David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 1/25/02
There's more than one way to deceive or mislead. Speaking an actual untruth, a bad fact that is known to be false, is only one of them. Another, very effective, way to deceive your audience is through selective presentation of facts. In this scenario, every statistic you cite might be technically true, but crucial elements of the issue or situation you are discussing are omitted, fundamentally warping the picture of reality presented to your listeners or readers.
An op-ed in the Washington Post the weekend before last resorted to this second method of deception. Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, now Dean of the International School of the University of Florida, made shockingly un-academic omissions in an editorial published on Sunday, January 12.
Jett called for the resumption of US support for the anti-drug airplane shootdown program in Peru. This program was halted, at least temporarily, last April, after it resulted in the downing of a plane carrying American missionaries and the killing of one of them and her infant daughter. Jett argued that the war on drugs, like the war on terrorism, is a necessary war to protect our nation. Sometimes innocent people are killed in war, and it is tragic and all efforts should be made to minimize it, but we still must defend ourselves from our enemies, in order to prevent greater tragedy.
I happen to consider the airplane shootdown program to be an abominable crime against humanity. But that's not my primary issue with Jett. He's entitled to his opinion, scary though it may be. I also think Jett's equating of terrorist bombings and poisonings of helpless civilians with drug trafficking -- in which inanimate commodities are delivered to willing customers who desire them for personal, private use -- is totally off base. But if Jett wants to believe that terrorism and drug sales are somehow comparable, well, I might think that's nonsensical, but again, he's entitled to his opinion on that. That's what democracy is all about, even if some democracies seem to make more use of nonsense than others.
My problem with Jett is the way he made his case for the interdiction program. Jett wrote that the area under coca cultivation in Peru fell from 115,000 hectares in 1995 to 34,000 in 2000, crediting the interdiction flights with playing a key role. But Jett failed to mention, nor even allude to in the slightest way, that coca cultivation in neighboring Colombia rose by approximately the same amount during the same time. Total cultivation remained pretty much unchanged, the only change being one of location. Drugs flowed into the United States and everywhere else at an unchanged rate. In fact, drug prices on US streets dropped dramatically during the 1990s, key proof that interdiction didn't work.
In making his case, then, Jett deliberately disregarded evidence of a hemispheric scale that the program for which he advocates, never actually did a thing to help our country. The unchanging economic law of supply and demand intervened to ensure that it never could.
Perhaps Jett simply disagrees with this economic and policy analysis of the anti-coca campaigns, overwhelming as the evidence seems to be. If Jett had mentioned the fact that Peru's decline in coca growing was replaced by increases in other countries, and then made his case why he nevertheless considers it a success that helped and can still help our country, I wouldn't call him dishonest. I would find the argument unpersuasive. But he would be entitled to that opinion and to argue for it.
But Jett had his chance in the Washington Post, and he didn't take it. Instead of pointing out the very strong evidence on the other side of the argument, making his case for the interdiction programs and letting the readers decide for themselves, he chose to omit the evidence and selectively put forward one statistic in isolation from all the others, to created a skewed impression of the usefulness of the programs.
To me, this verges on academic dishonesty. Some may consider that too strong a condemnation. But think about what Jett was arguing for: the shooting down of airplanes, and the toleration by the US public for the deaths of innocents in the process, to defend our nation from drugs. Clearly, the existence of significant evidence that the program doesn't actually protect the nation, affects the moral calculus involved in such a decision, and is an essential component of any informed and forthright discussion of the issue.
Post readers, and the public at large, have the right to expect a realistic portrayal of the evidence, particularly on such an important issue as drug policy, and particularly from a public servant and academic leader such as Dean Jett.