With phrases like "better safe than sorry" and "look before you leap," it's clear that concerns about risk are a part of our psyche. Unfortunately, when we take those clichés to heart, we often end up plagued by another: "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."
Academics who study risk call those situations "regrettable substitutions," which occur when individuals, companies or governments substitute processes, procedures or ingredients that prove to be inferior or actually harmful, compared to what existed before.
A prototypical example was the EU's activists-instigated 2013 ban on some uses of certain state-of-the-art insecticides, supposedly to protect bee populations. (The ban was misguided from the start because of persuasive evidence that these neonicotinoid insecticides do not, in fact, exert significant effects on bees.)
The European Commission's Joint Research Centre, which provides independent scientific advice to support EU policy, in January completed an analysis of the effects of the ban. Its conclusions are devastating: (1) the use of restricted substances plummets; (2) farmers replace them with other substances (mainly pyrethroids, which are sprayed, rather than used to treat seeds); (3) there are fewer seed but more soil and leaf applications (which create wider exposures to human and other animals, including bees); (4) alternative seed treatments are less effective; (5) pest-management becomes more cost- and time-intensive; and (6) pest stresses on agriculture increase, with no benefit to beneficial insects.
An example that concerns U.S. public health authorities is the consumption of raw milk in place of the common pasteurized variety. The CDC estimates that raw milk caused about 760 illnesses and 22 hospitalizations a year from 2009-2014, mostly from Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria.
It's a regrettable substitution: "Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2 percent of the population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6% of the population, caused 96 percent of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products."
Some regrettable substitutions by governments have serious consequences. In recent decades, the UK government has provided financial incentives to encourage a shift of vehicles to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested it would cut harmful emissions. However, in real-world driving conditions, it turned out that diesel cars emit five times as much emissions of nitrogen oxides as in the tests.
Following the Kyoto Treaty of the 1990s, the rest of the EU also encouraged the switch to diesel. The result was air quality in some major cities, such as London and Paris, that at times is as bad as Beijing or New Delhi.
Another European example is the harm to the German economy done by phasing out nuclear power as a reaction to the Fukushima meltdown. Germany has force-fed hundreds of billions of dollars into solar and wind power, raising energy costs. A Der Spiegel headline lamented, "How Electricity Became a Luxury Good."
A spike in prices isn't the only side-effect of such regrettable substitutions. The shutdown of two nuclear power plants in the U.S. Tennessee Valley in the 1980s caused a shift in electricity generation to coal-fired power plants, substantially increasing air pollution in the region.
A study published in the journal Nature Energy found that in counties with the greatest increases in air pollution following the nuclear shutdown, average birth weights (a predictor of health) decreased by about 5 percent.
To end up with fewer regrets, we should be wary of swapping the devil we know for the devil we don't. In other words, let science, instead of political correctness and the cynical agendas of special interests, show the way.