I've chosen to not get involved in discussions of the current Syrian civil war. Unfortuantely, I am exposed to theses discussions anyway because of the people around me. Normally, I just ignore it. However, sometimes something comes up that I cannot ignore. One examplel is this tweet I came across earlier today:
Taleb questions statistics on Syria casualties. pic.twitter.com/OrGHppBZbV
— Stephen McIntyre (@ClimateAudit) January 27, 2017
This tweet includes a screenshot from a piece written by a Nassim Taleb. I've seen his name name has come up in some discussions, but I know almost nothing about him. All I do know is his reporting shown in that screenshot:
Note 2. Recall that I am a statistician. When I took a look at the statistics of the conflicts, most appear to be fabrications inflated by Qatari-funded think tanks and their useful idiots?—?by a mechanism the Indians call “Salma told Sabrina”. For instance, we know that Hama’s toll was not the 30–40,000 people report but the only real evidence is closer to 2,000.
Is wrong and should not be taken seriously. Given Taleb is downplaying a massacre, I thought I'd write a short post about this. Because, you know, downplaying massacres is a bad thing.
That excerpt links to another piece which drones on and on about how people are supposedly exaggerating a variety of numbers, but it doesn't provide any real numerical evidence. In fact, it doesn't provide any real evidence at all. Taleb concludes the piece by saying:
Trust none of what you hear, some of what you read, half of what you see goes an old trader adage. As a trader and quant/mathematical statistician, I have been taught to take data seriously, trust nobody’s numbers, and avoid people naive enough to engage in policy based on lurid but questionable pictures of destruction: the fake picture of a dying child is something nobody can question without appearing to be an asshole. As a citizen, I require that the designation “murderer” be determined in a court of law, not by Saudi-funded outlets — once someone is called a murderer or butcher, all bets are off. I cannot believe governments and bureaucrats could be so stupid. But they are.
But this shows all he has to offer in his piece - rhetoric and opinions, no facts. he doesn't provide a shred of evidence which supports his rhetoric or conclusions. Taleb only gets into evidence after the piece in two paragraphs. For today's post, I'll just discuss the first:
PS. It turns that the realistic toll for the Hama uprising by the Moslem Brotherhood of 1979-1982, usually reported to have caused between 30,000 and 40,000 victims, could be around 2,000. More critically, the mysterious swelling of the estimate took place over time, with no novel information. (Data on declassified reports provided by Sharmine Narwani.)
While I say Taleb "gets into evidence" here, I only say that to mean he refers to evidence somebody could actually look at. He doesn't provide the evidence. If a reader doesn't know what Taleb is talking about, they're just out of luck. Taleb couldn't even be bothered to say what "declassified reports" he's talking about.
As it happens, Taleb is wrong to refer to "declassified reports." What he is referring to is a single report by the Defene Intelligence Agency (DIA) from May, 1982 (archived here). Taleb has somehow exaggerated this single report into multiple "reports."
Leaving that aside, the report does appear to support Taleb's claim at first blush as it says:
But this report is not based upon any fact-finding by the DIA. Instead, the DIA report is based upon an examination of the various reporting that was going during and shortly after the 1982 Hama uprising. Here's a primary example:
This shows the sort of thing the DIA relied upon for its report. While Taleb says "we know that Hama's toll was not the 30-40,000 people report" and that "the only real evidence is closer to 2,000," the only things he could possibly point to are things like this - Contemporary reporting. That's not evidence. That's not facts. It's people reporting things during and shortly after a massacre.
Now, it is possible the early reporting on this incident was accurate. SOmetimes early estimates of casualties are right. Other times they are incredibly inaccurate. If we want to know how many people actually died during this incident, what we need to do is look at where different estimates come from. Taleb says:
When I took a look at the statistics of the conflicts, most appear to be fabrications inflated by Qatari-funded think tanks and their useful idiots?—?by a mechanism the Indians call “Salma told Sabrina”.
More critically, the mysterious swelling of the estimate took place over time, with no novel information.
Which would be a good reason to doubt the higher estimates, if what he said were true. It is not. Taleb claims these estimates creeped up over time through what was effectively a game of telephone due to Qatari-funded think tanks and their useful idiots who changed these numbers without any new information. This is a strange delusion to hold.
Taleb may not know this, but there is usually a fair amount of international attention paid to reports of tens of thousands of people being being brutally massacred. In the case of the 1982 Hama uprising, multiple organizations investigated what happened. They sent people to investigate, collect information and do the sort of research you would expect. That is why we can find detailed reporting of brutal acts carried out during the Hama uprising, like this by the Syrian Human Rights Committee:
Although the massacre in February 1982 became very known worldwide, the Syrian regime committed, before this massacre, several other massacres in different places. Many of the losses were women, children and elderly. Of these massacres was the massacre on Jisr Alshaghoor, which took place on the 10th of March 1980. Some sources said that mortars bombed the city and 97 people were shot dead, after being taken from their homes, and 30 houses were demolished there. The massacres of Sarmadah which saw 40 citizens killed, and the massacre of the village Kinsafrah, which took place at the same time as the massacre of Jisr Alshaghoor. This massacre took place when the villagers asked for improved public services, one citizen was killed and 10 injured. Few months later, the massacre of Palmyra prison was committed on the 26th of June 1980, when around 1000 detainees were killed in their cells. Also the massacre in the Mashariqah neighbourhood, occurring on the morning of Eid Al-Adha, which saw 83 citizens killed after being forced out of their flats. And the massacre at the Sunday market where 42 citizens were killed and 150 were injured. Also the massacre of Al-Raqah, that killed tens of citizens who were held captive in a secondary school and burnt to death.
This is background information. I'm quoting it just to point out what happened in Hama was not an isolated incident, but rather, was part of a brutal regime that did horrible things on a regular basis. Here is some reporting on the Hama uprising:
During the two years, 1980-1981, the city of Hama witnessed several attacks that took the lives of hundreds of religious scholars, prominent people as well as ordinary citizens. But according to eyewitnesses and corresponding reports, what happened during the massacre of February can only be named as ‘mass murder’. Over 25,000 people were murdered by the Syrian authorities, which called upon the Special Forces and defence brigades and selected brigades from the army (brigade 47 and brigade 21) with their heavy arms supported by the air forces. Thus, the city became a large military work area. The canons and rocket launchers bombed the city haphazardly for four continuous weeks, during which the city was sealed off and the citizen’s exit was not permitted.
The destroying of districts and killing of the citizens, including entire families:
During the period of mass murder, the regime killed all citizens in certain districts and wiped out entire families.
The massacre in the new Hama district:
On the 3rd day of invading the city of Hama, the Syrian regime defence brigades gathered the citizens of the ‘new Hama district’, in the football field and shot them. Then they raided the houses and killed everyone there. They robbed the people of their belongings. Some sources estimate the victims of the district to be around 1500.
It goes on:
The massacre in the Sooq Alshajarah district:
On the fifth day of the massacre, Sooq Alshajarah district was heavily bombed and the Syrian regime forces invaded the district and shot the young and the old in the streets and followed those who sought refuge into the mosque and killed them all. The victims were estimated to be around 160. The members of the security intelligence and the army forces killed the families of Al-Alwan, Hamood, Kojan and Al Abu Sin including their men, women and children. Some of them were shot, some were stabbed and some of them died under the remains of their bombed houses. On the same day, the regime forces also killed over 70 people, including women and children, after being gathered in AlHabashi shop that sold grain. Then the forces set fire to the shop to kill those who hadn’t died.
And on, and on. I'll just give the taglines:
The massacre in Al-Bayadh district:
The massacre in Sooq Altaweel:
The massacre in the Dabagha district:
The massacre in the Bashoorah district:
The massacre in the Aseedah district:
The massacre in the North district:
The massacre in the East district:
The massacre in the Baroodiah district:
The massacre in the New Mosque:
The massacre in the Sereeheyn cemetery:
The massacre in the Porcelain factory:
The massacre of the blind teachers:
The massacres of the scholars:
The massacre of the children:
The massacre of the young girls:
The massacres of the national hospital:
The last of these is particularly gruesome:
These massacres were more horrible than then imaginable and described. Inside the hospital one of the death troops, which belonged to the defence brigades, settled continuously during all the days of the massacres. Their job was to kill the injured citizens. The situation inside the hospital was horrible; tens of dead bodies were everywhere in the corridors and in the back garden. And in some places, the dead bodies were piled upon each other, and the smell of rotten bodies was spreading. The majority of these bodies belonged to those who were sent to the hospital from the nearby school of manufacturing, which was turned into a prison, where tens of people died everyday.
The majority of the corpses were chopped, disfigured or crushed. Therefore it was difficult to identify them. Everyday, the corpses were gathered in the rubbish trucks and taken to the mass graves.
Sometimes some injured people came to the hospital, they didn’t have to wait long, as the death troops started killing and cutting the wounded bodies with knives and butcher’s knives.
Once they killed a wounded man from the Hawader district, called Sameer Qanoot, and one of the soldiers took out his heart!
Taleb would have you believe this sort of detailed investigation and reporting never happened. He would have you believe the estimate of people massacred in the Hama uprising was only exaggerated from 1,000-2,000 to tens of thousands because of biased individuals blowing things way out of proportion when all they had no evidence.
In reality, people put quite a bit of effort into trying to figure out what happened during this uprising. They started doing so shortly after it happened. While Taleb says:
More critically, the mysterious swelling of the estimate took place over time, with no novel information.
Estimates had risen to 10,000 to 25,000 casualties by the next year. Consider this, taken from a 1983 Amnesty International report:
The report contains a great deal of other troubling information which shows just how horrible the regime in question was, but that doesn't matter for the point of this post. The point of this post is Nassim Taleb wants people to believe the evidence indicates only ~2,000 died during the 1982 Hama uprising instead of the much higher estimates that are widely report. He then wants people to believe that exaggeration suggests estimates for other things are also exaggerated.
However, the only evidence Taleb has to support this view is that early reporting of the massacres in 1982 gave lower estimates of fatalities. He doesn't present this evidence to his readers. He doesn't even tell his readers what the evidence is (other than to give the vague and inaccurate description of "declassified reports"). At the same time, he hand-waves away all contrary reports as supposedly being based upon no "novel information," pretending extensive efforts and detailed investigations simply never existed.
Taleb tells his readers:
Note: Nobody can claim that I am an Assad apologist. Assad blew up our house in Amioun when in 1982 my grandfather, as a member of parliament, voted for Bashir. But I overcome my personal grudge to look at this as a scientist, and a humanist: Sunni Islamic Jihad is far too dangerous to let my grudge get into the way.
He also likes to call results he doesn't like "fabrications." Unfortunately, Taleb is basically just making things up to greatly downplay brutal massacres carried out by the al-Assad regime in Syria.* This post focuses on just one example. There are many more. I don't intend to pursue them because, quite frankly, Taleb's contribution to the discussion of Syrian issues is pathetic. Anyone with any real interest in the Syrian conflict should find better sources to pay attention to.
*Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria. The president responsible for the 1982 massacres in Hama and other brutalities of the time was Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father. I point this out both for clarity and because it is confusing Taleb says, "Nobody can claim that I am an Assad apologist. Assad blew up our house in Amioun when in 1982 my grandfather, as a member of parliament, voted for Bashir."