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.

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