The silent terrorist?

Failure magazine (really, talk about niche programming) has an article about a series of strange attacks against eucalyptus trees in California. The trees (a non-native species) has been attacked by a series of non-native insects since 1985. At least one researcher has asserted that the introduction of the invasive eucalyptus killers appears to be by design rather than the result of accidental introductions.

Who cares? Well, this actually can lead to fairly substantial costs as eucalyptus trees are frequently used as landscaping features. Their removal (and I assume replacement) was big bucks.

The story begins in 1985 when Paine’s department began receiving calls from county officials relaying concerns that large numbers of eucalyptus trees were dying and costing upwards of ten-thousand dollars each to remove. First the calls came from residents in southern California but they soon began coming from the San Francisco Bay Area too. “At its peak, the University of California (San Diego) were saying they could spend their entire landscape budget for the whole campus just taking out eucalyptus trees,”…

The article calls this ‘bioterrorism’ but I think that’s a misuse of the terms. After all, one of the key components of terrorism is that someone (the victims, government or some social, religious or political subgroup) has to be coerced to some sort of change. I’d suggest that in order for that to happen, that target group needs to know it’s being terrorized purposefully and is not just subject to the whims of nature and chance. If, in fact, this introduction of invasive species is purposeful, then it might be better to call this ‘biovandalism’.

The idea that this is done by design rather that by accident isn’t universally accepted but they do highlight a cognitive bias among scientists in the field. According to a researcher at Oklahoma State University, many in her community suffer from ‘suspicion inertia’:

We tend to think of everything as just being natural-even an unfamiliar set of symptoms-and it is rare for someone to take the perspective that it might not be.

This lack of consideration of a sufficiently broad range of hypotheses is common in the intelligence field as well and has been remarked on for years. The advantage the academic field has in areas like this is that they (at least) have a peer review process in place. While imperfect it allows for alternative hypotheses to be presented and subjected to scrutiny by the larger community. While that may occur within the federal IC, there’s nothing like that occurring at the state and local level. Criticism and questioning of assertions is still often interpreted as a personal or institutional attack and frowned upon as being in bad taste. That allows really bad (and I mean really, really bad) analysis, perhaps with unsubstantiated conclusions, flawed data or gross errors in fact, to continue to float around the community without a word being said about it. The only hopes of preventing such analysis from lodging in the community psyche are:

  1. informal word of mouth communication to avoid that product – hardly satisfying in terms of reaching enough people or being able to maintain awareness in the collective consciousness (which, if it exists, probably isn’t up to the task) long enough to pass along concerns to the next generation of practitioners. And given the high rates of analyst turnover, ‘new’ generations may come on the scene every couple of years.
  2. that few people will read such a document anyway. That’s kind of a double edged sword. Many people don’t read intelligence documents but of those that do, I suspect there’s a serious deficit in being able to read such products critically. In other words, to identify flaws, inconsistencies or unanswered questions that a particular product has.

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