The Spectre of Math

August 9, 2014

Numbers again

Filed under: Politics — jlebl @ 4:43 pm

I like to get fake enraged when people get caught up in very silly misunderstanding of numbers. And often this misunderstanding is used by politicians, extremists, and others to manipulate those people.

The most recent and prominent example is the Israel-Gaza conflict. The story is that Hamas rockets are endangering Israeli lives. OK, yes they do, but you have to always look at the scale. Since 2001 (so in the last 13 years), there have been 40 deaths in Israel from Gaza cross border rocket and mortar fire [1]. 13 of those are Soldiers, and one could make the case that those were military targets, but let’s ignore that and count 40. Of those fatalities, 23 happened during one of the operations designed to remove the rocket threat. One could argue (though I won’t, there won’t be a need) that without those operations, only 17 Israelis would have died.

OK, so 40 people in 13 years. That’s approximately 3 deaths per year. When I recently read an article about toxicity of mushrooms [2], the person being interviewed (the toxicologists) made an argument that mushroom picking in Czech is not dangerous, only 2-3 deaths per year (and vast majority of Czechs will go mushroom picking every year, even we do when we’re over there, it’s a Czech thing). Clearly it is not enough to worry the toxicologists. And Czech is about the same size as Israel in terms of population.

When my granddad (a nuclear physicist) with his team computed the number of new cancers due to Chernobyl in Czech after the disaster, they predicted 200 a year. Trouble was they couldn’t verify it, because 200 a year gets hidden in the noise. In a country of 10 million, if we take 80 year lifespan, 125000 people will die every year of various causes, a large proportion of them to cancer (many of them preventable cancer that the state does not try to prevent since it would mean unpopular policies). So 3 deaths a year is completely lost in the noise. So if Israel would spend the money it spends on fighting Hamas, even if we buy into the propaganda that this will defeat Hamas, if it would spend the money on an anti-smoking campaign, it would likely save far more Israeli lives every year.

Another statistic to look at is car accidents: In Israel approximately 263 people died on the road in one year. So your chances of dying in a car accident are almost 100 times larger. In fact, death by lighting in the US average at 51 per year [4]. Rescaling to Israel (I could not find Israel numbers) you get about 1.4 a year. That’s only slightly less than what Hamas kills in a year. In fact it’s about how many civilians they kill. So your chances as an Israeli civilian of being killed by a rocket or mortar are about the same as being killed by lightning. Not being struck by lightning by the way, because only 1 in 5 (approximately) of those struck die. So your chances of being struck by lightning are bigger, let’s say approx 6-7 people in Israel will get struck by lightning every year.

An argument could be made that most Israelis killed were in Sderot (I count 8), so your chances of being killed there are bigger (and correspondingly, your chances of being killed by a Hamas rocket based on current data if you are in say Tel Aviv are zero). Anyway, 8 in 13 years is about 0.6 a year in Sderot. Rescaling (based on population) the car deaths to estimate the number of deaths per year in Sderot we get approximately 0.8 deaths per year in Sderot. So your chances of dying in a car crash are higher, even if you live in Sderot (your chances of dying from cancer are much much higher).

The politicians supporting Israel’s actions often don’t worry about logical contradictions stemming from the above facts. When Bloomberg visited Israel he lambasted the fact that some airlines stopped flying to Tel-Aviv on rocket fears. He said that he never felt safer there. Well, if he never felt safer, why is Gaza being bombed?

None of this in any way is an apology for Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization that aims to kill civilians. But Hamas is almost comically incompetent at doing so. If it weren’t a sad thing, we ought to laugh at Hamas. Anyway, clearly an incompetent murderer is till a murderer if he manages to kill even one person. The question is, what lengths should you go to to apprehend him.

Now the costs. Gaza has 1.8 million people. One should expect about 20-30 thousand natural deaths per year. This year, Israel kills 2000 Gazans. So very approximately about 1 in 10 to 1 in 15 Gazans that dies this year will die at Israel’s hands. Now think what that does to the ability of Hamas, or even far more radical groups to recruit. My grandmother grew up in the post WWII years, so she has not lived through WWII as an adult, yet she harbored deep hatred of all Germans. This was common in Europe. People used to hate each other, and then every once in a while they would attempt to kill each other. If you are on the receiving side of the killing (and only your relatives get killed), you are very likely to have this deep hatred that could very well be used by extremists (think back to the Balkans and especially Bosnia). It takes generations to get rid of it. I don’t resent the Poles or the Ukrainians even though I had Galitian Jewish ancestors that probably had no love for either. But 70 years ago, these three groups managed to literally destroy the whole region by killing each other (well the Germans and Russians helped greatly in the endeavor). There is probably very few people in the region whose family actually comes from there.

The point is, that the cost of the operation, besides the moral outrage of killing thousands of people, is pushing back the date that Israel can live in peace with its neighbors.

Another cost to Israel is the rise of anti-semitism. Just like violent actions by muslim extremists created a wave of anti-muslim sentiment in the West, violent acts by Israel will only strenghten anti-semitic forces. You are giving them perfect recruiting stories. If they had any doubts, they don’t have them now. Maybe as a positive aspect, it will justify Israeli contention that hatred of Israel is based on anti-semitism, since by creating anti-semitic sentiment, yes, more of it will be. The fact that the deputy speaker of parliament in Israel calls for conquest of Gaza are forcefully removing the Gazans into “tent camps” and them out of Israel [5], does not help. Maybe he should have called it “final solution” to the problem. Surely there would be no problem with that phrase.

Another thing about numbers is that Israel depends on America giving it cover (and weapons). Israel does not realize that american opinion is shifting (in part due to its own actions, in part since these things always shift in time). See [6]. Basically once the young of today will be the older folks of tomorrow, Israel won’t be seen the way it is now. It might be that US will also shift towards some other group as being important in american politics. Given the growth in the Latino population, it should be clear that Israel will at some point stop being the priority for many politicians. Given that we will also approach the world oil peak, and that us oil will once again start running out once we’ve fracked out what we could frack out, oil will become again more important. And Israel does not have oil. Israel is religiously important, but recall that Americans are mostly protestant Christians, not Jews, so it’s not clear where that will go (looking at history of that relationship is not very encouraging). A large percentage of Americans thinks the world is only a few thousand years old and the end of times will come within their lifetime and the battle of Armageddon will come, and blah blah blah. Who knows what that does to long term foreign policy.

Remember I am talking about decades not years. One should worry about what happens in 20, 30, 40 years. You know, many of us will still be around then, so even from a very selfish perspective, one should plan 40 years ahead. Let alone if one is not a selfish bastard.

Then finally there is this moral thing about killing others … Let’s not get into morals of the situation, that’s seriously f@#ked up.

[1] http://mondoweiss.net/2014/07/rocket-deaths-israel.html
[2] http://www.lidovky.cz/muchomurku-cervenou-fasovali-vojaci-v-bitvach-misto-alkoholu-p63-/media.aspx?c=A140807_154055_ln-media_sho
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate
[4] http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/fatalities.htm
[5] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2715466/Israeli-official-calls-concentration-camps-Gaza-conquest-entire-Gaza-Strip-annihilation-fighting-forces-supporters.html
[6] http://www.mintpressnews.com/latest-gallup-poll-shows-young-americans-overwhelmingly-support-palestine/194856/

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