When Good Intentions Bang Heads with Unintended Consequences

With phrases like “Better safe than sorry” and “Look before you leap,” it’s clear that concerns about risk are a part of our vernacular – and our psyche.

Unfortunately, when we take those clichés to heart, we often end up plagued by another one, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Academics who study risk have a name for those situations in which you end up singed: “Regrettable substitutions,” which are said to occur when individuals, companies or governments substitute processes, procedures or ingredients that prove to be inferior or actually harmful, compared to what existed before.

One example that concerns public health authorities is the consumption of raw, or unpasteurized, milk, instead 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.

These are a hugely disproportionate fraction of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products: “Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2 percent of the population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6 percent of the population, caused 96 percent of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products.”  

An academic study published in 2014 demonstrated how product manufacturers themselves may perpetuate spurious product concerns and drive consumers to take greater health risks.

The study explored through the lens of product labeling how people evaluate the risks of BPA, a chemical that is a component of many plastics and is used in the lining of food cans to prevent bacterial contamination, compared to its alternatives.

Surprisingly, it found that the experimental subjects “may be guided less by what people know and more by the order in which they learn it. Notably, it appears that people evaluate a situation in which scientific evidence is tempered by controversy similarly to a situation in which there is no scientific evidence at all.”

That makes the public susceptible to the blandishments of activists or other special interests who foment “controversy” even when there isn’t a legitimate one.

That vulnerability is related to the phenomenon of "astroturfing," creating the false impression of a grassroots movement that promotes or opposes a certain policy, product or idea, when the driving force is actually an industry, political party, NGO or other special interest.  

A prototypic regrettable substitution was the European Union’s activists-instigated 2013 ban on some uses of certain state-of-the-art neonicotinoid insecticides, supposedly to protect bee populations. (The ban was misguided from the start because of persuasive evidence that “neonics” do not, in fact, exert significant effects on bees.)

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which provides independent scientific advice to support EU policy, in January completed an analysis of the effects of the ban.

GettyImages-148011563 An engraving of various bees, circa 1800. Pictured are honey bees (1. worker, 2. male, 3. queen), common humble bees (4 and 5), lapidary bees (6. male, 7. female), moss or carder bees (8), Donovan's humble bee (9), Harris' humble bee (10) and false humble bees (11. apathus vestalis, 12. apathus rupestris). Humble bees were later referred to as bumblebees. Engraved by J. Bishop after J. Stewart. Hulton Archive/Getty

Its conclusions are devastating: (1) the use of restricted active 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 foliar treatments (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.

Regrettable, indeed, but if the EU fails to renew the popular herbicide glyphosate, it will make the neonicotinoid ban seem trivial. The alternatives range from ineffective or inconvenient to hugely expensive, and having to resort to them would be a significant blow to EU farmers and, ultimately, to consumers.

Some regrettable substitutions by governments have more 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 and combat climate change.

However, in real-world driving conditions, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions of nitrogen oxides as in the tests. And following the Kyoto Treaty of the 1990’s, the rest of the EU also encouraged the switch to diesel, the result of which 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.

Those regrettable substitutions have reduced the ability of the country to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and raised 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, and a study published in the journal Nature Energy , found that in counties that experienced the greatest increases in air pollution levels following the nuclear shutdown, average birth weights (which are thought to be a valid predictor of health later in life) decreased by about 5 percent.                         

To end up with fewer regrets, we should all be wary of swapping the devil we know for the devil we don't. Or, in other words, let science, instead of political correctness and the cynical agendas of special interests and activists, show the way.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.