Friday, November 25, 2016

Nassib Taleb and the statistics of war in Syria

Now let me explain right at the outset: that I don't agree with Taleb's outlook about Lebanon and language and political identities. We clashed on Twitter before (and be immediately blocked me but later unblocked me), and that his take on the Arab East suffers from an acute case of sectarianism and a typically Lebanese disease of assuming that history in the region stopped as soon as the Muslims arrived into Lebanon.  But he is right that there should be questions raised about the statistics of the war in Syria: you have Qatar and EU and US funding various shops which produce numbers and figures and yet with no substantiation whatsoever.  There is never even an attempt to document the collection of number.  They are all arbitrary and unscientific.  People forget that UN stopped counting in Syria a few years ago because they admitted it is too difficult. So Western media copy from Western-funded shops and treat their production as "native knowledge".  Look at the number of victims the Hamah massacres: I always thought that it was around 10,000 (a huge number of course and a horrific war crime) but the number is being multiplied by the day as of late.  I don't think it is 2000 as Taleb's maintains though.  "It hit me that I needed to look into the estimates of Syrian refugees in Lebanon –here again numbers are flying without much rigor, swelling upwards from report to report. But we can assess the bias: they are potentially overstimated. For, at a certain municipality in Lebanon, I was told that the number of refugees in the town, while large, was considerably lower than what was used by the bureaucrats of the U.N. The real number is about a third of what is published. While this is very optimistic for Lebanon (there should be fewer refugees than claimed, so let us worry less about the stability of the place), it is not good for the economics and funding of U.N. agencies and the lifestyle of their bureaucrats.  Now, the real number of casualties in the Syrian war. We hear half a million people died in Syria. We are also told that many are “murdered” by Putin, Assad, and Catherine the Great (who came down to bully the Ottomans in the Levant after her invasion of the Crimea). It is easy to verify that much of the information we get about “butcher” of Damascus are suspicious: some Saudi-Qatari funded P.R. firms in Washington and London have shown evidence of hyperactivity. Just as the number of hospitals in East Aleppo where Al-Qaeda is based (and from where it shells civilians in other parts of the city), just as the number of hospitals per capita there appears to me several times that in the rest of the world (every day we hear that the Russians have destroyed another hospital, yet the State department spokesman John Kirby could not place or name any of the five hospitals he was recently discussing). I see propagandists and Al Qaeda apologists such as Charles Lister (at the Salafi-funded Middle East Institute) throw numbers that get cited –yes, some idiot will cite numbers from the Al Qaeda propagandist Charles Lister, and may eventually be cited in turn by some decent newspaper, hence get fixed for posterity. I once saw a serious American journalist (“expert” on Syria) posting on social media macabre scenes as a testimony of Assad’s murders: it turned out that a picture of “dying children victims of Assad” was likely to be from Libya four years earlier; it appeared to be promoted by a Qatari-funded P.R. firm. Her reaction was unapologetic: “Don’t you think Assad is capable of these crimes?”  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."  His skepticism--but not his outlook--should be kept in mind in dealing with Western and Arab propaganda on Syria.