Living with Scientific Uncertainty

Who should bear the risk of scientific uncertainty? If society does not want such uncertainties to become grist for litigation, it should be on the alert for other methods to address them. One obvious method is to make information freely available, so that people can make informed choices about what risks to accept when the science is unresolved. That method ought to appeal, especially, to free-market conservatives.

Take the case of genetically modified foodstuffs. Given the relative novelty of such agronomic tinkering, it seems fair to wager that science has yet to reach a consensus verdict on the nature and magnitude of any risks posed by genetically altered foods. This being so, any plaintiff claiming to have suffered an injury caused by consumption of Frankenfood would surely face an uphill Daubert battle in court. That’s as it should be, conservatives might say. Plaintiffs in civil lawsuits bear the burden of proof, and should not prevail unless well-established science supports their claims.

Should the risks of scientific uncertainty therefore fall entirely on the consumer? If so, it would seem reasonable to impose a labeling requirement, so that consumers could make informed decisions about whether to make the gamble. Today’s New York Times reports that the European Parliament has done exactly that. Under the legislation, the requirement would apply to “all food containing more than 0.9 percent of a genetically modified organism. So, for example, a cookie made with genetically modified corn oil would carry a label that states: ‘This product contains a genetically modified organism.'”

The official reaction of the Bush administration? It has criticized the legislation, saying it will pose undue burdens for food producers and could prejudice consumers against genetically modified food.

And people wonder why America is plagued with so many lawsuits