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Thursday, May 05, 2005

More on Safety: Risks and Benefits

I'm in a blue-tinged fog and can't give this subject adequate treatment, but I still wanted to expand on the previous topic a bit.

Part of our societal safety hang-up is the tendency to consider risks far more than benefits. For example, the FDA's drug approval process, with its mountains of paperwork and years of multi-stage testing, adds enormously to the time and expense involved in getting new drugs approved -- and some are now pushing to make it even more onerous. It is extremely likely that some drugs that would save lives and relieve suffering are never developed at all due to the deterrent effect of this regulatory scheme. Others that are eventually approved could, with less intensive screening, be available years earlier. Yet as a society we undervalue the lives these drugs could be saving or improving during those years.

I'm not sure whether the consequences of essentially banning DDT use against mosquitos belong in this category. They do at least in part -- the clamor about the alleged environmental risks drowned out whatever voices may have been raised pointing out the benefits. Other factors, from uncritical acceptance of environmental claims to the eternal problem of unintended consequences, also came into play. We were on the way to wiping out malaria before governments worldwide were pressured into abandoning DDT use. How many millions of people, so many of them children, have died from malaria since then?

As someone who looks to future technological advances with hope and excitement, I fear the obstacles that a risk-averse society may put in the way of such advances. Thank G-d for very rich people with ideas or the willingness to back ideas.

I've been reading science fiction for maybe 40 years, and I am well aware of how a technological advance can go wrong. But I guess I prefer that risk to technological stagnation. This is NOT as good as it can get. I want my descendants to see better.

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