Sunday, April 18, 2010

SWJ: Will Bad Information Lead to Bad Decisions?

As a scientist I worry that too much of the discussion of poppy and opium in Afghanistan is based on bad biology, bad economics, and bad horticulture. Can make good decisions based on wrong information?

Case in point. The other night
CNN reported from Helmand on the usual "oh look at all that poppy" stuff that is part of the spring season. It is bad enough that the fields that CNN shows "blooming" are uniform green with not a flower in sight (was it really poppy?), but then the reporter, Chris Lawrence, says, "Every few days or so the Taliban will come by and pick off some bulbs," and the Marine being filmed adds that he and his colleagues have seen the bad guys "hack a few plants that are ready to go and put it on a donkey and just head north." Chris goes on to say that the Marines are not allowed to "slash and burn" the poppy fields.

Poppies don't have bulbs they have seed pods. A single poppy pod or even a whole poppy plant is not particularly valuable, and mown green poppy plants have no value for drugs.


These mistakes highlight the gaps in the knowledge base of allied forces, journalists and other "experts" and their lack of access to appropriate information and technical resources.

Unfortunately, the young Afghans who go to the field as interpreters are too often urban, Peshawar-educated fellows who would not ever leave their city environment if they had other work. They are unlikely to recognize agriculture crops or know anything about farming systems. Bureaucrats in Kabul, Washington and London suffer similar weaknesses.

Ignorance of fundamentals leads to risible reporting, as in the CNN piece, but left unchallenged and uncorrected, ignorance might also lead to bad decisions.

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