Posted tagged ‘Innumeracy’

Andrew Sullivan and Eric Posner are Dangerous Fools: Numbers and Iraq redux edition.

November 26, 2008

Andrew Sullivan is innumerate.

This is, of course, the blog-equivalent of the dog-bites-man story, except that this time his ignorance of matters quantitative does not merely encompass the manipulation of numerical objects, but their rhetoric, the use and abuse of selected quantities to minimize the perception of human suffering.

The occasion for this arrant blindness comes from a blog entry on the University of Chicago Law School faculty blog by Eric Posner, in which Posner argues that the Iraq invasion was a humanitarian and human rights success.

The arguments for human rights advances is based on a number of criteria — freedom of the press, democratic behavior and so on, and I’m not going to quarrel there.

But the claim that the American led invasion has reduced the violence, murder and injury suffered by the people of Iraq over that imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime is marked by such sleight of hand as to be both (a) deceiving and (b) strongly suggestive of bad faith.

Andrew framed Posner’s claim thusly:

In short: if we never invaded, Iraqi civilian deaths due to sanctions may well have been greater than the wartime deaths.

Andrew’s culpability here is simply that he used his bully pulpit — by some measures the most bulliest in the blogosphere — to promote an argument that turns on a critical weaseling of the data to preserve that very point.  Posner’s commenters on the original post do a very good job of dissecting the numerous, elementary errors in his use of mortality statistics; its the very simple mindedness of Posner’s gaming of the numbers that make me see this as pure propaganda, rather than mere stupidity.

But those critics focus on errors of method, mostly, Posner’s habit of picking useful baselines, his comparing of incomparables and so on.  I just want to bring one more fault up, one that I believe even a completely numerically challenged Andrew Sullivan should have been able to pick up.

That’s this one:

Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out—it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).

There is a great deal that is wrong with this passage.  The assumption of a continued sanctions regime for a decade is highly questionable, given that one of the stated pretexts for war in the beginning was that the sanctions path was unlikely to hold indefinitely — in part for exactly the same humanitarian concerns that Posner professes here.

But while that error is real, and is of a piece with much else in the post that most charitably can be deemed sloppy thinking (again — check out the comments, the glaring lie-by-citation comes in the 100,000 number.

Posner is right:  there is a reputable project — Iraq Body Count — that states that as of this writing between 89,369 and 97, 568 civilian deaths by violence have been documented since the war began.  Problem number one is that IBC itself acknowledges that its belt-and-suspenders approach to documenting a death, necessary to preserve its credibility as the arbiter of the floor, or minimum number of deaths evoked by the war, produces a substantial undercount.  In 2006, an IBC presentation stated that the total deaths could be as much as double their published number.

That same presentation then took up the then-controversial Lancet/Johns Hopkins study that suggested that between 300,000 and 900,000 civilian deaths had occurred by 2006 as a result of the war, charging that a number of methodological flaws marred the results. The arguments are off point, as the underlying claim in the study is that it is measuring excess deaths rather than deaths by violence.

The distinction is crucial, as Posner’s claim, echoed by Sullivan, is that the number of Iraqi deaths due to the war is less than those from all causes due to the direct or indirect consequences of Saddam Hussein’s continued rule and the continuation of sanctions.  If you want to compare violent deaths — those the IBC counts — with violence imposed by Saddam’s regime, that’s an apples to apples pairing. If you want to count all the suffering of children lacking food or medicine due to the sanctions regime and Saddam’s manipulation of the UN Oil for Food fiasco, then the proper comparison is to all the suffering induced by the social disruption, the lack of services, the failure of governance that flowed in the wake of the invasion — those the Lancet study and others sought to estimate.

Those numbers are huge.  They range from over 300,000 (as of 2007) to over a million.  Most of the estimates run well above Posner’s highly suspect extrapolation of 400,000 deaths. Both totals are grotesque, of course.  It is better to preside over the slaughter of 400,000 than a million only in the most curdled of calculations of moral responsibility. Iraq before and after 2003 offers ample scope for pondering how the international approach to that country and its governance for decades has failed its people.

But it is simply wrong — and dangerous, and morally bankrupt — to defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it saved lives.  No reasonable assessment of the data on hand support that claim, and its making serves to grease the skids for the next, ever hopeful essay in defense of American exceptionalism and the uses of violence for good.

I don’t know much about Posner.  He has the fact of a famous father behind him, but this does not mean that he is merely a self-made son in the manner of such luminaries as Kristol, W. or Goldberg, J.  At the same time, the real accomplishments to be found on his resume beg the question of why he would publish such a clearly false claim about the number of deaths to be considered.  I don’t know the answer.

As for Andrew.  It’s odd.  He’s someone who I think is a sentimental naif a lot of the time.  He is obviously smart, obviously enormously prolific in his reading and his writing, and he has fought the good fight over these last several years on a bunch of issue. He certainly has noted the increasing weight of evidence that the Iraq war was a fiasco, and a bloody one at that.  At the same time he does seem to freeze every time he faces a claim that has numbers in it.  This number, the total of Iraqi dead, is hardly a hidden datum at this point; he should have remembered the controvesies and responses to a number of claims.  And yet he gave the props of his influential blog to Posner’s nonesense.

Again, I don’t know why Sullivan refused to think for a moment about Posner’s claim before posting.  It may be a residual reflex to find some way to defend his initial support for the war: kind of a “hey, it bankrupted this country; devastated that one; brought America into moral jeopardy (see torture, inter alia) and diminished our soft and hard power throughout the world, but at least it saved some kids” thought.  Except it didn’t, and there is still no excuse for the moral and strategic error commited in 2003 and compounded since.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 30, during and after 1810.


More on McCain’s innumeracy…energy policy edition

August 10, 2008

Outsourced almost entirely to Rob Perks, posting at the NRDC’s Switchboard blog. (h/t Natasha Chert’s very useful blog round up over at

Perks’ basic point is the simple, brutal arithmetic of the gap between US oil consumption and US domestic supply. We consume 24 percent of the world’s total, he tells us, and produce 2 percent. PerkD writes:

Do the math: drilling is not a credible answer to the price pinch we’re all feeling. Despite what President Bush claims, opening up our remaining offshore protected areas is a crude gimmick – pure and simple.

Of course, it’s not really Bush we have to concern ourselves anymore. John McCain is the man who matters now when it comes to the oil-first approach to energy. He still claims, on his website, that drilling offshore is a meaningful response to US dependence on foreign oil, our balance of trade deficit — and by implication our vulnerability to price spikes like the one we’ve experienced this year. Go read the statement on McCain’s issues page. It is a model of incoherence, rhetorically and politically.

But most of all, what McCain says he wants he can’t have — and it doesn’t take the proprietary models of the energy gurus to figure out why. Perks is in fact more right than he writes above. It isn’t just that we cannot drill our way into a position to move global oil prices significantly. It’s that even if drilling could produce results tomorrow — instead of the seven to ten year horizon actual oil people tell us it will take to see significant flows from new fields — US oil, what’s left of it, is relatively high-cost. The reason that there are a bunch of leases already let that remain undrilled is because the cost of oil production in places like Alaska’s North Slope and the outer continental shelf is high.

What that means, of course, is that lower cost producers — say Saudi Arabia — can manipulate production to maximize their revenue and margins, and we still won’t be able to do anything about it. Put it another way: absent an Iraq-sized pool of oil waiting somewhere nearby to be discovered, extractable at something a lot less than it takes to grab extreme oil, and neither US dependence on foreign supplies nor our vulnerability to world market supply-and-demand pricing is going to change.

McCain may or may not be able to count well enough to grasp this. He certainly seems to hope the rest of us can’t.

Why science writing is hard — Andrew Sullivan (and surrogates) illustrate.

July 29, 2008

Outsourced largely to a e-mailer to Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

The back story: A study in the journal Obesity (press release here) extrapolates from current data to suggest an enormous increase in the percentage of Americans who become obese (defined as possessing a Body Mass Index over 30). If this comes to pass, it would evoke a huge amount of spending to deal with health consequences of such American expansion.

The claim gets picked up in Wired, which then lands it in a drive-by post on Sullivan’s extremely popular blog.

The only problem: no one in the expanding circles of puffing this very slender piece of work took note of the key phrase which, to the original study author’s credit, did make it into the press release that otherwise over-hyped its subject. The release said: “Their projections illustrate the potential burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic if current trends continue.” (Italics added.)

Here’s the comment that — also to his credit — Patrick Appel (subbing for Andrew) then published:

It never fails to impress me the fact that people see a journal article and then turn their critical reasoning skills off. Looking through the actual paper in question, it’ll be figure 1 that’s giving the headliner quote of 86% fat by 2030. Except that this is wrong….

…the kicker: these are *linear* extrapolations, taken out well beyond where they actually tell us anything. The tell-tale hint? Take those projections out another 15 years and they say the overweight plus obesity fraction will be 100% before 2045. Yes, that’s right. Not a single healthy person left alive in the US. Marathon runners? Triathletes? Starving supermodels? Richard Simmons? All of them obese. Presumably from the fresh vegetable blight of 2040, forcing every last one of us to subsist entirely on Chicken McNuggets and Spam.Oh, and that trend they’re talking about is extrapolated from 3 data points. Sure, it’s suggestive, but I wouldn’t scream bloody murder from these stats.

….Yes. Chalk this one up there with, “According to current trends, housing prices will keep rising, allowing us to take on LOADS of bad debt!”

Exactly so.

The moral of this story is one I and my colleagues at the MIT science writing grad program try to drum into our students very early. Just because a press release or a paper says something doesn’t mean you can suspend your bull-shit sensor. Science writing is a specialized beat because claims are asserted in technical language, and in many cases, in forms that require at least a bit of statistical due-diligence to assess.

Simply glossing a press release with a hip-ish reference to Wall-E (Wired), and then passing on the news as fact (Appel-for-Sullivan) ain’t close to good enough; in fact, I would say, this kind of slapdash reporting (or transcribing) that does a fair amount of damage to the public’s willingness to pay attention to scientific results — not as much as the overtly fraudulent kind of stuff that comes out of the Discovery Institute or climate change denialists — but still, this kind of stuff doesn’t help matters.

Now — professional or credentialed science writers are hardly immune to all kinds of flaws of their own, ranging from the cheer-leading problem (in which science writers only tell the “good” stories – and miss, for example stuff like this. (Abstract only — full article costs $).

Then there is the context problem – it’s possible, for example, to get so absorbed in the particular fashion in a field that it becomes hard to remember — and report, that there is more to physics than string theory, for example, or that the identification of the gene “for” something is only a tiny part of the biological knowledge needed to comprehend most of what’s going on in an organism.

And certainly, plenty of science writers don’t possess in themselves enough specialized knowledge to smell out dicey stories in much or most of what they cover. I could not do any of the science I have covered over the last quarter of a century. What I have learned (with some hard lessons, to be sure) is to check not just the facts of any story I want to write — but its meaning as well.

In this case, the facts were fine. A study does exist that says what the Wired item and the Appel post say it does. But it was the interpretation of those facts that was off. In this case, as the commenter above points out, the issue was simple — any trend line that suggests incidences exceeding 100 percent coming soon ought to raise a couple of alarm bells.

Ideally, this kind of first-order BS test should not require specialized beat-centered training. Anyone writing for the public about more or less anything ought to know enough about numbers to get that one; it is or ought to be as much a part of a liberal arts intellectual arsenal as is the skill of writing a clear sentence.

To that end, I wish I could publish here the guide to mathematical reasoning my colleague Alan Lightman has written to introduce the science writing grad students at MIT to the tools they can use to make sense of the hype factor in science news. He”s getting ready to turn that material into a short book, I believe, and it can’t come to soon.

In the meantime, this concise and funny book is a good place to start.

Image: Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.