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One of These Things is Not Like the Others: A Precautionary Tale
The Chloroquine Wars Part LXIV
The importance of categorical distinction is something we train into children from a young age. Basic lessons along these lines were a mainstay of Sesame Street.
In the spirit of a love for learning, I present a uniquely valuable version of the lesson.
Commercial Drone Technology. Some date the beginning of the drone technology timeline as far back as 1849. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first commercial drone permit in 2006. For eight years after, only two permits were issued per year. In 2013, Amazon announced their plan to develop a drone-based delivery system. After a seven-year process of studying safety and engineering in a feedback loop that advanced the goals of drone network development, Amazon won approval for its drone delivery fleet in 2020, which was two to three years longer than CEO Jeff Bezos had hoped. However, such approval was merely one step in the process after more than 500 safety and efficiency processes, and are now working on scaling the system, ensuring that the scaling process meets safety standards set by both it and the FAA, with multiple waypoints in the development process, each one of which has taken longer than expected due to the need to tackle challenges unknown at the outset of each stage of development. Research and development is taking time to scale to each new level, regardless of how well planned the process.
Small Nuclear Fission Reactors. The nuclear age began with a bang, but after the use of fission as a tool for war, scientists re-imagined the technology as a method for energy generation. However, as nuclear plants exploded in numeracy around the world from the 1950s through the 1970s, some serious problems with nuclear energy were exposed. These included a few dangerous meltdowns, weapons technology proliferation, dangerous waste storage challenges, geographic and engineering challenges of mining radioactive elements, and reports of mutant animals.
More recently, scientists and engineers have spent decades developing safer fuels, better waste disposal practices, and better systems en route to the creation of small nuclear fission reactors that may already have better safety profiles than the substantial majority of all forms of energy plants (particularly coal and petroleum given the pollution outputs). These reactors could be plopped down all over the world, increasing power supply or replacing dirtier and more expensive options, and perhaps they would have resulted in a positive cost-benefit improvement for many years now. But it is understandable that governments and their citizens waited for years of testing before beginning to approve levels of rollout of these smaller, safer reactors. And it may require years of real world data before we see small scale fission reactors proliferate as substantial proportions of human energy used.
Self-driving cars. In 1925, the Houdina Radio Control Company first demonstrated a proof-of-concept driverless car. It still took decades of imaginative thinking on top of practical technological developments for self-driving vehicles to begin to emerge on the streets anywhere in the world, and they are still as of 2021 a sliver of 1% of the vehicles on the Earth’s roads. Aside from the unit and system-level engineering of the vehicles themselves, enormous complexities such as city and highway design, liability laws, and even moral code have pushed back timelines for large-scale usage. As with autonomous drones, we are likely to see steps of the scaling process, and those might even involve changes in city planning that will be hard for established big cities.
Genetic Vaccines. In 1989, Robert Malone and coauthors published a paper entitled Cationic liposome-mediated RNA transfection, sparking a new field of research. The research team showed how RNA or DNA could be delivered into cells, protected within balls of lipids, which are soluble under only the right circumstances to get the job done. The prospect of a new form of genetic therapy, which could be used for vaccination or other purposes, would take decades of progress to achieve. Indeed, at the outset of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, no working genetic vaccine had ever been produced. After just two days of design, the very first mRNA vaccine was rushed into manufacturing and testing. After a small round of testing on almost entirely low-risk individuals resulting in data never released to the public, mRNA, DNA, and a few other vaccines were pushed out to over 3 billion people in less time than a single human gestation cycle, and without any knowledge of long-term effects on recipients, including their fertility health. There is debate over whether they save or take more lives.
One of these things is not like the other ones. Can you identify which one?
If you think you know which one, go ahead and scroll down below. Good luck!
If you have not yet identified the outlier in this list, allow me to offer one hint: the qualitative distinction between one of these things and all of the other ones is in the application of the Precautionary Principle. I would encourage readers now to read my definition of technology that opens the door for a broader (re)understanding of what technology really is. It includes any step in the practical application of inventions---not just the inventions themselves. This includes the supply chains, the salesman, the educators of product usage, and anything else you might imagine valuable to the process (religion? Social cohesion?). The Precautionary Principle can and should be viewed as part of that process of making technology valuable.
Go ahead and commit to an answer and scroll down a bit further. You’re almost there!
If you said that genetic vaccines are different from commercial drone technology, small nuclear fission reactors, and self-driving cars, then CONGRATULATIONS! The difference is that instead of testing genetic vaccines in progressive stages over many years before putting them into widespread use, accepting frustrating if necessary redesigns after accumulating long term safety data, we instead applied psychological and economic pressure to much of the world to use them immediately.
What is the Precautionary Principle?
If you did not successfully solve this puzzle, it’s likely that you haven’t learned about or absorbed the purpose of the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle, which is codified into both national laws and internationally recognized medical norms, recognizes the need to conclusively demonstrate [net] benefits [with respect to harms] for medical interventions before using them on a large scale such as a few hundred thousand or a few billion people. For further reading, consider The Legacy of the Precautionary Principle in US Law: The Rise of Cost-Benefit Analysis and Risk Assessment as Undermining Factors in Health, Safety and Environmental Protection by Nicholas A. Ashford.