When you hear the word “mother”, what comes to mind? If you are like me, mother stands for comfort, for love and, above all, for protecting and nurturing the young. Those lurid and repellant news stories of mothers who murder their children revolt and fascinate us precisely because they violate our expectations so brutally. We expect mothers to watch over their offspring, to safeguard them, to take precautionary measures. When we see mothers filling this age-old role, all feels right with the world.
But what if a mother is killing with kindness? What if, by protecting her child from a perceived danger, she is opening the door to a greater danger? What if the overprotective mother encourages thousands of other mothers to follow her example? How do we feel then? Her excessive – or misdirected – precaution now puts in peril a multitude of innocents.
In the process of writing this chapter, I came across a website that claims to reveal the truth about vaccines. The mother who runs this site had her son vaccinated with the usual treatments, starting at two months of age. At fifteen months, one week after being vaccinated for several dangerous conditions, the boy starting having seizures. No definite connection was established with the vaccine, and reactions typically occur more quickly. This unfortunate woman is now devoting herself to broadcasting dire warnings about the vaccine menace. To the extent that the conviction of her personal voice succeeds in influencing others, she will be responsible for greatly raising the risk of serious illness in numerous children.
The mother had read a fact sheet explaining that a vaccine can cause serious allergic reactions, and induce seizures in 6 out of 10,000 cases. She writes that, “like so many of us, I never thought it meant my child.” This comment indicates a failing in the thinking of this mother – a failing that sparked such appalled outrage in me that little room
was left for sympathy. First, she read about the small odds of an adverse reaction but ignored it – because it didn’t mean her child. (Why not? Because believing something comfortable was more important to her than seeing reality?) Then, after the misfortune of her son being one of those suffering adverse reactions (assuming the vaccine was the cause), she ignored the dangers for which the vaccine was prescribed and set about encouraging other women to refuse to vaccinate their children.
This aggressive ignorance typifies the danger of allowing caution without knowledge and fear without objectivity, to drive our thinking and decision making. When we overly focus on avoiding specific dangers – or what we perceive to be dangers – we narrow our awareness, constrain our thinking, and distort our decisions.
Many factors conspire to warp our reasoning about risks and benefits as individuals. The bad news is that such foolish thinking has been institutionalized and turned into a principle. Zealous pursuit of precaution has been enshrined in the “precautionary principle”. Regulators, negotiators, and activists refer to and defer to this principle when considering possible restrictions on productive activity and technological innovation.
In this chapter, I aim to explain how the precautionary principle, and the mindset that underlies it, threaten our well-being and our future. The extropic advance of our civilization depends on keeping caution in perspective.