Judging Uncertainty Is a Risk

Dr. John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Column of June 5,  2016,  Los Alamos Monitor

Image The great blessing that science gives us humans is a growing supply of knowledge.  

The great curse that science puts on us is a growing supply of knowledge.  

And everything we learn brings the next unknown, which may be a new cure, a new cause of harm, or a sizable chance of both.  

The thorny work for us is to blend new knowledge safely into a busy world. Democracy slows the work to a tortoise’s pace, with so much time given to the enormous patchwork of public opinions. So we keep doing our best to minimize the risks that are intertwined in a world of new knowledge, unknowns, and opinions of every shade. Our lot is called the human condition.  

Such struggles are often in the news, with scant history. Lead made news recently. Hazards from lead predate Ancient Rome and were clarified as science grew. In the last century, science learned specific chances of harm to different people from lead in different amounts for enough time.  

A proper question to ask is, “Should we get rid of lead in painted walls and lead in working pipes as soon as we have that knowledge?” After all, some children will eat leaded paint from walls. Lead pipe systems are mostly handled better.  

So lead in new paint was banned in 1978. How do we gauge the added safety? How much time and money should be used to count up the benefits?  

However large our resources may be, the demands on them are much larger. What other human needs will be left to grow worse if the first priority is to end the long-standing chance of harm from painted walls and working pipes?  

Reducing uncertainties is a good thing. Yet, judging priorities among uncertainties is a risk.  

When the Environmental Protection Agency pays for removing lead, how many abandoned mines get worse? Or, how much research in chemical toxicities is postponed? Budgets are reminders that all resources have limits. Whether public or private, more money spent to reduce one public risk means less money goes to mitigate some other public risk. 

The mixing of knowledge and uncertainties is the stuff of public controversy. The aggregate forms a steady stream of issues.  

First among the issues is The Great Legal Quandary: Reasonable laws cannot outlaw vaguely known risks. All the while, risks emerge as an endless train from a tunnel.  

But laws are not the only tools to apply. Useful changes also come through citizen effort. Focused work of citizens most often can do more than laws do because laws must apply to broad categories, while focused work can zoom in on an exact situation. Over the decades, a clear public focus has found many reasonable actions that companies have taken to reduce uncertain risks well below the limits set by law.  

Experience shows that chances of reducing risk become better, the more details are gathered in a specific case. Every detail that is explored in depth, down to the cost of remedies, reduces the uncertainties by some amount. More certainty has more power to produce change.  

In sum, public or private money can reduce risk in any number of ways. One option might be to spend $1 million on additional pollution controls that could reduce risk by an unknown amount.  

A different option might put, say, $500,000 more into research assessing the toxicity of new chemicals and combinations of chemicals. A third choice might spend $100,000 devising faster, better and cheaper ways to monitor air emissions.  

Which action does the most to reduce public risk? The answer is uncertain. A drop in risk, however real it is, does not quickly correlate with changes made.  

Risk is a sum of factors, known and unknown. As science learns more, more is in the line to be learned.