In this paper the coherence of the precautionary principle as a guide to public health policy is considered. Two conditions that any account of the principle must meet are outlined, a condition of practicality and a condition of publicity. The principle is interpreted in terms of a tripartite division of the outcomes of action (good outcomes, normal bad outcomes and special bad outcomes). Such a division of outcomes can be justified on either “consequentialist” or “deontological” grounds. In the second half of the paper, it is argued that the precautionary principle is not necessarily opposed to risk–cost–benefit analysis, but, rather, should be interpreted as suggesting a lowering of our epistemic standards for assessing evidence that there is a link between some policy and “special bad” outcomes. This suggestion is defended against the claim that it mistakes the nature of statistical testing and against the charge that it is unscientific or antiscientific, and therefore irrational.
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Competing interests: None.