What are the core ideas behind the Precautionary Principle?

Science of the Total Environment 557:134–141 (2016)
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The Precautionary Principle is both celebrated and criticized. It has become an important principle for decision making, but it is also subject to criticism. One problem that is often pointed out with the principle is that is not clear what it actually says and how to use it. I have taken on this problem by performing an analysis of some of the most influential formulations of the principle in an attempt to identify the core ideas behind it, with the purpose of producing a formulation of the principle that is clear and practically applicable. It was found that what is called the Precautionary Principle is not a principle that tells us what do to achieve extra precaution or how to handle situations when extra precaution is called for. Instead, it was found to be a list of circumstances that each justify extra precaution. An analysis of some of the most common and influential formulations of the Precautionary Principle identified four such circumstances: (1) When we deal with important values that tend to be systematically downplayed by traditional decision methods – such as human health and the environment. (2) When we suspect that the decision might lead to irreversible and severe consequences and the values at stake are also irreplaceable, (3) When timing is at least as important as being right. (4) When it is more important to avoid false negatives than false positives. This interpretation of the Precautionary Principle does not say anything about what kind of actions to take when extra precaution is called for, but it does provide a clear and practically useful list of circumstances that call for extra precaution and that is not subject to the most common objections to the Precautionary Principle.
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