Noam Chomsky, Crooked Timber and crooked numbers
Posted to www.marxmail.org on
Over on the Crooked Timber group blog, which occupies a kind of no-man's-land between academia and the normal world, there's been a heated discussion of Noam Chomsky--how could it be otherwise?
These periodic flare-ups always involve charges that Chomsky is a David Irving-like "revisionist," who
minimizes civilian deaths in Srebrenica. Among the Chomsky
bashers is one Oliver Kamm, an oleaginous bond trader
People like Kamm have a tough job. It is really an uphill battle to get anybody with a brain to make common cause with the Donald Rumsfelds and Paul Wolfowitz's of the world, unless your brain is fairly rotted out with alcohol like Christopher Hitchens'. Lately some of these pro-war leftists have given up on the whole project, most notably David Rieff who wrote the following in his new book "Point of the Gun":
"At the time of the Kosovo war, I had written that, if I had to make the choice, I would choose imperialism over barbarism. In retrospect, though, I did not realize the extent to which imperialism is or at least can always become barbarism."
Delong once wrote an article on his blog titled "My Very, Very Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky: Khmer Rouge, Faurisson, Milosevic" (http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/archives/000155.html) that described him as an intellectual totalitarian and an apologist for Stalin's crimes. Like a piece of dirt in an oyster, this article serves a higher purpose, namely to allow Edward Herman to dismantle it: http://www.counterpunch.org/herman07262003.html.
Since Delong was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic
Policy in the
For all the venom directed at Chomsky's
alleged misuse of statistics, Delong has no problem counting on Rudy Rummel as an expert when it comes to determining how to
rank mass murderers in the 20th century. Rummel is a
Not everybody is persuaded by Rummel's statistics, least of all a shrewd and canny person named A.J. Philbin who got sick and tired of trolls crossposting Rummel's nonsense to the newsgroup alt.politics.socialism.trotsky. This is what he (or she) thought of Rummel's work (http://makeashorterlink.com/?Y26845D5D):
Would it surprise you to learn that I have downloaded and printed the online version of Dr. Rummel's tome, Lethal Politics? I don't know if it is the same as the printed version, but I assume, since it is linked to his academic website, that old Doc Rummel wouldn't have allowed it to go up if it didn't reflect the substance of his printed work. I haven't read the whole thing thoroughly, but I've read enough to come to the following preliminary conclusions, based on my admittedly cursory reading (subject to revision if and when I have time to give it a more thorough read):
1) Rummel is clearly not a statistician, and the sloppiness of his methods show that he didn't consult one, at least not routinely or in depth. This is obvious from both the method he uses and his own inadvertent statements in the text. His method consists of taking widely (I would say wildly) varying estimates from sources he regards as "authoritative" and averaging them. I saw nothing that indicates how he decide how much credence to give these vastly differing estimates. He also uses categories that clearly are greatly overlapping, but makes no attempt to compensate for the overlap. (I'm no statistician, but the errors are so glaring that I am forced to wonder how Rummel could have missed them).
2) Rummel desperately wishes to prove his basic thesis that government sponsored internal repression has killed more people than war. This is his a priori bias, and it colors his analysis throughout, and renders him susceptible to making (or using) huge estimates as components of his totals.
3) Since Rummel provides much of the data he used, and makes statements that inadvertently show how his bias affected his conclusions, I cannot conclude that he is dishonest. The only reason I suspect any possible deliberate dishonesty (as opposed to credulousness and self-delusion), is the glaring nature of some of the errors. I am a layman, and yet I spotted them without much trouble. Nonetheless, his own inadvertent statements (as well as his apparent inability to grasp their full import) tend to exculpate Rummel of deliberate fakery, while convicting him of credulousness and apriori bias in the first degree. I will now demonstrate what I have stated above.
On the third page of the chapter entitled 61,911,000 Victims: Utopianism Empowered, second full paragraph down, Rummel makes the following statement:
"In sum, the Soviets have committed a democide of 61,911,000 people, 7,142,000 of them foreigners. This staggering total is beyond belief. But, as shown in Figure 1.1, it is only the prudent, most probable tally, in a range from an highly unlikely, low figure of 28,326,000 (4,263,000 foreigners); and an equally highly unlikely figure of 126,891,000 (including 12,134,000 foreigners). This is arange of uncertainty in our democide estimates -- an error range -- of 97,808,000 human beings."
Incredible. This statement
demonstrates, concisely and clearly, everything I stated above. Let's start
with a priori bias. Rummel characterizes the low
estimate (28,326,000) and the high estimate (126,891,000), as being
"equally unlikely." Killing 28 million people requires a stupendous,
if horrific, effort of political will and organization. yet
a figure more than four times that amount is only "equally unlikely?"
Let us leave aside the fact that this high figure is greater than the 1910
population of the Russian Empire (120 million), the present day population of
European Russia (120 million), and more than half the present day (1992)
population of the former
But Rummel goes on, sealing both his conviction on grounds of credulousness and his acquittal on charges of fakery. In the very next paragraph, he exclaims:
"Just consider the error range in Soviet democide, as shown in Figure 1.1. It is larger than the
population of 96 percent of the world's nations and countries. Actually, if
Exactly what are we supposed to conclude from this? Why, those Soviet commies must have been unbelievable monsters -- look at the error range they caused in my estimates!! They must have truly been genocidal (excuse me, democidal) butchers to cause me to find such wide ranging death toll estimates! Just imagine how many people they REALLY must have killed in order to create such a wide disparity in available statistics!
But let us turn to Table 1.1. On the horizontal axis, Rummel lists the following democide
components: terror, deportation, camps, and famine. Rummel
makes a good case for separating deportation and camp deaths in the text, and
mentions that he includes transportation deaths in both categories. But I could
find nowhere an explanation of what he meant by "terror," or why
"terror" is separated from camps and deportations. While famine might
be clearly a separate category, but in the case of the
Essentially, what Rummel did was
to compile hearsay estimates, do sloppy statistical work, and plow ahead to a
conclusion that the data couldn't support. The only legitimate coclusion that he could have come to was that no conclusion
was possible regarding probable death tolls in the
BTW, the figure of up to 10,000,000 killed, given by Otto Pohl in this thread, is the most common figure I heard when I was associated with the Trotskyite movement. I don't know what these figures were based on, but clearly they were closer to the mark, and formulated with greater caution than either Rummel's estimate, or the estimates he based his work on.