limited space to possible inherent limitations on genetic engineering, nano-technology and robotics. Are self-aware super intelligent reproducing machines really possible? Is immortality a real possibility for all or even some of us? Will it ever be possible to fine-tune the human genome to the point that one can precisely order up a child with the exact emotional, intellectual and physical characteristics desired? These questions are not seriously debated in this book.

This book raises serious questions and predicts a troubling future. In addition to assuming the most optimistic predictions of technological achievement. it also assumes specific answers to several important philosophical questions which might be summed up in one enormous question: “What is the meaning of life?” Among McKibben's answers is that we are defined by striving and mortality. Therefore if the future evolves as he predicts and we live forever in a perpetual state of retirement with our every want satisfied, the assumption is that our lives will have lost all meaning. Many happy, healthy retirees might put a more positive spin on this scenario.

           Genetic engineering, the dominate issue addressed by this book, offers the promise of the elimination of many hereditary diseases and also significant enhancements and alterations of the genetic structure of a child. McKibben’s primary concern is that this will enable parents to essentially program their children through enhancements of specific attributes to be star athletes, world class musicians, brain surgeons, etc. He assumes that the nature versus nurture argument is essentially settled and that we are what our genes determine us to be, that genetically programmed children will grow up without any real choice as to what life they will pursue. These superior beings will not only become a different human species but will also live impoverished lives, not having to strive for success and without any real control as to what they become. If they are genetically altered to be immortal they will lose a defining characteristic of our humanity, namely our mortality.

If McKibben is correct, then we are all preprogrammed at birth; we just don’t know the exact nature of our defining genetic code. If we realize early on in life that we have the physical attributes to be a star basketball player then we would have no choice but to enter the NBA draft as soon as we graduate from high school. However one could argue that even if one has superior capabilities they must be nurtured and developed; one does not become a Nobel Laureate without hard work and dedication. This book doesn't seriously consider these arguments and doesn't recognize that many people are born with superior capabilities in many areas. Which if any of these abilities are developed often depends on choice and circumstance. Moreover, such extensive genetic modification of our children, even if possible, might not be desirable for many parents. After all, given the choice, wouldn't many parents prefer to raise children that are like them? Many other troubling assumptions are raised by this genetically deterministic view of life.

We should all be aware and concerned about the impact of the rapidly developing technologies discussed in this book. But we need a more balanced and complete exposition of the actual potential of these technologies and their impact. Moreover, if one agrees that many of these new developments should be controlled, this book devotes little space to describing how this might be achieved. In the end how one might realistically control such potentially dangerous yet appealing technologies is a difficult if not impossible task.

Martin Epstein
Dept of Physics and Astronomy
California State Universe, Los Angeles
Email: epstein@calstatela.edu

Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the world Nuclear Disarmament Movement, Volume 3, 1971-present  

by Lawrence S. Wittner, Stanford University Press, 2003, $33 paperback, $75 cloth cover, ISBN 0-8047-4861-6

Since the beginning of the nuclear era many organizations have devoted their efforts to curbing the growth of nuclear weapon stockpiles and eventually abolishing them. A question of interest to historians as well as to those who have been involved in the movement is how effective have they been. This is the subject addressed by Lawrence Wittner in this book.

It covers the period from 1971 to the present with its main emphasis on the 1980's. Before that time the major issue of these groups was the banning of nuclear testing. This was a success in that the treaty of 1963 banned atmospheric tests, but it failed in the larger purpose of stopping the nuclear arms race since testing underground continued. The bulk of the book summarizes the activities of more than one hundred organizations and coalitions all over the globe, with more than 100 pages of footnotes. Thus the book is not an easy read, but it serves as a good reference book for anyone interested in one or more of these groups. For the organizations in Western Europe the major issue was the opposition to the deployment of intermediate-range weapons, cruise missiles and the Pershing 2, in these countries. In spite of massive protests involving hundreds of thousands of people, the missiles were deployed starting in 1983. However, Wittner says that the pressure from these groups, as well as the Nuclear Freeze movement in the USA, led Reagan to engage in arms control talks. With the coming to power of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union these led to the INF Treaty signed in December, 1987, which eliminated the intermediate-range weapons in Europe as well as the SS-20's in Russia.

The major issue for the USA was the fight against deployment of the MX-missile with its 10 warheads. Scientists' groups particularly emphasized the destabilizing effect of the MIRV (Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles). In fact there had been a move to ban these in the SALT 1 talks, but it never happened, as discussed by Gerard Smith in his book Doubletalk in a chapter titled "the great MIRV mystery". After much debate Congress funded 50 MX missiles. Wittner claims this as a victory for the movement since originally it was proposed to have 200. However, in retrospect the deployment of 50 MIRVed missiles at the time the cold war was ending was absurd. At the present time, following the Bush-Putin Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) between Bush and Putin, the MX is finally being dismantled, although the warheads are being stockpiled instead of being destroyed.

On two other issues there was victory. After billions of dollars spent on the "Star Wars" program or SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), the program was ended. Also the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was negotiated and signed. Both these victories have now been reversed by the Bush administration.

With the end of the Cold War the groups under discussion went into a deep decline. However the great dangers from nuclear weapons have not disappeared. Even after SORT the USA and Russia will each have about 2000 missiles pointing at each other and many more warheads in reserve. As a measure of the dangers, the famous "doomsday clock" of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was advanced to 7 minutes to midnight.

The book tends to overemphasize the successes and the effectiveness of these movements. However, I think a fair conclusion from this book is that powerful groups working towards the reduction and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons are a necessary, but clearly not a sufficient, condition for progress on this problem. Given the danger that continues even after the Cold War, a possible conclusion is that there is a need for the revitalization of these groups today.

Lincoln Wolfenstein
Carnegie Mellon University



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