There have been many changes...certainly in the appearance of the magazine, but by far t he most important changes have been in the quality...
-"Onward and Upward", Editorial, the skeptic, Autumn 2008, p.4
If you think something about that sentence doesn't smell quite right, you'd be right. OK I admit that the sentence continues"...of the articles". I suppose the next big hurdle to overcome will be in the proofreading department!
Small things, small things...
However Sir Guy Green's keynote address to the Australian Skeptics National Convention, from November 17-18 last year, is really good. He had a few words to say about the 'precautionary principle', regularly used by people in the environmental movement to make a case for whatever change (or lack of change) they are calling for. First he makes an observation about definition:
The precautionary principle is frequently referred to in discussions about environmental issues...but a threshold problem about applying the principle is that it is routinely referred to as if it had a single universally accepted meaning. But it does not. When it first gained currency the principle was generally understood to mean that where proposed activity might cause irreversible environmental harm, a lack of full scientific certainty is not a sufficient reason for not taking measures to guard against that harm.
"But," observes Sir Guy, "over the years some formulations make the principle applicable where harm is possible while others make it applicable where harm is probable—two very different tests." Indeed. Other formulations such as the Rio Declaration "introduce the notion of cost effectiveness."
Now this is all fine, so long as we're clear about which definition we happen to be using. But Sir Guy points to a more serious problem.
The form of the problem most commonly advanced by environmentalists is that no activity should be undertaken unless it can be demonstrated that that activity will not cause environmental harm. At first sight that appears to be a reasonably defensible proposition, but when it is analysed it, in fact, turns out that it is impossible to comply with. Until we know everything about everything in the universe it is a logical impossibility to prove a negative of that kind.
All pretty abstract. But Sir Guy gives the example of a mythical mountain goat, pseudonovibos spiralis listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species, but by 2003 acknowledged not only to be extinct but in all likelihood, never to have existed.
But that did not result in it removing it from the list; instead the IUCN invoked 'the precautionary principle' which they concluded 'requires us to assume that the species did exist, and may still exist'
Which is a bit like saying you wouldn't dredge parts of the Loch Ness in Scotland because you're worried about the environmental impact on the monster's habitat.
Quite a useful and bendy principle, that one. Stop whatever you're doing everyone; you are adding to global warming and threatening the existence of polar bears! (Whose population, by the way, has been increasing over the last 40 or so years and is currently stable)