Statistics, Facts, Opinions, and Casualties of War: Reflections of a Statistician

Excellent site entitled Politically Incorrect Statistics with a post on the Statistics of War. In it Abraham Wyner, professor of statistics dissects the (sloppy) reporting of NYT correspondent Ethan Bronner.

I contend that the distinction between fact and opinion in unwarranted. Facts and opinions are really just varieties of statements, which are testable to varying degrees and “true” in the sense that they are supported by evidence of varying quality. So a statement like “rain yesterday” on the TV news is considered fact because it is 1) obviously testable and 2) reliable in the sense that the weatherman has been doing this for a long time and gets it right nearly every time. He also has no motive to lie, incentives to be accurate and consequences for errors. A thoughtful analysis of facts should consider the 1) supplier 2) testability 3) quality of supporting evidence. Here is an example: It was common place in the media to decry the horrors of Israel’s war in Gaza. This is most easily done with a lament about the number of civilian deaths. So lets consider a factual claim made by Ethan Bronner in the NY Times on January 10th.

    A tank shell landed outside the home of a family in Jabaliya, northeast of the city, killing eight members of the same family who were sitting outside, hospital officials said, bringing the death toll to more than 820. Nearly half of the dead were reported to be civilians.

Note, this is the same family and same incident — I believe — that later reworked the tale into a blood libel for credulous journalists like Time’s Tim McGirk.

Now the “fact” (i.e. Statements) here are two: 1) the death toll (820) and the 2) civilian death toll (approx 400).

Actually, the only thing that can legitimately claim to be a fact here is that a shell hit and killed eight members of the same family. The statistics are, as Wyner will show, constructs with only a very tenuous relationship to fact.

Let’s Anaylze them closely:

Are these statements readily testable?

First, Hamas fighters do not wear uniforms. They fight in highly concentrated civilian areas and they readily employ young adults to provide cover. Now of course, these considerations require verification but there are abundant videos on the web that testify to these statements. Attribution of death is further complicated by cases of”friendly fire” or secondary explosions or a myriad of other inevitable accidents caused by placement of the machinery of war in the middle of a city. So the premise that casualty figures can even be determined accurately is questionable. Now this thesis itself suggests its own testable hypothesis: reported casualty figures should be inconsistent and variable. Indeed, that is exactly the case: on January 6th the NY Times reports that:

    The death toll in Gaza reached around 640 on Tuesday, according to Palestinian health officials. The United Nations has estimated that about one-fourth of those killed were civilians, though there have been no reliable and current figures in recent days.

The provide a credible estimate of the intrinsic variance. First, note that on Jan 6th it was reported that out of the 640 dead 160 were civilians. Then on Jan 10th it was reported that out of the 820 dead 410 were civilians. So the reported number of total dead in the 4 days between the two Times articles grew by 180 while the number of civilian deaths (which must of course be lower than the total number of deaths) grew by 250. From this contradiction we can prove that the uncertainty in the casualty statistics is at least 100%. It is interesting, for those who like to dwell on MSM bias that the Times’ reporters do not suggest that these numbers are inaccurate, only that they my be out of date.

Who is the supplier of these statements?

Read the rest.

16 Responses to Statistics, Facts, Opinions, and Casualties of War: Reflections of a Statistician

  1. E.G. says:

    Weather forecasters’ accuracy has been attributed to the quick, unequivocal, feedback they naturally get. Indeed, they’re also highly motivated to be as accurate as possible.

    Estimating (past) casualties and distinguishing sub-categories among them are different kinds of tasks, and reporting such estimates is yet another one, albeit knowledge of elementary statistics is needed in order to perform each one of them in a competent manner. Aside from knowledge, motivation for accuracy definitely plays an important role in determining and reporting casualties and civilian/military casualty rates. In particular in asymmetric wars.

    But one too often encounters statistical ignorance in reports about just every domain. It’s the weather forecasters that are the exception.

  2. oao says:

    what do journos know about stats? and if they know nothing, how should they be able to assess the accuracy and reliability of the numbers they are fed?

    hell, they are not even real journos anymore. they have no concept of validation.

  3. Lorenz Gude says:

    It is good to read a careful consideration of these numbers which, when I read them, scream to me that they are highly manipulated but which, in the absence of contradiction, go in and are accepted at some level. This single ingredient – routinely reporting figures of known unreliability – is a key ingredient of the West’s routinely kidding itself.

  4. Cynic says:

    what do journos know about stats? and if they know nothing, how should they be able to assess the accuracy and reliability of the numbers they are fed?

    Why should they worry about the accuracy when their rush to push their agenda does not allow them to add 1 + 1 correctly?
    So the reported number of total dead in the 4 days between the two Times articles grew by 180 while the number of civilian deaths (which must of course be lower than the total number of deaths) grew by 250.

    They are only interested in feeding the “political proletariat” the worst possible image of “the other”.

  5. oao says:

    They are only interested in feeding the “political proletariat” the worst possible image of “the other”.

    they do, but that’s not the only problem. they are also lazy, cowards and incompetent. and they tell their editors and their audience what it wants to hear.

  6. E.G. says:

    oao,

    So cruel Israelis/ juice better sell telecom and DNA testing than, say, some cruel Africans or trendy French?

  7. harris says:

    During the hot phase of the Gaza war I saw a (BBC?) video in which the infamous Mads Gilbert was interviewed via telephone who told the audience that most of the patients he was treating were civilians. The video material broadcasted during the interview showed scenes from the (I suppose ) Shifa hospital. In the scenes one yould detect men with AK47 in civilian clothes(!) who were bringing in casulties. MSM brain disconnection!

  8. Cynic says:

    E.G. #6 ??
    Please explain.

    Harris,
    No disconnection here; just feeding the audience what their master wants them to hear.

  9. oao says:

    MSM brain disconnection!

    nope. propaganda.

  10. E.G. says:

    Elementary, dear Cynic.
    oao argued a few days ago that news outlets were selling consumers to advertisers.
    Frankly, I think some are doing very bad business with me – I hardly notice the ads – except the big ones with “sexy Muslim girls” that make me ROFL.

  11. oao says:

    oao argued a few days ago that news outlets were selling consumers to advertisers.

    that is a undeniable fact.

    Frankly, I think some are doing very bad business with me

    but are you representative of the media audience, or at least of the segments of the population that the media targets?

  12. oao says:

    here’s an excellent example: wapo knowing the obamania reality is giving the proper angle, as does the nyt.

    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2009/02/022774.php

  13. E.G. says:

    but are you representative of the media audience, or at least of the segments of the population that the media targets?

    We’ll know the answer the day I’ll state “Folks, the stables are cleaner!”
    Either I’ll be in my wrong mind, or the media would have adjusted to a significant segment’s demands.

  14. oao says:

    We’ll know the answer the day I’ll state “Folks, the stables are cleaner!”
    Either I’ll be in my wrong mind, or the media would have adjusted to a significant segment’s demands.

    iow, you validate my point that you’re not.

  15. E.G. says:

    oao,

    My highly unrepresentative (and validating) self would still appreciate your reply to my question in #6. If you can specify why, it’ll be greatly appreciated.
    (Or I’ll click on the “sexy Muslim girls” advert to search for the Truth!)

  16. […] situation is the Arab-Israeli conflict is not only exaggerated by the media, but inverted, and that statistics play a critical role in this process. Now we have two key pieces of evidence of how this […]

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