Knowing and acting: The precautionary and proactionary principles in relation to policy making Page: 15
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Holbrook, J. Britt and Adam Briggle. 2013. "Knowing and acting:
The precautionary and proactionary principles in relation to policy making."
Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (5) 15-37.
Knowing and acting: The precautionary and proactionary principles in relation to
J. Britt Holbrook and Adam Briggle, University of North Texas
This essay explores the relationship between knowledge (in the form of
scientific risk assessment) and action (in the form of technological
innovation) as they come together in policy, which itself is both a kind of
knowing and acting. It first illustrates the dilemma of timely action in the
face of uncertain unintended consequences. It then introduces the
precautionary and proactionary principles as different alignments of
knowledge and action within the policymaking process. The essay next
considers a cynical and a hopeful reading of the role of these principles in
public policy debates. We argue that the two principles, despite initial
appearances, are not all that different when it comes to formulating public
policy. We also suggest that principles in general can be used either to
guide our actions, or to determine them for us. We argue that allowing
principles to predetermine our actions undermines the sense of autonomy
necessary for true action.
Keywords: Precautionary Principle; Proactionary Principle; Policy; Decision Procedure
Knowledge kills action. (Nietzsche)'
1. Knowing and acting
How are knowledge and action related? This question is asked less often than another:
When do we know enough to justify taking action? In the context of making science and
technology policy, the question assumes yet a different form: When do we have sufficient
scientific risk assessments about a new technological activity to warrant promoting that
activity and embedding it in society? In this paper, we explore how the relation between
knowledge and action should be structured in policymaking.
Decision makers often confront a dilemma: Act too soon, and we create avoidable harms;
but act too late, and we forfeit possible improvements. Consider, for example, the case of
hydraulic fracturing. In 1947, engineers working for the Stanolind Oil and Gas
Corporation conducted the first experimental trial of the "Hydrafrac" technique. They
injected 1,000 gallons of gasoline thickened with naphthenic-acid-and-palm-oil (napalm)
and a gel breaker to stimulate a gas well in the Hugoton gas field in Grant County,
Kansas. The results were unimpressive. But they had reason to keep experimenting.
Fracturing had been used since the 1860s, when nitroglycerin was used to stimulate hard
rock wells in Pennsylvania. Though extremely dangerous, the technique had great
'Nietzsche (1967 ), p. 60.
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Holbrook, J. Britt & Briggle, Adam. Knowing and acting: The precautionary and proactionary principles in relation to policy making, article, 2013; (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc157308/m1/1/: accessed April 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT College of Arts and Sciences.