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The Paradox of Precaution


  • Pauline Barrieu
  • Bernard Sinclair-Desgagné


In the United States and most industrialized countries, regulatory policies and decision-making pertaining to food safety, occupational health and environmental protection are science-based. The actual pace and complexity of technological innovation, however, make it increasingly necessary to deal with situations where science cannot yet provide a definite picture. In this context, a now widely invoked rule, known as the 'Precautionary Principle', recommends to 'err on the side of preservation' until better scientific information becomes available. We draw a formal representation of this statement, and we show that it exhibits a logical contradiction. This negative result conveys a clarification of the type of actions science-based regulation should consider in the presence of scientific uncertainty. Aux États-Unis et dans la plupart des pays industrialisés, les règlements et politiques publics relatifs à la sécurité alimentaire, la santé au travail et la protection de l'environnement sont en principe basés sur l'information émanant des scientifiques. L'accélération et la complexité du progrès technologique rendent toutefois inévitable pour le régulateur de devoir prendre des décisions avant que la science puisse fournir une représentation claire du risque. Dans ce contexte, l'approche dite du «Principe de précaution» recommande d'«errer du côté de la prévention» jusqu'à ce que les scientifiques puissent donner le ton juste. Nous produisons une représentation formelle de ce principe, et nous montrons qu'il contient une incohérence logique. Ce résultat négatif permet néanmoins de préciser le type d'actions que la réglementation des risques basée sur la science devrait promouvoir en présence d'incertitude scientifique.

Suggested Citation

  • Pauline Barrieu & Bernard Sinclair-Desgagné, 2003. "The Paradox of Precaution," CIRANO Working Papers 2003s-63, CIRANO.
  • Handle: RePEc:cir:cirwor:2003s-63

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Robert A. Pollak, 1995. "Regulating Risks," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 33(1), pages 179-191, March.
    2. Claude Henry & Marc Henry, 2002. "Formalization and applications of the Precautionary Principle," Working Papers hal-00243001, HAL.
    3. Jonathan B. Wiener & Michael D. Rogers, 2002. "Comparing precaution in the United States and Europe," Journal of Risk Research, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 5(4), pages 317-349, October.
    4. Christian Gollier, 2001. "Should we beware of the Precautionary Principle?," Economic Policy, CEPR;CES;MSH, vol. 16(33), pages 301-328, October.
    5. Gollier, Christian & Jullien, Bruno & Treich, Nicolas, 2000. "Scientific progress and irreversibility: an economic interpretation of the 'Precautionary Principle'," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 75(2), pages 229-253, February.
    6. Giovanni Immordino, 2003. "Looking for a Guide to Protect the Environment: The Development of the Precautionary Principle," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 17(5), pages 629-644, December.
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    Cited by:

    1. Nabil I. Al-Najjar, 2015. "A Bayesian Framework for the Precautionary Principle," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 44(S2), pages 337-365.

    More about this item


    Environmental and health risks; science-based regulation; scientific uncertainty; Precautionary Principle; Risques à la santé humaine et à l'environnement; réglementation basée sur la science; incertitude scientifique; principe de précaution;

    JEL classification:

    • K32 - Law and Economics - - Other Substantive Areas of Law - - - Energy, Environmental, Health, and Safety Law
    • D70 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - General
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty

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