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Caution: Unforeseeable Consequences Ahead
Published on Saturday, April 14, 2001 in the Boulder Camera
Caution: Unforeseeable Consequences Ahead
by John Sherwood
Quiz time: what do the following current headline topics have in common? Genetically manufactured (GM) foods; cloning, especially that of humans; "designer babies" through genetic manipulation; mad cow disease and the foot and mouth disease epidemic in the United Kingdom now "globalized" to continental Europe.

Answer: at some point in the discussion of these events, we are reminded that they all involve "Unintended Consequences."

It is little short of obvious that increasingly over the past decade this concept has come to enjoy a prominent place in public discourse. One reason for this is that increasing numbers of consequences are not only Unintended; they are for the most part Unwanted. Clearly the objections to GM foods, human cloning, and genetic manipulation in general are most trenchantly based on the conviction that since we are dealing with the very core of what we call nature, negative consequences could be catastrophic, given the inescapable fact that, however reluctantly, we are a part of nature.

It must be stressed, the increase in Unintended Consequences is not due exclusively to actions involving science and technology. In our bewilderingly complex societies the (once) straightforward acts of legislation have come to generate great numbers of Unintended/Unwanted results. Who could have foreseen, for example, just in New York state alone, that draconian anti-drug laws struck in the early 70s at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller would give rise to a powerful private nationwide private prison industry in the 90s whose business success is dependent upon ever-increasing crime rates? Surely a bizarre and unwanted, if only grudgingly acknowledged, consequence. And, to revert to the Mad Cow flap, where was the sage who advised against the partial conversion of herbivores into carnivores as being "unnatural" and thus carrying unknown risk?

These examples suggest that it is not enough to restrict our attention to the Unintendeds/Unwanteds, for these are only the working out of a prior set of consequences: those that are Unforeseeable.

The difference between the two kinds of consequence is of major significance. Picture a coin on one side of which is embossed "Unforeseeable Consequences" and on the other, the familiar "Unintended Consequences." A moment's reflection tells us that the Unforseeables are questions of knowledge while the Unintendeds/Unwanteds reflect judgments of value. Unforeseeable Consequences are just that, the unpredictable results of human decisions, whereas the inherently mutable and all too often capricious desires and phobias of people serve to define Unwanted Consequences.

It would be worse than absurd to try to ordain that we act only when we know with certainty what the results will be; such an effort would bring life as we know it to a standstill. This said, however, given the dense and rapidly expanding webs of complexity in our private and working lives, driven in increasingly by the pace and reach of science-based technology, is it not time to curb our compulsion not only to pursue all lines of scientific inquiry, but to do so with the primary end of producing "practical" results. It is these results that serve as the sources of the marked increase in Unintended/Unwanted consequences.

There is a difference between, at one extreme, tugging blankets over our heads to defend against an imagined falling sky, and at the other, forging ahead at accelerating speed to reap the projected benefits of given line of novel physical, biological or engineering research. This is not a call to inhibit scientific research; on the contrary, I am only suggesting that greater caution be exercised in sanctioning the introduction of the "practical" results of research into the public domain.

There exists a model for this. With a few important and for the most part negative exceptions, technically advanced nations try to exercise extreme caution in giving approval for the public use of new medical techniques and pharmaceuticals. It is not as if there are not continuous pressures, both within the professions and from the marketplace and segments of the public, to speed up the cautionary processes that govern these two essential industries. Pressures to do so are often intense, but fortunately for all of us they have thus far largely been resisted.

Still, is it not now time now to insist that equally rigorous disciplines govern "practicalizing" the findings of research, to cite one presently "hot" area among dozens, into the genetic manipulation of the plant and animal life upon which all our lives are utterly dependent? Would it not be a cosmic irony if in our haste to make ourselves a little healthier, a little more secure and our lives a bit more convenient, we were to flood ourselves with consequences we did not strive hard enough to foresee, and when proved to be unwanted, we would come to regret?

John H. Sherwood lives in Boulder.

Copyright 2001 The Daily Camera


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