Nassim Taleb & The Precautionary Principle | Just In Case

You see a pool of water on the floor.

Would you drink from this water? Likely not, we are not wired to just randomly drink from some water on the floor, even if we are quite thirsty. We are wired to be very careful.

But you have no evidence that it is poisonous? There is no indication that this water is going to be harmful to you. Aha! So you are making a decision without evidence. Why are you exercising this caution? Is it just in case?

This is the exercise of the precautionary principle in your daily life. For things for which you don’t have evidence, you try to stay cautious until you accumulate enough evidence to better understand the risk.

What is the source of the water? How clean is the floor? Where in the world are you? What is the temperature of the room? How familiar are you with the environment?

The Precautionary Principle In Everyday Life

The precautionary principle is decision making for what should be accepted or rejected in situations where you do not enough evidence, or at least do not have enough evidence yet.

Nassim Taleb

99% of the things we do in our daily lives are based on the precautionary principle. Since many of the decisions we make, the risks (no matter how inconsequential) are typically not understood until after the decision has been made.

The precautionary principle is an instinctual survival mechanism that protects us from the ultimate risk. The risk of ruin. The risk of blowing up. The risk of death.

Even though the water on the floor could well be fine and even if I am quite thirsty, is the risk worth the potential blow up? No – you are exercising the precautionary principle.

Again – in typical ‘Incerto‘ and Talebian fashion, this is an idea taken from instinct. Taken from the ancients. A Lindy idea. We have all heard our grandparents remind us that it’s better to be ‘safe than sorry’. A classic euphemism for the precautionary principle ingrained into the culture.

The precautionary principle is the distinction between harm and ruin.

Taleb’s Fight With Monsanto

Taleb took his fight, precautionary principle in hand, to Monsanto and battled against genetically modified food.

In this case, he insisted that we use the precautionary principle since we don’t have all the evidence, yet, to adequately understand the risk of genetically modified food. The genetic modification of what we eat exposes certain agricultural species (take the humble tomato for example) to potential ruin. A type of risk exposure that Taleb argues, and I agree, is completely unthinkable.

Larger risks on smaller scales are the work of innovation and improvement. Never otherwise.

What might seem like low risk, in this case, gene splicing to increase crop yield, becomes too much at the large scale it is being practised on. Even something that on its surface is low risk likely hasn’t had all variables addequalty accounted for, and therefore still exposes a fatter tail than one might think. Risk of ruin.

Applications Of The Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle works best in situations where

  • The cost of waiting is low (unless you are about to die of thirst, you can wait for another source of water)
  • When there are other options (milk, pepsi, beers, vodka – they might not replace water, but can certaintly substitute in the short term)
  • When the trade-off is worse (How thirsty are you to drink this untested floor water?)

Much like many of the ideas of Nassim Taleb’s Incerto – the precautionary principle is a heuristic inherently known to us.

As you stand on the edge of the cliff, eager to jump into the water below, the surface looks clear and the surroundings show no signs of rocks or rotting tree logs beneath. But would you be the first to jump?

Better safe than sorry – unless you’ve been drinking beers to convince you otherwise, swim to your landing spot and dive down to confirm safe landing. Accumulate more information to better understand your risk.

We enact the precautionary principle in our lives more than you know. After all, we still look both ways before we cross an empty street.

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