When Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed his “Rationalia” thought experiment several months ago, I thought is was cute but misguided. Now that he’s doubled down on the concept, I can see exactly why it is such a naively flawed idea. Rationalia would be a disaster for conservation. This short science fiction story illustrates why.
“Oyez, oyez, oyez! This, the 107th session of the 16th Superior District Court, is hereby gavelled to order. Please be seated.”
Cope Johns remained standing. He surveyed the crowd, an odd assortment of bystanders, tourists, and his few supporters. Chief Justice Carlsson entered the hall, climbed onto his podium, and looked down on the assembled masses. Somewhere amid the crush of bodies, an elderly lawyer took his seat. All eyes turned to him. He timidly rose to his feet.
“Today we hear Dr. Cope Johns, on behalf of the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), versus the Free Republic of Rationalia. Make note that, as evidence suggests that timeliness is required in this decision, we have elected to expedite deliberations. The court has been briefed extensively on this case and requires no additional background. Dr. Johns, your opening statement?”
Cope approached the stand. The bailiff placed his left hand on the near-field ID scanner, confirming his identity. Cope raised his right hand to nothing and swore under his breath.
“Thank you, your honor. The Vaquita is a tiny porpoise that has been on the verge of extinction for the better part of a century. Its only remaining habitat is in the Gulf of Reason, where the Free Republic of Rationalia intends to establish the Lost Lobos tidal energy farm. This farm will displace the Vaquita breeding grounds and will likely drive the species over the brink to extinction.”
Justice Carlsson leaned forward. “Your evidence, Dr. Johns?”
“Your Honor, the Cape Bright Light Project, conducted in the North Atlantic had a similar effect on the last standing stock of Pilot Whales. Meanwhile, the Florida Confederation…”
“Objection, Dr. Johns. The Florida Confederation is not within the aegis of Rationalia and cannot serve as example. They are governed by rhetoric, not evidence.”
Cope paused. His whole argument, and the last hope for these tiny porpoises, hung on his ability to present evidence from other nations.
“But, your honor, the ecologic effect is the same regardless of system of governance.”
“No, Mr. Johns, the prevailing evidence suggests that policies adopted by the Confederation lack a rational framework and may not be used when arguing before this court.”
“I suppose that means that examples from the Sovereign State of Jefferson will also be denied?”
“The evidence would suggest that that is the case.”
“And the Utah Territories?”
“Then I rest on the example of Cape Bright. Here we have a clear case of new construction driving a species to extinction…”
“One example, Dr. Johns, is not evidence, it is anecdote. Do you have any further evidence that the Lost Lobos tidal energy farm will harm the Vaquita?”
Cope Johns took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and plunged into the abyss.
“You honor, I would like to argue for the Precautionary Principle for new environmental projects.”
In the back of the courtroom, a man gasped, then fainted. For a moment, chaos. Justice Carlsson gaveled the room back to order.
“You have been warned, repeatedly, that this is an incredibly risky tactic to take. I am going to allow it, with the understanding that, should you fail to support your assertion with proper evidence, you will be disenfranchised for contempt of reason. Do you understand?”
Cope sighed. “I do.”
“You honor, the Precautionary Principle is a management principle common during the late 20th and early 21st century that states the, when developing a new project that could present environmental harm, when scientific knowledge is lacking, the burden of proof falls upon the developer to demonstrate that the project is safe, prior to development. It advocates for a precautionary approach to new development which protects fragile ecosystems and threatened species by placing the burden of proof on the development, rather than the environment.”
“And your evidence that this works?”
“Yes, your honor, the Precautionary Principle was used effectively to establish responsible mining, milling, and energy projects, while protecting numerous ecosystems. A partial list of 3,137 examples can be found in your briefing.”
“Yes, I have reviewed those. And how, Mr. Johns, will this Precautionary Principle be used to protect the Vaquita?”
“The Precautionary Principle means that it is up to the Free Republic of Rationalia to prove the the new energy project will not harm the Vaquita, rather than requiring us to demonstrate absolute proof of harm. It will require the project to undergo significant environmental impact assessment first, before proceeding. Evidence that the farm will not harm must be presented.”
“I’m going to stop you there. The Precautionary Principle is anathema to the founding documents of Rationalia. To place the burden of proof upon the infinite null–to demand that we demonstrate no evidence of harm under any condition, is irrational. The burden of proof, and the preponderance of evidence, must lie with the concrete demonstration of harm. If you cannot prove, absolutely and unambiguously, that this project will harm the Vaquita, with evidentiary support, I must find in favor of the Free Republic of Rationalia and our tidal energy farm.”
“But the Vaquita will die!”
“Everything dies, Mr. Johns. The evidence for that is unassailable.”
Justice Carlsson leaned back in his chair, stroked his long, grey, beard, and settled his gaze back on Cope Johns.
“Should there be, at any point in the future, sufficient evidence demonstrating that the Vaquita are harmed by this project, this court will hear new evidence. It will, not, unfortunately, be heard from you. You are disenfranchised, Mr. Johns.”
The bailiff reached for Cope John’s arm and ran the scanner over it. Cope’s near-field ID updates with his new status.
“You are dismissed.”
Back on the street, Cope Johns walked into a small deli. On a screen, talking heads were discussing the trial. Cope walked up to the counter and ordered a sandwich.
“Sorry, man,” the proprietor said with just a note of sympathy as he scans Cope’s hand, “we can’t serve your kind here.”
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