Environmental Risk, Precaution, and Scientific Rationality in the Context of WTO/NAFTA Trade Rules


*Address correspondence to Douglas Crawford-Brown, Carolina Environmental Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 105 Miller Hall, CB# 1105, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-1105; douglas_crawford-brown@unc.edu.


This article considers the role of scientific rationality in understanding statements of risk produced by a scientific community. An argument is advanced that, while scientific rationality does impose constraints on valid scientific justifications for restrictions on products and practices, it also provides flexibility in the judgments needed to both develop and apply characterizations of risk. The implications of this flexibility for the understanding of risk estimates in WTO and NAFTA deliberations are explored, with the goal of finding an intermediate ground between the view that science unambiguously justifies or rejects a policy, and the view that science is yet another cultural tool that can be manipulated in support of any decision. The result is a proposal for a dialogical view of scientific rationality in which risk estimates are depicted as confidence distributions that follow from a structured dialogue of scientific panels focused on judgments of evidence, evidential reasoning, and epistemic analysis.