Late lessons from early warnings of risks to health and ecosystems

Could we have taken action earlier to prevent harm from tobacco, asbestos, and lead?  That's the question at the core of the European Environment Agency's (EEA) collection of case studies, which was released this month as Volume 2 "Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation."

The publication features articles on those nefarious health hazards, as well as ones about beryllium, Bisphenol A, the pesticides DBCP and DDT, mercury, perchlorethylene, and vinyl chloride.  Protecting ecosystem, including aquatic environments exposed to ethinyl oestradiol (synthetic estrogen used in oral contraceptives) and honey bees from seed‑dressing systemic insecticides, are also examined through early warnings of scientific evidence.  Whether the hazard involves direct harm to human health or consequences to ecosystems, the "late lessons" explore the tension between science, values and power.

The editors explain the 750-page report's purpose " help politicians, policymakers and the public to:

  • Understand better the ways in which scientific knowledge is financed, created, evaluated, ignored, used and misused in taking timely and precautionary decisions about how to reduce harms, whilst stimulating benign innovations and generating useful employment;
  • Learn from some very expensive 'mistakes' in the past so as to help societies make fewer mistakes now, and in the future, especially with some of the relatively new, largely unknown, yet already widespread technologies like nanotechnology and mobile phones;
  • Be aware of less visible, important factors such as the skewed ways in which the costs of actions and inactions for hazardous technologies have been estimated, and the role that some businesses have played in ignoring early warnings and in manufacturing doubt about the science supporting such warnings;
  • Consider how the law, or administrative arrangements, could be better used to deliver justice, to those people (and ecosystems) that have been, or could be, harmed by poorly designed, or badly deployed, innovations;
  • Explore how best to engage the public in helping to make strategic choices over innovations, and their technological and social pathways, as well as their involvement in ecosystems management and in long term monitoring through citizen science.

The papers in "Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation" were authored by zoologists, engineers, physicists, biologists, toxicologists, statisticians, physicians, economists, meteorologists, and other experts.  Despite the diversity of their disciplines, the insight of one particular philosopher of history---offered by the editors----seems to influence all of their work.

"History can offer something altogether different from [scientific] rules, namely insight.  The true function of insight is to inform people about the present…we study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act…the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of 'real' life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history."  Robin G. Collingwood (1889-1943)


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