The justification given by the minister was a recent study published in the oncology section of Lancet, which found that a chemical substance used in fumigations, glyphosate, is likely dangerous to human health: a finding echoed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in recent days.
Controversy soon broke out. The Defense Ministry said it would ignore the request. Representatives of the United States, although they recognized Colombia’s sovereignty to decide on the issue, also rejected the given reasons.
The Colombian Attorney General’s Office similarly sniffed at the health claims, just as was to be expected given its leader, Alejandro Ordoñez. The body has previously rejected equal marriage, same-sex adoption, and abortion in selected cases, so it was no surprise that it once again positioned itself within the conservative camp.
Who’s right? The study that shows X could cause Y, or those waiting for it to be proved beyond all possible doubt?
As some analysts have anticipated, it’s possible that this position will triumph. It’s possible not because, as many believe, Washington invariably imposes its political preferences, but for two more fundamental reasons.
The first is that the standard of discussion over fumigation has been feeble, to say the least. The second, which perhaps explains the first, is that there exists no consensus in Colombia about the principles that should guide state action.
This weakness is found within the discussion of scientific findings. In fact, in one of several declarations, Ordoñez argued that he didn’t believe the evidence published in Lancet constitutes scientific proof. While it’s clear that the attorney general has neither the knowledge nor the academic authority to decide what is or isn’t scientific, it’s also certain that the decisions being made are politically motivated.
The fact that scientific studies are never 100 percent definitive in their conclusions has become a battleground between opposing camps. Who’s right? The study that shows X could cause Y, or those waiting for it to be proved beyond all possible doubt? It’s difficult to choose a position, but one example can illustrate the inconsistencies involved when debates are held around scientific studies.
Some people can be in favor of the elimination of fumigation because, for example, they’re in favor of ending the War on Drugs. As a consequence, they’ll be tempted to support this study. However, some of these people may have doubts about the existence of the phenomenon of global warming. As such, they might distrust existing studies, which are similarly not 100 percent conclusive.
Individuals shouldn’t act as if they were scientists. They’re not: they don’t fully understand these issues. They don’t know how to interpret the data.
This illustrates a problem of consistency, but also reveals that when science becomes involved in public-policy decisions, the difficulties go beyond the published results. Not only because they’re not conclusive, but because for every study you can find at least one to say the contrary.
As a consequence, individuals shouldn’t act as if they’re scientists. They’re not: they don’t fully understand these issues. They don’t know how to interpret the data. The majority of people content themselves with summaries of these studies written by journalists, who are clearly themselves rarely up to the task.
So we should never take decisions or hold a debate about such issues? Of course we should. How can a society avoid discussion about whether or not, and how, to confront something perceived to be a problem or threat?
Here is where principles should act instead of the struggle between figures and studies. Should the state task itself with preventing individuals from consuming certain substances? Should it invest billions of dollars to do so? Should Colombian soldiers be given quasi-agricultural tasks, flying little planes to prevent certain plants from flourishing, just because someone believes that they’re “bad”?
The discussion should be held on the level of what the state should or shouldn’t do. There exists no moral, practical, nor historical justification for the War on Drugs. As I’ve argued before in the same space, this failed struggle is due to the needs and manipulations of governments, both in the United States as in Colombia.
Those who believe otherwise should face the intellectual consequences. All of those who fear change – even if its small, like suspending fumigations with a certain chemical – should recognize and admit their vision of the state as one pitted against human freedom. The rest is pure figures and anecdotal evidence: both of which, in the majority of cases, end up with the same results.