Dec. 6 is Microwave Oven Day. The Microwave Oven was invented in 1946 by Percy Spencer. It works by using radiation to shake food particle molecules, thereby raising their temperature. By contrast, conventional or convection ovens work by heating the air around the food, which in turn heats it from the outside in. Microwaves penetrate the surface of the food, heating it more evenly – at least where the microwaves penetrate. When microwave ovens were first introduced, many people opposed them, arguing that they should be banned because it wasn’t proven that they were safe. After all, they were emitting radiation! Today, while some people still warn about the dangers of microwave ovens, it is hard for most of us to imagine living without them! The notion that we should wait until something is proven safe before we allow it to be used, rather than allowing things, unless they are proven dangerous, is called the precautionary principle. Here’s a video describing it in more detail:
Different cultures and different people have very different risk tolerances. In Europe, for instance, the European Union often invokes the precautionary principle against things like genetically modified crops, or antibiotically-treated meat. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between genuine safety concerns, and protectionism.
In the United States, by contrast, the FDA operates more according to the precautionary principle, preventing new drugs from going to market unless all risks have been tested. Often, you can get new drugs faster in Europe, than in the U.S.
An extreme example of the precautionary principle in action is the Amish. Most people think the Amish oppose all technology. But in fact they simply apply a form of precautionary principle to the introduction of new technology into their community. And they take a long time to evaluate the risks!
- What role do you think the government should play in deciding the risks of something (e.g. cell phone use) are worth the benefits? Do you assume everything is safe, because you assume some agency has tested and proven it so? Or do you make up your own mind?
- Do you think we would be better off if (sort of like the Amish), we were much stricter in applying the precautionary principle? Would be the costs to following this path?