Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Fantasies of David Brooks


David Brooks, conservative pundit at the New York Times, reviewed a new book (The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?) by geographer Jared Diamond in the Sunday January 13 NYT. Under the title Tribal Lessons, Brooks discusses warfare between pre-state tribal societies in New Guinea.  Between April and September 1961, a series of battles between rival tribal alliances, using spears and arrows, killed total of 0.14% of  the total population of the tribal alliances.

Brooks informs the readers of the New York Times that “As a share of the total population, that’s a higher casualty rate than Europe, Japan, China, or America suffered during the world wars.”  Brooks goes on to say that “The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany during the 20th century) are only a third of the average death rates of tribal societies. Modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth a high as tribal societies.”

That didn’t sound right to me, so I decided to do some fact checking on Wikipedia, looking up casualties (military and civilian) during the >First</a> and Second World War.

During the First World War, many countries suffered losses far greater than Brooks’ 0.14%, including the UK (2.19%), France (4.29%, Germany (3.82%), and the Russian Empire (1.89% to 2.14%). The heaviest percentage losses were suffered by Romania (9.33%), the Ottoman Empire (13.72%) and Serbia (16.11%).  The United States escaped with 0.13%. The Central Powers (Austria-Hungary,  Bulgaria, German Empire, and Ottoman Empire) averaged 5%, while the Entente Power (including the U.S.) averaged 1.19%. The Second World War was even bloodier: Wikipedia lists casualties for Germany (8 to 10.5%), the Soviet Union (13.88%), Japan (3.67 to 4.37% ), and China (1.93% to 3.86%).

Notice that the combined losses in both world wars for Russia/Soviet Union is 16%, which according to Brooks is “only a third of the average death rates of tribal societies”. That would imply that the death rates of tribal societies at 16% x 3 = 48%, instead of Brooks’ number of 0.14%. Brooks’ error is a factor of 343 (!!)

Brooks’ concludes that “the most obvious difference between us is that pre-state tribal societies are just a lot more violent.”  Not if you do the math right. Actually, the most obvious difference is that modern industrial societies at war are just a whole lot more violent than tribal societies.

The New York Times employs fact-checkers. Did anybody ever fact-check Brooks’ review? Apparently not.

The NYTimes employs statistician Nate Silver, author of the 2012 book The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don’t. Mr. Silver can do math, and Silver can pull up Wikipedia on his computer. The Times should hire Nate Silver to babysit for David Brooks.

This is not the first offense for David Brooks. A dozen years ago, Brooks’ 2001 article in the  Atlantic Monthly, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible”  explored the cultural differences between Red State America and Blue State America.  Brooks’ article was widely praised. However, when journalist Sasha Issenberg  fact-checked it in a 2004 article in Philly Magazine, Issenberg found that many of Brooks’ generalizations were false, and much of his “research” was invented out of whole cloth.

John W. Farley writes from Henderson, Nevada.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 20, 2016
Eric Draitser
Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Extreme Unction: Illusions of Democracy in Vegas
Binoy Kampmark
Digital Information Warfare: WikiLeaks, Assange and the US Presidential Elections
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Bogus History Lesson
Bruce Mastron
Killing the Messenger, Again
Anthony DiMaggio
Lesser Evil Voting and Prospects for a Progressive Third Party
Ramzy Baroud
The Many ‘Truths’ on Syria: How Our Rivalry Has Destroyed a Country
David Rosen
Was Bill Clinton the Most Sexist President?
Laura Carlsen
Plan Colombia, Permanent War and the No Vote
Aidan O'Brien
Mao: Monster or Model?
David Swanson
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Less Than Two Weeks
Victor Grossman
Suicides and Hopes and Fears
October 19, 2016
Dan Schiller – Shinjoung Yeo
The Silicon Valley Candidate
Mike Whitney
Trump Unchained
Paul Buhle
Criminalizing the Struggle: Incarceration and the Rise of the Neoliberal State
Linn Washington Jr.
Abusing the Abused: Philly Police Abuse Case Typifies All-Too-Common Misconduct by US Prosecutors
Terry Tempest Williams - Brooke Williams
Rejected by the BLM
Binoy Kampmark
Neither War Nor Peace: Shimon Peres, Israel and History
Patrick Cockburn
This Battle for Mosul Will Not Be the Last
Joyce Nelson
Trudeau Bullying on Trade Deal
Thomas Mountain
Revolutionary Islam and Regime Change in Ethiopia
Serge Halimi – Benoît Bréville
The Limits of Eloquence: the Failures of Barack Obama
Mel Gurtov
America’s Dangerous Moment
Jerry Kroth
Questions for Obama Before Leaving Office
Michael Garrity
America is a Nation of Laws: Collaboration and Its Discontents
October 18, 2016
Srećko Horvat
The Cyber-War on Wikileaks
Zoltan Grossman
Stop the Next President From Waging the Next War
Jim Kavanagh
Hillary’s Hide-and-Seek
Robert Fisk
After Mosul Falls, ISIS will Flee to Syria. Then What?
Ted Rall
The 4 Things Hillary Could Do To Close the Deal Against Trump
Pepe Escobar
Why Hillary Clinton is a Bigger Concern for China than Donald Trump
Colin Todhunter
World Wide Fund for Nature: Stop Greenwashing Capitalism, Start Holding Corporations to Account
David Macaray
Whiskey Workers Go on Strike: I’ll Drink to That
James A Haught
After the Election, Back to Important Things
Arturo Desimone
How a Selective Boycott Can Boost External Support for Palestinians
Russell Mokhiber
If Chris Wallace Asks About Street Crime He Should Also Ask About Corporate Crime
Mark Kernan
Moloch in Paris: on the Anniversary of COP21
Carol Dansereau
The Hillary Push: Manipulation You Can Believe In
Andre Vltchek
Will They Really Try to Kill the President of the Philippines?
Sean Joseph Clancy
The Wreckage of Matthew: Cuba and Haiti
October 17, 2016
Paul Street
Pick Your Poison? Presidential Politics and Planetary Prospects
Patrick Cockburn
US Allies are Funding ISIS (and Hillary Knew All Along)
David Swanson
What Hillary Clinton Privately Told Goldman Sachs
Fran Shor
A Rigged System?