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Beauty and the Uncertainty Beast

By Carolyn Raffensperger A few years ago I wrote a letter to James Hillman, the Jungian psychologist, asking him for help with the precautionary principle. I specifically wanted help understanding the archetypes in our culture that either block or enable us to implement the principle.

Hillman was gracious enough to invite me and colleagues to New York to engage in a weekend long conversation. He later wrote an article about the principle: “The Virtues of Caution, a Call to Awaken our Aesthetic Responses.”

I’ve been rereading this article and wondering if Hillman’s charge that the precautionary principle invites an aesthetic response isn’t precisely the answer to what we should do in the face of scientific uncertainty. Here’s the deal. The precautionary principle is a decision rule that hinges on the likelihood of harm and scientific uncertainty. When you have that particular equation, harm + uncertainty, then the other side of the equation is an ethical requirement to take action to prevent harm. The precautionary principle recipe is plausible harm + scientific uncertainty = precautionary action.

At the Science and Environmental Health Network we’ve spent inordinate amounts of time thinking about scientific uncertainty. My colleague Ted Schettler and I have given hundreds of talks where we look carefully at the questions of how we know, what we know, and who knows. We’ve come up with this brief list of precautionary methods for addressing scientific uncertainty.

  1. Reduce uncertainty with more science when you can.
  2. Ask the right questions.
  3. Recognize the difference between simple statistical uncertainty and fundamental ignorance and indeterminacy.
  4. Use the right discipline. (For example, would evolutionary biology or ecology give more accurate information than toxicology?
  5. Ask if we know enough to act.
  6. Devote more research to better alternatives rather than exploring more implications of bad practices, technologies or chemicals.
  7. Before the study begins, decide what actions will be taken based on a range of research results. For example, wildlife biologists investigating the population health of an indicator species like dolphins can decide to limit fishing in an area, restrict certain kinds of fishing practices, or do nothing, depending on what they find in the study. The key is deciding what actions will be taken before they go into the field.
  8. Be explicit about why a particular study errs on the side of a false positive or a false negative. Is the choice appropriate for public policy?
  9. Set and fund a public interest research agenda. This means we would fund research that was in the public interest rather than only in a corporate or business interest.
  10. Eliminate the phrase “more research is needed” as an open-ended conclusion. Instead, discuss the implications of the research results for public policy.

But there’s one more way to deal with scientific uncertainty and it isn’t scientific. It is Hillman’s aesthetics. What if we fully trusted our biological radar for beauty when the science is uncertain but we may be harmed by a particular activity?

Hillman says that our eyes, ears, mouths, and noses are substitutes for the precautionary principle. A case in point. Some years ago, a local community vehemently protested a factory hog farm’s operation. The neighbors argued that the hydrogen sulfide and other vile odors emitted from the hog factory were bad for their health. The state said the neighbors hadn’t proved that the hog farm was a public health threat and contracted with scientists for more research. But get this: hydrogen sulfide has killed pigs in these confined feeding operations. What more did we need to know? In this case scientific “uncertainty” was used to protect an economic interest rather than the health of the community.

In our post-modern world, aesthetics has been demoted to personal preference: I prefer Biedermier furniture but you prefer Frank Lloyd Wright. There is no right or wrong to my preference or yours. But post-modern aesthetics doesn’t take into account the biological compass for beauty that can mean life or death. My life expectancy will not be altered by whether I prefer Mozart or Bruce Springsteen. But it might be shortened considerably if I don’t get away from the back of a diesel smoke belching truck. What do I need to know from a scientific expert that my nose doesn’t tell me?

In Hillman’s essay he talks mostly about beauty. I suspect that it is ugliness that leads us to take precautionary action. Ugliness, a violation of the senses, is a critical warning system, built in to our biology to avoid conditions that threaten our well-being.

Hillman ends his essay with these words:

Our noses too, and our eyes and ears, are political instruments, protesters. An aesthetic response is a political action. Like the daimon of Socrates who indicates only what not to do, we too know instinctively, aesthetically when a fish stinks, when the sense of beauty is offended. Standing for these moments — and these moments occur each day, within every airless office building, seated in each crippling chair, inundated by senseless noise and fattened on industrial food — standing for our responses, these aesthetic reverberations of truth in the soul, may be the primary civic act of the citizen, the origin of caution and of the precautionary principle itself with its warnings to stop, look and listen.

So I wish to amend my list of ten ways to mitigate scientific uncertainty. Add 0) Ask, “Is it ugly?” Trust that biological radar. Ugliness provides critical data, even scientific data, and should not be discounted just because it doesn’t have numbers attached.