Small Wars Journal

Will Bad Information Lead to Bad Decisions?

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Will Bad Information Lead to Bad Decisions?

by Allison Brown

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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 we 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.

Download the full article: Will Bad Information Lead to Bad Decisions?

Allison Brown has over twenty-five years professional experience providing business development services to urban and rural development projects in developing economies. She is also a technical specialist on the use of agriculture and economic interventions in Counter Narcotics programs.

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Well done Ms. Brown. I would submit that your thesis on bad information extends past argriculture well into academia and military operations.

On the academic side, social scientist have become obsessed with quantifiable "evidence" to support a dissertation or hypothesis striving to force the laws of science into the study of people. One could argue that the fancy mathematical modeling in the financial world led to the economic crisis. Last year, I scanned over 30 recent dissertations on small wars from prestigious universities. Every single paper had factual or incomplete data sets. The authors would minimize these discrepencies by narrowing their parameters and confidence test, but they still stuck with their intial conclusions despite the inconsistincies in observation.

On the military side, we're constantly striving to bridge the information gap between what we think we know and what is actually going on. Good commanders utilize reconnaissance and surveillance to narrow the unknown, but sometimes, we're too intellectually lazy to challenge our presumed facts and assumptions.

Simply put, when brainstorming a complex problem, one question that I continually ask in design and process is "what are we missing here?"

Again, well done.