Numerical figures can be used to demolish an assertion, to illustrate a point, to confuse issues, or to intimidate an opponent. Figures in large numbers can also used to overwhelm, to absorb an adversary’s attention to the point of incapacitating him. Figures can be used to bully.
Raw figures never speak by themselves. They must be interpreted and placed in an intellectually appropriate context. Much mischief occurs in the course of interpretation. Even a lack of interpretation can be dishonest toward regular readers who are usually in a hurry. (Here is a fake quote: ” The rate of black grandmothers in charge of their grandchildren committing suicide went up by 100% last year” Yes, it went from one nationwide, to two!) Much of the best graduate training in the social sciences is dedicated to learning how to create and use legitimate figures and on how to interpret them in a rigorous and responsible manner.*
Recently (circa July 22nd 2015) my essay: “America’s Muslim Problem: What to Do” was reproduced in Notes on Liberty, a libertarian blog. Here is the link to my essay in Notes on Liberty. The comments to which I refer are appended in Notes. A habitual left-liberal critic (but not an active contributor to the blog Notes on Liberty), Prof Terry Amburgey took exception to one or more assertions in the essay. The core assertion in the essay to which he took exception is this:
“However, we have many, many more terrorists of foreign extraction, almost all with ties to Islam.”
My assertion was not supported or illustrated by any figures for the same reason that the statement: “When the sun rises in the east…” is seldom supported by anything. I did not think it was needed, not really. Nevertheless. Prof. T is right in principle that any relevant set of figures could wreck havoc on my assertion. Prof. T proceeded to counter the assertion both with childish insults and with several seemingly figure-based statements. At my urging, he provided several links to the sources he used to – as he thought – demolish the assertion in question. He used “Comments” to my essay reproduced in Notes on Liberty. His comments, as well as those of some red-in-the-face libertarians, are also posted there. Also included is a thoughtful, civilized, unfinished exchange with a young psychologist who has a Muslim name.
I activated the first link Prof. T provided, in the order given. What I found was an oped in the Daily Beast. I perused it. Then, through sheer willpower, I made myself read it through, thinking it offered a good opportunity for a lesson in critical reading in what a contemporary academic believes persuasive. I consider below in turn:
The probable general trustworthiness of the source, the publication given;
Same for the specific author cited within the source publication;
The appropriateness of the time frame of the oped of reference to the criticism of my essay;
The relevance of the geographic frame of the oped of reference to the criticism of my essay;
The credibility of the figures given within the oped of reference;
The sanity of the interpretation of the group of figures, aside from their credibility.
The Daily Beast is an edgy on-line magazine associated with Newsweek, the dead, vaguely leftist weekly magazine. The Daily Beast was founded by Tina Brown, a successful press entrepreneur who is widely credited with the revival of Vanity Fair, an intellectually superior women’s magazine (the only one, as far as I am concerned). Ms Brown’s own personal intellectual production consists largely, or only, of a biography of Princess Diana. Early in its existence, the Daily Beast was shaken by a plagiarism scandal involving one of it main writers (who resigned). The Daily Beast takes pride in exploding myths. My own personal judgment is that it does not pay nearly enough attention to what it states, perhaps because it’s catering to the short attention span of its readers (speculating).
Here is an example: In the past six months, it has published two pieces on wage stagnation. One of them had a title expressing the view that American wages had peaked in 1973. This is ignorant, or stupid, or dishonest The issue of wages is discussed frequently in serious media. Observant people all understand that there are problems with the measurement of both inflation and deflation and thence, of the real value of wages: A “telephone” of 2015 does not provide the same services as a “telephone” of 1973! Implying otherwise is neither investigative nor analytical journalism. It’s not myth busting; it’s myth conduction. About 7/28/15, The Daily Beast accused Republican candidate Donald Trump of having raped his ex-wife. The latter immediately stood up and declared that no, he had not and furthermore, he would make a great president. And so on with the Daily Beast! (I do not believe Mr Trump should be president.)
Incidentally, the oped in Daily Beast to which Prof. Terry directed the reader to devastate me is signed by a man whose name, I am pretty sure, means “slave of Allah,” in Arabic. (OK, it’s petty and undignified of me to point this out. Sorry; I couldn’t not resist! I am already ashamed.) He is “Dean Obeidallah.”
The oped in question ranges all over time in no particular order in its review of alleged terrorism. One of its central statements concerns the period 1980 to 2005. I don’t know if Mr Obeidallah considers that periods important but Prof T. certainly does, as indicated in his own comments. I am at fault here. I should have specified in my essay that I was not (NOT) looking for remedies to threats taking place thirty-five years ago! Prof. T forces me to make the time frame of my assertion more explicit, for which I thank him. I should have stated that it covers the times more or less since 9/11 or a little before, maybe since the convenient year 2000.**
The Daily Beasts Oped does not range only all over time, it also ranges all over the place; it seems to try to evoke world-wide figures of terrorism variously undefined. Thus, when it mentions 399 acts of terrorism by Jewish settlers apparently in one year, 2013, apparently on the West Bank, I suspect that the acts of terrorism there include mostly deliberately punctured tires. If there had been even one fatality even for each three such “terrorist acts,” I trust it would have been brought to my attention by an often bumbling but nearly always anti-Zionist American media. Mr Obeidallah does not seem serious.
As usually happens when people range all over the place, they end up in unknown territory where even smart people say silly things. To shore up his demonstration that Muslims are a tiny minority of terrorists, Mr Obeid invokes the Front National de Libération de la Corse (FLNC). Between 1970 and 2014, in thirty-four years, this admittedly terrorist organization caused the death of nine people in France, including several of its own members. OK, it’s formally legitimate to include FNLC it but it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Incidentally, the organization has disarmed itself. It’s yesterday’s terrorists.
Mr Obeid gives lots of figures. I don’t believe I am obligated to check all of them. I think it’s enough to sample. The sample does not have to be a formal random sample. Convenience is good enough.
Mr Obeid asserts by way of highlighting the benign character of Muslim terrorism that:”…three women per day [are] killed by domestic violence.” (in the US), with no attribution. The figure seems a little high to me and I make the bet that domestic violence is a fashionable topic likely to be well surveyed. The only source I find on Google for the figure “three” comes from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Perhaps, the figure is correct although it sounds like a slogan. This obvious advocacy organization gives no source either. I lose further confidence in Mr Obeid’ s seriousness. (That’s in addition to my coolness toward the Daily Beast in general.) More importantly, look at the implications for Prof. T’s assault on my essay: Prof. T is indirectly attacking my sourcelessness with a twice-removed instance of sourcelessness!
Here is another sample. Mr Obeid writes approvingly that the European Union’s police agency found that only two (2) of 152 terror attacks were religiously motivated in 2013. Yes, that’s a very low figure, of course. So. I take a trip to the same source armed with my lean skills. I find in a heading that seven (7) people died in incidents of terrorism in the year of record which I take to be 2013. The next year, 2014, in January alone, in Paris alone, twelve people met with their deaths in the combined terrorist acts around Charlie Hebdo. (The total number includes the deaths of the shooters themselves.) There is no doubt that the murders were committed by Islamist fanatics. Mr Obeid is not lying, precisely; rather, he does not know what he is talking about and he does not seem to care. Prof. T follows him obediently in his carelessness and points him out to me as a model to follow. ***
End of sampling, case closed. I have ascertained that Mr Obeid is not worth reading. He is just not credible enough. Here is the sorting principle I normally use since information is so abundant: One rotten apple, maybe an accident. One rotten apple in a good barrel (source) may by worth ignoring. Two rotten apples in a bad barrel, the whole barrel of apples is probably rotten. Got to go. Moving on. Keep rolling barrels of rotten apples toward me; I won’t forget.
Mr Obeid also mentions that 30 Americans die each day from “gun violence.” Does the figure include the more than half of gun deaths that are suicides? I doubt it; I don’t care enough to check. Mr Obeid does not care; Dr T does not care. Moving on.
Finally, there is the substance of what Mr Obeid – and through him Prof. T are trying to establish, or to suggest, or to intimate.
Mr Obeid points out that, for a period of his choice, Americans are more likely to be killed by a toddler ( a small child) than by a terrorist. Or, by a falling refrigerator. He also signals, that only 37 Americans died from terrorism since 9/11. Let’s assume for a minute that all his figures are correct. (We are past this.) Mr Obeid is simply trying to show that the probability of any of us, in past recent years, dying from an act of terrorism is minuscule as compared to many other dangers.
I agree without hesitation to the proposition but I believe he is changing the subject. He may be changing the subject in the vain hope that I will not notice. More likely, he hopes to induce readers to forget my coolly reasoned statements to the benefit of raw indignation.
The truth is that most deaths, most accidental deaths, most homicides even are meaningless, however desperately those left behind struggle to assign them meaning. Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of deaths, even of violent deaths, even of homicide have no discernible effect on American society. Once in a while, huge, organized publicity efforts forcefully to assign meaning to a designated category of deaths succeeds weakly and temporarily. AIDS deaths and breast cancer deaths (4% of all American women deaths) were in that situation for a while. Then, normal people regained heir skepticism, sometimes with the help or real facts.
Prof. T is radically changing the subject by assigning me the Daily Beat rant. I never claimed, suggested, allow for the claim that Americans are presently at great personal danger of death from Islamist terrorists acts. The dangers of terrorism are elsewhere. First, some threats are more or less constant over the short term while others feed on themselves – and tend to decrease or multiply of their own accord. Traffic accident deaths – and although they are in slow but steady decline (as the population ages, I suspect) – are a sort of constant in the narrow sense that each traffic fatality has not effect on the probability of traffic fatalities in the future.
Terrorist incidents, such as the Boston Marathon attack for example increase at once, both the vigilance of the authorities (more below) and the likelihood that other terrorist attacks will be attempted. Aside from straightforward copycat effect, each attack creates an effervescence in the social media that gives other potential terrorists the idea that it’s time to become real terrorists. The contagion is obvious: Videotaped, dramatic, grotesque atrocities as, well as its military successes improve Islamic State’ recruitment potential everywhere. There must be a metric here although no one seems to know it at this point: For each innocent’s head rolling on the beach, two, three, four, ten new recruits come to ISIS. The same contagion operates in connection with domestic Islamist terrorism although the relative effectiveness of police prevention makes it less clear. (If you don’t believe this to be true, just move on.)
The Daily Beast and Dr T. make the same mistake of logic: The number of domestic deaths due to Islamist terrorism since 2002 has been small, year by year. Therefore, it will be small next years and the year following. This seems to me to be a fallacy because the baseline, the normal number of terrorist-linked deaths is not known. The 9/11 attacks were superbly organized and coordinated but I have no reason to think that the organizational capacities of all those who hate us have disappeared or even decreased. They may have increased. The killing of Osama Bin Laden was a good thing but it did not end the threat. For all we know, instructed by experience, Islamist terrorists’ organizational capabilities are superior to what they were then. I keep in mind that the coordinated 9//11 attacks were cheap. (At the time, I estimated that I could almost have financed them with a second mortgage on my house.) There is room for improvement: Give it four pilots instead of three; train them a little better; choose a better time of day, and the death toll could go up to 6,000, or 10,000. (And then, would liberals still argue that this is still a relatively small number as compared to other violent deaths?)
Islamist terrorism killed a large number of people in the US in 2002; few people, have died from the same cause in the US since then; thousands more could die tomorrow. The will is there, the hatred is there, the financial resources are better than they were, a larger pool of potential terrorists to attack the US is available. It seems we have been spared only by police protection about which we know little or nothing. That’s an unhealthy situation for a democracy. And it brings me to my next and final comment on the interpretation of Daily Beast’s figures.
If there is as few as one death a year traceable to Islamist terrorism, as long as Islamist terrorism murders, decapitates, pillages, burns, enslaves abroad, Americans will still demand that we protect ourselves at home. Prof. T – accompanied by dogmatic libertarians – is telling us, in essence, by implication: “Your fault, just don’t panic. it was only one dead American after all, two died from a falling refrigerators in the same period.” There is a fault-line here: I believe, tens of millions of Americans believe, that passivity before attackers invites attack. If we ignore them, they won’t go away; they will grow in numbers, in strength, and in temerity.
Our legitimate concern for our safety must of necessity erode our institutions. Two examples. The large, unusual terrorist 9/11 attacks led directly to the creation of Homeland Security, a new gigantic, expensive, intrusive, and we found out recently, wholly ineffectual bureaucracy. I and thousands of other Americans believe that each government organization exists at the expense of civil society and of individual freedom. (Prof. T does not believe this, obviously; many readers of Notes on Liberty do, also obviously.) Secondly, as reported in all the serious press, the continued (little) explosions of Islamist terrorism at home, the frequent alerts, have fed a national dispute about the extensiveness of government surveillance of citizens. In the past few months this national dispute about government electronic surveillance has been resolved largely to the detriment of personal privacy. Many Americans, even among those who normally favor small government, now welcome a level of scrutiny they would not have come close to tolerating a only a few years back. (I am one of those, as I have said.)
In the current international context, Islamist terrorist attacks undermine our best institutions even if they are few in numbers attempted and fewer in numbers implemented.
No one should ask Americans to be more resilient, less emotional. Instead, why not try to stop the evil at its source first?
In the end, did I open the four-plus other links to sources proposed by Prof. T? Should I have? Why? What in the world for? The weather is lovely and the beach is calling. Plus, I want to go fishing. And there is that very good book on slavery I am reading. And there is this equally good cheap crime novel I am reading in parallel. And then, there is Animal Planet on TV, and spicy afternoon Mexican telenovelas. Plus, I have to catch Fox News, where I get all of my information according to apoplectic Prof. T. He has managed, on his own, with no help, to prove that his credibility is too low for me to look at anything he proposes on the subject of my essay: America’s Muslim problem.
Is this little exercise worth it? Maybe, it is. I took the trouble to expand on this because I fear Prof. T behavior toward figures is symptomatic of a rot that has spread in much of academia. His mistakes are worth pondering because I am well informed about both his training and his scholarly performance. He went through the same training I received, in a very good university. He has significant academic achievements to his credit in one of the fields I know well and where I have worked myself. He is currently a professor in a reasonably good university, as I did until I retired. (His is a Canadian university but eh, nobody is perfect!) The man is a good test subject for the experiment he involuntarily designed. And, I am not beating up on kindergarteners, at least!
The rot consist, among other things of an abandonment of conventional reasonableness that verges on delusion. Thus, Prof. T affirms that I get all my information from Fox News. Obviously, he has no way of knowing where I do obtain my information except for what I have said publicly. The list involves much more than Fox News and it’s done in two, sometimes in three languages. Would any rational person make up such a silly lie as Prof. T?
The roots of this academic rot lies in two places. First, there is the composition of the American (and Canadian) professor corps. It’s now 90% self-identified as liberal or progressive. There is a cost attached to never being contradicted in the Faculty Club. Of course, conservatives are in no danger of falling into an equivalent dreaminess, regardless of their efforts to tap variegated sources. That’s because conservatives are surrounded and daily confronted by liberal and progressive media that’s difficult to escape. (I, for example, watch MSNBC almost an hour a day, ten months each year; it’s the only channel available at my gym.) The second root of the collective liberals’ disregard of reality is the conviction that they are forever fighting “injustice” as they endlessly define it themselves. This additional delusion seems to justify in their minds any violations of all they may otherwise hold dear in their scholarly lives narrowly defined. The resulting electric charge of self-righteousness is also powerful enough to cause a drop of forty or fifty IQ points, a strange phenomenon I explored before on this blog (“Sasquatch and Liberal Academe“)
Along with the continuing tuition scandal, with this ideological uniformity and with this collective delusion, academia is committing suicide.
* I do not believe that one can make statistics (figures) say anything one wishes, as is often said. There exists a small number of rules that are widely agreed upon to determine the degree of validity of any findings couched in numbers. The rules are pretty much the same ones used by engineers to build planes that seldom fall from the sky. Nevertheless, in the social sciences broadly defined, there is often a measurement problem, for example, how does one measure inequality of wealth? To encourage vigilance on this issue (and on a few others), the social sciences try to rely on an adversarial process for judging evidence. The process resembles the adversarial process of the American justice system. The golden standard in the social sciences process is double-blind refereeing (explained at length on this blog: “What’s Peer Review….“)
** A moving confession regarding the part of Prof. T’s critique that has some substance although it’s irrelevant to my essay. I agree that 1980 acts of terrorism were mostly not (NOT) committed by Islamist fanatics – who had hardly emerged on the international scene at that point although they may have existed in Afghanistan in the context of the struggle against the Soviet Union. At that time, there were still horrendous acts of terrorism committed everywhere by people with Muslim-sounding names but those were Palestinian terrorists and their sympathizers, people who were explicitly secular rather than religious fanatics like the contemporary terrorists I have in mind. In 1980 also, Irish (IRA) terrorists were still active in the UK and ETA was detonating bombs in Spain, and the Tamil nationalists were still wrecking havoc in Sri Lanka. I don’t recall any of those terrorist organizations doing much damage within the US but their activities form a backdrop to Prof. T’s confusion in chronological perspective. Within the US, Puerto Rican nationalists, American citizens against their will, were still occasionally blowing up things.
When I say that Islamist fanatics have dominated the terrorist scene against Americans, I am staying away from the thorny theological issue of who is or is not a “real Muslim.” (I do, however, broach on this difficult topic in my essay in Liberty: “Religious bric-à-brac….“) There are Muslims with whom I see eye to eye on everything. I don’t know if they are the real thing. I suspect they often don’t know either. When someone kills others and declares that he does it in the name of his Muslim faith, I just take his word for it. When a bomb thrower declares its allegiance to the criminal religious organization Islamic State, I do the same. The first time I hear of someone assassinating innocent people in the name of Lutheranism, I will use the same identification system. I do this with a white supremacist in my essay, by the way.
*** If I had wished to lament terrorism in the world at large, I would have done so and not lacked in supporting material, if any were needed:
“According to the statistics on terrorism gathered by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, the number of terrorist incidents worldwide quadrupled between 2006 and 2013 while the number of fatalities rose by 130%. In that period, the percentage of fatalities attributed to Muslim groups rose to 92% from 75%: (Wall Street Journal July 25-26 2015) OK, ” Muslim groups” is not synonymous with “Islamist fanatics,” of course You do the paring.
Of course, the figures from this source seem incompatible with those in the Daily Beast piece. This poses a problem. If I am a regular American working for a living, paying rent or a mortgage, rearing children, I am pretty much forced to decide which press creature to believe: The Daily Beast or the Wall Street Journal? Tough choice!