Friday, August 04, 2006

Even Numbers Have Limits

Back in my early days of blogging, I wrote a post extolling the virtues of the protest song. In it, I mentioned the Mos Def track, Mathematics. This track basically lists a series of statistics which give reasons to be skeptical about the claim that American politics is race- or class-blind - the black unemployment rate is, according to Mos Def, more than triple that for whites, for example. Now, clearly, statistics don't tell us everything relevant about a given situation: the proportion of German adults killed or injured in World War Two, when compared to the proportion of British adults killed or injured in the same conflict, by itself might be quite misleading about the justice or otherwise of that conflict, for example.

Still, statistics can be useful: if, let us say, we were to discover that an organisation which was claimed to be an existential threat to a given state was killing 0.4 citizens of that state a month, that would, surely, give us good reason to be skeptical about the claim. Equally, if we were to discover that a state's attempt to destroy the threat posed by that organisation was resulting in the deaths of people at around 875 times the rate that the threat had previously been resulting in, we might question whether the response was proportional: whether, in fact, it represented a reasonable response to that threat.

With that in mind, it might be relevant to know that, during the course of this discussion with Brian Barder, I worked out - on the basis of figures provided by the Israeli Foreign Ministry - that for the conflict before last month's escalation in southern Lebanon and northern Israel to have killed as many people as it has since that escalation, it would have had to gone on for about 875 months, or very nearly 73 years. Further, that before the conflict's escalation, Hizbullah's attacks on northern Israel had, since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, been killing approximately 0.4 Israeli citizens - not civilians, I might add, but citizens - a month. Even including the eight Israeli soldiers whom I understand were killed in the kidnapping which began the current conflict, that figure only rises to 0.5. Assuming, as I did in the original calculation, equal casualties on each side, that would mean that it would have taken a bit more than 58 years to kill as many people as the post-escalation conflict has.

On the basis of that, it strikes me that anyone claiming that either of the two sides party to that conflict presented a serious existential threat to the other or that a return to the status quo would be unacceptable must be taking the piss. On the other hand, any participant in a conflict which has destroyed much of a state's infrastructure and killed over six hundred of its inhabitants in less than a month clearly does present an existential threat to that state. One wonders whether anyone who thinks that Israel is entitled to respond as it is believes the Lebanese military would be entitled to respond in a manner, were it able to, which ended up killing Israelis at 875 or even only 700 times the rate the Israeli military is currently killing the Lebanese.

I apologise those who have already seen these numbers: I thought their limits were worth stressing just a little more.


Cirdan said... strikes me that anyone claiming that either of the two sides party to that conflict presented a serious existential threat to the other must be taking the piss.

Nicely put. And entirely true.

David Duff said...

Your mathematical approach reminds me of the apocryphal story told by real soldiers against the mathematical types who inhabit the stranger regions of Operational Research (OR). A General is said to have asked his OR officer if it was OK for his army to wade across a certain river obstacle. Certainly, the OR man was reported as saying, it's average depth is only 3'-6"!

So, your nation is faced by an enemy who *repeatedly* and with absolute clarity tells you that he intends to wipe you from the face of the earth. This enemy is armed with rockets whose range has increased considerably. At the moment these rockets are filled with ball-bearings but your enemy's friend who supplied the rockets in the first place is striving to complete a programme of WMD.

However, for the last six years your enemy has only (only?!) killed .5 of a person per month of your fellow citizens. The question arises, what are you to do? According to your, how shall I put it, innovative strategic reasoning one should wait patiently before retaliating until they kill ... oh, I dunno' ... say, 10.75 people per month, although that might lay you open to charges of warmongering, so let's say, 15.87 per day, how about that?

Weeeeeell, it's a strategy, I suppose, but somehow I don't think Clausewitz would have been too impressed. I'm not, either, although I admit that hardly counts for much.

I apologise in advance because this is going to be rude and generally I try to avoid rudeness, but how do such very silly people as you get into universities? And how do you stay there?

Rob Jubb said...


how about this: your nation is faced with an enemy which repeatedly and with absolute clarity tells you that they intend to wipe an organisation to which sizeable minority of your population belong from the face of the earth. The enemy has one of the best equipped armies in the world, supplied and supported by the sole remaining superpower, as well as nuclear weapons. They have previously taken sides during civil wars, invaded your nation and beseiged your capital, massacring refugees, and have, during past campaigns against the minority they have promised to destroy, killed large numbers of civilians. A real nasty piece of work, this enemy, yes? Oh no, it's Israel, so it can go round killing people as it pleases.

Notice that I am not, and never have, defended the actions of Hizbullah, which, for the record, bears responsibility for all those it has killed, as well as a part of the responsibility for beginning the escalation of the conflict. I just have a sense of proportion, something you clearly lack.

I'm not particularly bothered about being rude to people, so f*ck off back to the hole you came from and don't comment here again.