Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Usual Claims from the Usual Suspects

The head of the largest inter-church body in the United States has said he is appalled and remorseful at the latest research on the growing death toll in Iraq, following the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003.

"When I first heard that nearly two-thirds of a million Iraqis have been killed I was shocked and horribly saddened," said the Rev Dr Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches
(That Nobody Goes to Anymore) USA.

"The perpetrators of this war can no longer tell us this is 'collateral damage' as they prosecute this war. They must face up to the widespread death and destruction that is being inflicted daily upon innocent men, women and children living in a country that never attacked the United States," Edgar declared.

Johns Hopkins University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released this morning estimates the number of Iraqi civilian deaths to be more than 650,000 since the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

Question: Why does the Reverend Doctor Edgar uncritically accept these absolutely preposterous (see here and here) numbers? As of today, there have been 1308 days since the initiation of hostilities in Iraq. That comes to 500 fatalities per day, every single day since then, due to hostile actions of one kind or another - 500 fatalities that have been totally missed and unaccounted for by (a) the U.S. military, (b) the Iraqi military, (c) the press (notorious for its love of both the Bush administration and the U.S. military), (d) the Democratic party (ditto), and (e) the enemy (ditto). Let’s remember that 650,000 casualties represents more than the total number of fatalities (618,000) in the American War of Northern Aggression Civil War, on both sides, including deaths by disease. That war involved four years of incessant combat to the bitter end between large armies with lousy medical care, few baths (typhus), and poor rations. It is greater than the number of fatalities, both military and civilan, suffered by each of the following principal combatants in World War II: Austria (525,000), Italy (410,000), Great Britain (388,000), and the USA (295,000). Let’s also remember that Italy and Great Britain were the targets of major bombing campaigns using massed bombers with notoriously poor accuracy, maximizing the number of civilian targets hit.

The claim is patently ridiculous. So why is it so readily accepted? I suspect there are two reasons. First is the epidemic of the educational pathology of innumeracy – the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy. The people of the USA have largely lost the ability to deal with numeric data in a critical manner. Numbers and statistics are thrown around to validate claims and arguments and nobody ever questions them. Back in 1993, a coalition of women’s groups issued the claim that Super Bowl Sunday was "the biggest day of the year for violence against women." A woman named Sheila Kuehl of the California Women's Law Center cited a study done at Virginia's Old Dominion University three years before, saying that it found police reports of beatings and hospital admissions in northern Virginia rose 40 percent after games won by the Redskins during the 1988-89 season. The reports made the rounds of the media; I suspect half the population still believes it. Unfortunately, the Old Dominion study showed absolutely nothing of the sort. The Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953 were used for years to reinforce the claim that 10% of the American population is homosexual. A number of newer and more reliable studies indicate that 2.6% of males and 4.4% of females (CDC, 2005 – add them up yourself) are “gay” or “bi” in any meaningful sense (have been active with one or more same-sex partners in the preceding 12 months) yet the 10% figure is still bandied about to influence social policy and public attitudes.

The second reason such numbers are uncritically accepted is that they meet the expectations of the audience. If you already believe that men are intrinsically violent towards women, then you are predisposed to believe that watching a violent sport like football will make them more so. If you already believe that sexuality is a matter of personal preference, then you are predisposed to believe that people will prefer a variety of sexual outlets. If you believe the United States and her military are intrinsically evil, then you are predisposed to maximize the number of individuals killed as a result of US intervention. I expect that sort of bias from, say, the Daily Kos or Al Jazeera. One ought to be able to hope for greater discernment from members of the clergy – especially ones with “Doctor” in front of their names. Unfortunately, I have come to expect no better. When the agenda of the Church turns from Christ to liberal politics, those who could have been “fools for Christ” wind up just being fools.