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April 21st, 2024 (Permalink)

Goebbels' Final Big Lie

Writing about the dubious statistics put out by Hamas during its ongoing war with Israel1 reminded me that this is not the first time that death tolls have been used for propaganda. In fact, there is a long history of such disinformation, which is one reason why I was immediately skeptical of the current claims. In this entry, we're going to examine one historical example in some detail.

In the waning days of World War II, on February, 13th-14th, 1945, Dresden, Germany was subjected to an aerial firebombing by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command2. Much of the central, historic part of the city was incinerated, with many civilians killed. But how many?

In the aftermath of the attack, city officials attempted to actually count the dead, rather than just making an estimate. However, some unknown number of bodies were still buried in the rubble, so the number they produced was necessarily an undercount. According to the official report, the number of dead was 20,204, of which 6,865 bodies had been mass cremated3. These were obviously actual counts rather than estimates, but the report also estimated that the count might end up as high as 25K. None of this was propaganda as the numbers were not intended for public consumption but for internal use by the government itself.

At this point, propaganda began, though what exactly happened is unclear. Some unknown bureaucrat, perhaps within Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry4, added a zero to the end of each of the numbers supplied in the report, thus increasing them by an order of magnitude (OOM). Thus, the number of dead was inflated to 202,040, the number cremated to 68,650, and the estimated total to 250K.

The propaganda ministry then began to play a two-faced game of doublespeak, saying one thing to its own people and another to foreigners. Since the ministry didn't want to hurt the already low morale of Germany's beleaguered population, it released the inflated numbers only to neutral countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland5, where they might generate sympathy for Germany and anger at the Allies. Despite the disinformation put out by his ministry, Goebbels himself knew better: "According to…the chief of the Propaganda Ministry's press division, … Goebbels had already made his own private estimate of about forty thousand dead at Dresden"6, which is on the high side but at least the right OOM. In contrast, a Swedish newspaper published an article with the headline: "Rather 200,000 than 100,000 Victims"7.

Only a few months later, as Nazi Germany collapsed around them, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide after murdering their six children8. With the end of the propagandist, one might expect the end of the propaganda, but Dresden is located in the part of Germany that was captured by the Soviet Union and subsequently became the communist state of East Germany. According to a report on the bombings by the United States Air Force after the war:

[T]he Communists have with increasing frequency and by means of distortion and falsification used the February 1945 Allied bombings of Dresden as a basis for disseminating anti-Western and anti-American propaganda. From time to time there appears in letters of inquiry to the United States Air Force evidence that American nationals are themselves being taken in by the Communist propaganda line concerning [the bombings]. …

The most distorted account of the Dresden bombings―one that may have become the basis of Communist propaganda against the Allies, particularly against the Americans, in recent years―was prepared by two former German general officers for the Historical Division, European Command (U.S.A.) in 1948. In this account, the number of dead from the Dresden bombings was declared to be 250,000.9

Whoever these former German officers were, they seem to have simply parroted the Nazi propaganda line. Given that the Communists took possession of Dresden at the end of the war, they were in the best position to produce an accurate estimate of the death toll, and they were also in a position to prevent those from outside the Iron Curtain from doing so themselves until the two Germanies were reunited in 199010.

The next phase of this history began in 1963, when a British amateur historian named David Irving wrote a book about the bombing of Dresden11. In the first edition of his book, Irving gave the Dresden death toll as 135K12, that is, four times the count given in the local government's report, but quite a bit less than that put out by Goebbels. A few years later, however, Irving was given a copy of the report, but one with the extra zeroes, and he increased the death count to 250K in an updated edition of his book in 196613. Finally, and to his credit, when a copy of the original report without the added zeroes was discovered, he grudgingly accepted that 250K was propaganda and revised the number back down to 135K14.

Meanwhile, the popular American science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who had survived the Dresden bombing as a prisoner of war, used his wartime experiences as the basis for his best-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five15(S-5). Though its war scenes were set during WW2, it was published in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. In the novel, Vonnegut cited the exaggerated figure of 135K dead from Irving's book16.

What Vonnegut didn't know at the time was that Irving was an admirer of Adolf Hitler; given that the Dresden book was Irving's first, few did. In a later book17, Irving claimed that Hitler had neither approved nor known about the "Final Solution". When the professional historian Deborah Lipstadt pointed out that Irving had "become a Holocaust denier"18, Irving sued her for defamation but lost19.

S-5 was a best-seller that must have been read by far more people than ever read Irving, and then it was made into a successful movie20. I was myself a part of this readership, and believed the six-figure number for many years thereafter. It is perhaps partly due to this unpleasant experience that I'm particularly suspicious of wartime death tolls.

The point of this convoluted history is that, once created, a false statistic has a life of its own. Goebbels, or one of his minions, added zeroes to the Dresden death count as propaganda against the Allies; then the Communists who took over Dresden also took over Goebbels' propaganda in order to attack their cold war opponents; later, Irving adopted Goebbels' big lie to defend his hero, Hitler, by playing down the horrors of the Holocaust and playing up those of Allied bombing; finally, even Vonnegut was likely motivated by his anti-Vietnam War position to embrace Irving's exaggerations21. Each of these actors used the same or similar exaggerations for their own propagandistic purposes.

One reason why this history is important is that Goebbels' big lie and Irving's smaller one are not completely dead. For instance, as recently as four years ago, the History Channel's "Day in History" for February 13th, 2010, the anniversary of the Dresden bombing raid, read:

On the evening of February 13, 1945, a series of Allied firebombing raids begins against the German city of Dresden, reducing the "Florence of the Elbe" to rubble and flames, and killing as many as 135,000 people. It was the single most destructive bombing of the war―including Hiroshima and Nagasaki―and all the more horrendous because little, if anything, was accomplished strategically, since the Germans were already on the verge of surrender.22

Where did the History Channel get the statistic of 135K if not directly from Irving, or perhaps indirectly via Vonnegut? Also, the actual number (25K-35K) is smaller than the number of those who died in Hiroshima (>70K) and Nagasaki (>40K)23. Thankfully, the page was subsequently corrected to: "On the evening of February 13, 1945, a series of Allied firebombing raids begins against the German city of Dresden, reducing the 'Florence of the Elbe' to rubble and flames, and killing roughly 25,000 people.24"

Another example comes from National Public Radio (NPR), the government-supported radio network currently under siege by critics for its left-leaning bias25. An article on its website about four of Vonnegut's novels being republished claims:

Slaughterhouse-Five depicts the firebombing of Dresden by Allied warplanes in 1945. The city was destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed.26

Presumably, the article's author took the number from the book itself, yet he understood that the book was a novel, that is, a work of fiction. Is that how NPR does fact-checking? The article was published thirteen years ago and still hasn't been corrected.

It should go without saying that the loss of life and suffering inflicted on innocent people in Dresden 79 years ago was a tragedy, even if it was "only" 25K-35K instead of 135K-250K. There should be no need to exaggerate such numbers to shock our consciences. But those exaggerations were created and spread by Nazis, Communists, and Holocaust deniers for their own perverse purposes. It should also shock our consciences to repeat their lies.


  1. Who's Counting?, 3/25/2024.
  2. "Bombing of Dresden", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3/28/2024.
  3. "Allied Air Raid on Dresden: Dresden Death Toll", Holocaust Denial on Trial (2018).
  4. "Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment", Holocaust Encyclopedia, accessed: 4/19/2024.
  5. Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (2005), p. 368.
  6. Ibid., p. 372.
  7. Ibid., p. 369.
  8. Helmut Heiber, "Joseph Goebbels", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3/6/2024.
  9. "Historical Analysis of the 14-15 February 1945 Bombings of Dresden", United States Air Force, (1945), pp. 1 & 21.
  10. "German Reunification", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 4/21/2024.
  11. David Irving, The Destruction of Dresden (1963).
  12. Ibid., "Author's Note", p. 14.
  13. I don't have access to later editions of Irving's book, but see: Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (2001), p. 152.
  14. Ibid., pp. 169-171.
  15. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, Or The Children's Crusade (2005); first published in 1969.
  16. Ibid., pp. 239-240.
  17. David Irving, Hitler's War (1977). I haven't read the book, but see: Charles W. Sydnor, Jr., "Review: The Selling of Adolf Hitler: David Irving's 'Hitler's War'", Central European History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June, 1979), pp. 169-199.
  18. Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993), p. 111.
  19. For an account of the litigation, see: Deborah Lipstadt, History on Trial (2005). Also see Evans' book, cited above. Lipstadt's book was also made into a mediocre movie, see: "Denial", Bleecker Street Media, accessed: 4/19/2024.
  20. "Slaughterhouse-Five", Turner Classic Movies, accessed: 4/20/2024. Cinematic adaptations of Vonnegut's other novels―such as Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions―are best forgotten.
  21. To his discredit, when Vonnegut had a chance to add a correction to a later edition of the novel, he did not do so; see: Raphael Mostel, "Repeating Nazi Propaganda, From Kurt Vonnegut to NPR", Forward, 8/10/2011.
  22. "This Day In History", History, 2/3/2020. This is the archived page from the Internet Archive; as mentioned in the entry, it has since been corrected.
  23. "Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki", Encyclopaedia Britannica, 4/5/2024.
  24. "Firebombing of Dresden", History Channel, accessed: 4/20/2024.
  25. Uri Berliner, "I've Been at NPR for 25 Years. Here's How We Lost America's Trust.", The Free Press, 4/9/2024. Unsurprisingly, Berliner has resigned from NPR since this piece was published; see: Emily DeLetter, "NPR editor Uri Berliner resigns after essay accusing outlet of liberal bias", USA Today, 4/18/2024.
  26. Tom Vitale, "Kurt Vonnegut: Still Speaking To The War Weary", NPR, 5/31/2011.

Recommended Reading, Listening & Viewing
April 3rd, 2024 (Permalink)

The Penalty for Humility & Magna Est Veritas

For want of me the world's course will not fail:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.1

Recommended Reading

  • John Wood Jr., "This doctor admitted COVID pandemic mistakes. Then his critics attacked him again.", USA Today, 1/30/2024
    For all of the rending of our social fabric over the past eight years in the United States, nothing has been more bitterly polarizing than our public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with a fast-spreading virus and the potential of millions of American deaths, public health officials and politicians accelerated the development of vaccines and implemented lockdowns on businesses, schools and communities in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease and to save lives.

    Now, Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, has been publicly reflecting on the mistakes made by the public health establishment during the pandemic. In doing so, he has unintentionally highlighted a challenge for those who seek to rebuild trust among the American people and between the American people and their leaders: the penalty we pay for humility. …

    Here are some of Collins' now viral comments: "As a guy living inside the Beltway, feeling the sense of crisis, trying to decide what to do in some situation room in the White House…. We weren't really considering the consequences in communities that were not New York City or some other big city. If you're a public health person and you're trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is something that will save a life. Doesn't matter what else happens. …2 You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people's lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recover from."

    Some of Collins' critics took that admission as an opportunity to pile on. A new wave of criticism crested on social media…. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board wrote: "This was precisely the argument we made on March 20, 2020…2 for politicians not to accept the lockdown advice of public-health officials as gospel. They think too narrowly, and political leaders have to consider the larger consequences of policies for the public good."

    Infectious disease specialists, such as Collins, should not be expected to take economic, educational, or other social issues into consideration in their recommendations: they're not experts in those things. In addition to consulting medical specialists, decision-makers should consult economists, experts in education, social scientists, and even moral philosophers before settling on a policy. The failure to do so was not Collins' fault, but the fault of those higher up in the government. This does not absolve Collins for those things he did do wrong3.

    I have no problem with such criticism, and in fact, agree with it. I was among the many Americans who, as the lockdowns continued for months, became frustrated at the inattention paid to the secondary effects of such policies. Put aside concerns for civil liberties. What would it mean for public health itself for millions of Americans to find themselves unemployed, socially isolated, fearful and stuck at home for extended periods of time?

    But if Collins and his peers can be criticized for having thought too narrowly about the consequences of our public response to the pandemic, the doctor's critics also can be criticized for thinking too narrowly about the consequences of brushing aside his act of contrition. Humility from leading public officials is the rarest of commodities, but it is needed more than ever in our current political culture.

    De rigueur dig at ex-president Trump omitted.

    Our culture tells leaders to never admit they were wrong[.] Neither, for that matter, do many activists and pundits. Certainty is the currency of the realm, it seems. To admit fault is to betray weakness that people in public life feel they can't afford.

    Yet, if we can't admit mistakes, then there can be no culture of reflection in our politics. And without a culture of reflection, it means we won't learn from our mistakes. Nor can we trust one another (or our leaders) to do so.

    That approach locks us into the pattern we find ourselves in now. When politicians and public figures from each end of our political duopoly do and say things that are destructive, they feel compelled to double down on the same course out of fear of the consequences of admitting they were wrong. …

    Francis Collins took a meaningful step with public reflection on the consequences of his leadership during one of the most difficult periods of recent American history. His willingness to do so should not exempt him from criticism or accountability. But critics must at least be willing to applaud the precedent that Collins set in offering such statements if we are to hope that more public figures will not only acknowledge their mistakes, but also help us all learn how we can do better in the future.

    As a nation, we need humility and graciousness to replace arrogance and stubbornness so that that we can begin to make progress together again.

  • Martin Kulldorff, "Harvard Tramples the Truth", City Journal, 3/11/2024
    I am no longer a professor of medicine at Harvard. The Harvard motto is Veritas, Latin for truth. But, as I discovered, truth can get you fired. This is my story―a story of a Harvard biostatistician and infectious-disease epidemiologist, clinging to the truth as the world lost its way during the Covid pandemic.

    On March 10, 2020, before any government prompting, Harvard declared that it would "suspend in-person classes and shift to online learning." Across the country, universities, schools, and state governments followed Harvard's lead.

    Yet it was clear, from early 2020, that the virus would eventually spread across the globe, and that it would be futile to try to suppress it with lockdowns. It was also clear that lockdowns would inflict enormous collateral damage, not only on education but also on public health, including treatment for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental health. We will be dealing with the harm done for decades. Our children, the elderly, the middle class, the working class, and the poor around the world―all will suffer.

    Schools closed in many other countries, too, but under heavy international criticism, Sweden kept its schools and daycares open for its 1.8 million children, ages one to 15. Why? While anyone can get infected, we have known since early 2020 that more than a thousandfold difference in Covid mortality risk holds between the young and the old. Children faced minuscule risk from Covid, and interrupting their education would disadvantage them for life, especially those whose families could not afford private schools, pod schools, or tutors, or to homeschool.

    What were the results during the spring of 2020? With schools open, Sweden had zero Covid deaths in the one-to-15 age group, while teachers had the same mortality as the average of other professions. Based on those facts, summarized in a July 7, 2020, report by the Swedish Public Health Agency, all U.S. schools should have quickly reopened. Not doing so led to "startling evidence on learning loss"4 in the United States, especially among lower- and middle-class children, an effect not seen in Sweden.

    Sweden was the only major Western country that rejected school closures and other lockdowns in favor of concentrating on the elderly, and the final verdict is now in. …Sweden had the lowest excess mortality among major European countries during the pandemic, and less than half that of the United States. Sweden's Covid deaths were below average, and it avoided collateral mortality caused by lockdowns. …

    That spring, I supported the Swedish approach in op-eds published in my native Sweden, but despite being a Harvard professor, I was unable to publish my thoughts in American media. My attempts to disseminate the Swedish school report on Twitter…put me on the platform's Trends Blacklist. In August 2020, my op-ed on school closures and Sweden was finally published by CNN―but not the one you're thinking of. I wrote it in Spanish, and CNN-Español ran it. CNN-English was not interested. …

    I had no inclination to back down. Together with [Sunetra] Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford, I wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, arguing for age-based focused protection instead of universal lockdowns, with specific suggestions for how better to protect the elderly, while letting children and young adults live close to normal lives.

    With the Great Barrington Declaration, the silencing was broken. While it is easy to dismiss individual scientists, it was impossible to ignore three senior infectious-disease epidemiologists from three leading universities. The declaration made clear that no scientific consensus existed for school closures and many other lockdown measures. In response, though, the attacks intensified…and even grew slanderous. [Francis] Collins, a lab scientist with limited public-health experience who controls most of the nation's medical research budget, called us "fringe epidemiologists" and asked his colleagues to orchestrate a "devastating published takedown."5 Some at Harvard obliged. …

    At this point, it was clear that I faced a choice between science or my academic career. I chose the former. What is science if we do not humbly pursue the truth? …

    In 2020, the CDC asked me to serve on its Covid-19 Vaccine Safety Technical Work Group. My tenure didn't last long…. Every honest person knows that new drugs and vaccines come with potential risks that are unknown when approved. This was a risk worth taking for older people at high risk of Covid mortality―but not for children, who have a minuscule risk for Covid mortality, nor for those who already had infection-acquired immunity. …

    At the behest of the U.S. government, Twitter censored [me] for contravening CDC policy. Having also been censored by LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube, I could not freely communicate as a scientist. Who decided that American free-speech rights did not apply to honest scientific comments at odds with those of the CDC director? …

    For scientific, ethical, public health, and medical reasons, I objected both publicly and privately to the Covid vaccine mandates. I already had superior infection-acquired immunity; and it was risky to vaccinate me without proper efficacy and safety studies on patients with my type of immune deficiency. This stance got me fired by Mass General Brigham―and consequently fired from my Harvard faculty position. …

    Most Harvard faculty diligently pursue truth in a wide variety of fields, but Veritas has not been the guiding principle of Harvard leaders. Nor have academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, independence from external forces, or concern for ordinary people guided their decisions.

    Harvard and the wider scientific community have much work to do to deserve and regain public trust. The first steps are the restoration of academic freedom and the cancelling of cancel culture. When scientists have different takes on topics of public importance, universities should organize open and civilized debates to pursue the truth. Harvard could have done that―and it still can, if it chooses.

    Almost everyone now realizes that school closures and other lockdowns, were a colossal mistake. Francis Collins has acknowledged his error of singularly focusing on Covid without considering collateral damage to education and non-Covid health outcomes5. That's the honest thing to do, and I hope this honesty will reach Harvard. The public deserves it, and academia needs it to restore its credibility.

    Science cannot survive in a society that does not value truth and strive to discover it. The scientific community will gradually lose public support and slowly disintegrate in such a culture. The pursuit of truth requires academic freedom with open, passionate, and civilized scientific discourse, with zero tolerance for slander, bullying, or cancellation. My hope is that someday, Harvard will find its way back to academic freedom and independence.

    I share that hope, but I'm not going to invest any money in it.

Recommended Listening

Martin Kulldorff & John Tierney, "Harvard's Unscientific Consensus", City Journal, 3/13/2024

Recommended Viewing

"Martin Kulldorff: Fired by Harvard for getting Covid right", UnHerd, 3/15/2024


  1. Coventry Patmore, "Magna Est Veritas", The Reader, 8/28/2018.
  2. Ellipsis in the original.
  3. See, for instance: Vinay Prasad, "At a time when the U.S. needed Covid-19 dialogue between scientists, Francis Collins moved to shut it down", Stat News, 12/23/2021. I don't know whether Collins has apologized for this.
  4. The Editorial Board, "The Startling Evidence on Learning Loss Is In", The New York Times, 11/18/2023.
  5. See the previous selection.

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.

April 1st, 2024 (Permalink)

Flaubert's Befuddler

French novelist Gustave Flaubert posed the following problem to his sister in a letter:

Puisque tu fais de la géométrie et de la trigonométrie, je vais te donner un probème: Un navire est en mer, il est parti de Boston chargé de coton, il jauge 200 tonneaux. Il fait voile vers le Havre, le grand mât est cassé, il y a un mousse sur le gaillard d'avant, les passagers sont au nombre de douze, le vent souffle N.-E.-E., l'horloge marque 3 heures un quart d'après-midi, on est au mois de mai…. On demande l'âge du capitaine?*

Here's my translation: "Since you are doing geometry and trigonometry, I'll give you a problem: A ship is at sea, having left Boston full of cotton, weighing 200 tons. It sets sail to Le Havre, its mainmast broken, a cabin boy on the forward deck, with a dozen passengers, the wind E.N.E., at a quarter past three in the afternoon, in the month of May…. How old is the captain?"

Can you determine the captain's age?

* Gustave Flaubert, "Lettre à Caroline, 16 mai 1841". Ellipsis in the original.

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March 31st, 2024 (Permalink)

Cry "Havoc!"

An article in a popular science magazine from a couple of years ago had the title: "Climate change is wrecking havoc on microbial diversity"1. What about microbial equity or microbial inclusion? Where's the microbial DEI officer when you need her?

"To wreak" is an uncommon verb with the uncommon meaning "to cause something to come about violently"2, which is most commonly encountered in the phrase "to wreak havoc". Though you may sometimes see other things wreaked―such as vengeance, disaster, or devastation―havoc is almost always wreaked, whereas the others may be brought about in less violent ways.

"Wreck", in contrast, is a familiar word, especially when applied to automobiles. Whereas "wreak" is only a verb, "wreck" can be both a verb and a noun3. For instance, your car might be wrecked in an accident, after which it becomes a wreck, like the ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech4. The pronunciations of "wreak" and "wreck" differ only by the sound of the vowel, which is short in "wreck"―pronounced like "reck"―but long in "wreak"―pronounced recklessly like "reek".

Given the unfamiliarity of the word "wreak", those who only read the phrase "wreaking havoc" may mistake the word for the more familiar and similar-looking "wreck". This might explain the PopSci article title, above, as well as other occurrences of the misspelling. After all, you can't really wreck havoc, though havoc may wreck other things.

Another possible source of confusion is that the two words have similar meanings: to wreck something is to damage or destroy it, and to wreak is to bring something about in a destructive way. It's no accident that the two words are so similar in meaning and so often confused since both are derived from the same Indo-European root5.

A less common misspelling is "reeking havoc"6. Since "wreak" is pronounced like "reek", those who have only heard the phrase may think it's spelled "reeking havoc", though that would mean bad-smelling havoc.

"Wreaking havoc" is one of those hackneyed "turns of speech" that George Orwell warned about when "prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.7" It's a boilerplate idiom: when I read it, I have a vague sense of what is meant, but it certainly doesn't conjure up any strong images of either havoc or wreaking.

Though it's not really a metaphor, it would be best to consign "wreaking havoc" to the same bin as Orwell's "worn-out metaphors":

Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning…, and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. … [A] writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.7


  1. This is the title that shows up in the browser tab at the top of the article and in search results; the article itself, by Carla Delgado, has the following headline: "Diverse microbes are key to healthy soil. Climate change is threatening that.", Popular Science, 7/3/2022.
  2. "Wreak", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 3/30/2024.
  3. "Wreck", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 3/30/2024.
  4. Evan Scott Schwartz, "Team traditions: The history behind Georgia Tech's ramblin' wreck", Sports Illustrated, 11/4/2014.
  5. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (1991), under "wreck".
  6. This seems to be verified by Google's Ngram viewer, though some of these results are probably puns; see: "Wrecking havoc,reeking havoc", Google Books Ngram Viewer, accessed: 3/31/2024. Oddly, both misspellings seem to have peaked in the first decade of this millennium.
  7. George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", The Orwell Foundation, 4/1946.

March 25th, 2024 (Permalink)

Who's Counting?

The first question to ask about any statistic is: Who counted it? That is, who is responsible for the statistic; who produced it? Statistics do not grow on trees. To produce a statistic, things must be counted, and people can miscount. So, any statistic is only as trustworthy as those who produced it.

The answer to this first question should prompt some follow-up questions: Were those who counted in a position to do so accurately? Did they have any conflicts of interest that would undermine their objectivity? What does their history show about their trustworthiness? Have they been sloppy or otherwise inaccurate in the past? Have they been caught lying or exaggerating? If those counting were in no position to do so accurately, objectively, or are simply untrustworthy, there's no reason to trust the count.

Case in point: No doubt people are dying in Gaza as a result of Israel's invasion, but how many? A current statistic is 32,3331, a number precise down to the ones place, which makes it appear to be an exact count rather than an estimate2.

The answer to the first question of who produced this statistic is: the Gaza Health Ministry (GHM). The GHM is the official health agency of Gaza and, since Gaza itself is controlled by Hamas, the GHM is also controlled by Hamas3. Hamas is a terrorist group that targets civilians, kills unarmed people of all ages4, takes hostages, and rapes5 and tortures its victims, including fellow Gazans6. In addition, Hamas members do not wear uniforms, hide among the civilian population of Gaza, use hospitals and schools as shelters, then exploit the inevitable civilian casualties that result for propaganda7. If Hamas is willing to use civilian deaths as propaganda, why should it not be willing to exaggerate the death toll in Gaza for the same reason?

Hamas has a strong motivation to exaggerate the death toll, and it's impossible to believe that it has any moral compunctions against doing so. Those defending the statistics put out by the GHM argue that past numbers have been in line with those gathered by the United Nations and other independent agencies8. However, we don't have to go back to earlier wars to question the GHM's death toll statistics. Remember the alleged Israeli airstrike on the al-Ahli hospital? It was GHM that almost immediately claimed that 500 people were killed in the explosion, though it later revised its statistic down a little. We later learned that almost everything about the initial reports of the explosion were wrong9: it was caused by an errant Palestinian rocket rather than an Israeli airstrike, and the rocket did not hit the hospital but exploded in a nearby parking lot10. Was the death toll also wrong?

Here's what a Human Rights Watch report on the incident had to say about that death toll:

The Ministry of Health in Gaza reported that 471 people were killed and 342 injured. Human Rights Watch was unable to corroborate the count, which is significantly higher than other estimates, displays an unusually high killed-to-injured ratio, and appears out of proportion with the damage visible on site.11

The "killed-to-injured ratio"―also referred to as the "wounded-to-killed ratio"―refers to the fact that the number of those wounded in war usually outnumbers the dead. This is common sense, but it's also borne out by history, as one historian writes: "the typical ratio of those wounded to those killed in conflict has historically hovered around the 3:1 mark.12" Due to advances in modern medicine, the ratio has tended to increase in recent decades as more casualties are able to survive their injuries. In contrast, the dead outnumber the injured in the statistics provided by the GHM.

The second question to ask about any statistic is: How was it counted? In the case of the hospital incident, the 500 number was released by the GHM only about an hour after the explosion. It seems unlikely that an actual count could have been done so quickly, so this was probably an estimate as is also suggested by the roundness of the number. However, the later downward revision of the number to 471 could have been the result of an actual count.

In contrast, independent agencies estimated between one and three hundred killed13. These, of course, are only estimates since such agencies don't have the access needed to do an actual count. In the absence of a reliable count of deaths, the best that we can do is rely on estimates from reliable sources.

There are other reasons to doubt the death toll put out by the GHM14, but the above considerations are enough to treat it with skepticism. Given that we cannot trust the GHM, what can we do? We'll probably have to wait until the war is over for anything approaching an objective count of the casualties. We'll also have to wait until Hamas has been removed from power to find out how much control it exercised over the statistics coming out of the GHM, and how much the death toll was inflated. In the meantime, all that we can do is guesstimate the death toll based on what we know; let's do so by estimating a maximum and a minimum.

First, the maximum: the GHM's statistics are not completely useless because we have every reason to believe that they're inflated. So, we can take the GHM's current statistic of around 32K as a maximum.

The minimum is only a little more difficult: Israel itself claims to have killed 12K members of Hamas15, so clearly the order of magnitude (OOM) will be at least tens of thousands. Therefore, both the minimum and the maximum OOM is tens-of-thousands, so that we can claim with some confidence that the death toll in Gaza is in the low tens-of-thousands, but that's about as precise as we can reasonably be.


  1. "Health Ministry In Hamas-run Gaza Says War Death Toll At 32,333", Agence France-Presse, 3/25/2024. The Gaza Health Ministry's own website appears to be inaccessible, presumably due to the war.
  2. One thing to be wary of in such statistics is over-precision: due to wartime conditions, there's no way that such a number can be completely precise even if it is a count and not an estimate. What is its range of measurement error? We're not told, which is a reason to be skeptical. See: Overprecision, 8/27/2022.
  3. Isabel DeBre, "What is Gaza's Ministry of Health and how does it calculate the war's death toll?", PBS News Hour, 11/7/2023.
  4. "14 kids under 10, 25 people over 80: Up-to-date breakdown of Oct 7 victims we know about", The Times of Israel, 12/4/2023.
  5. Farnaz Fassihi & Isabel Kershner, "U.N. Team Finds Grounds to Support Reports of Sexual Violence in Hamas Attack", The New York Times, 3/5/2024.
  6. "'Strangling Necks': Abduction, Torture and Summary Killings of Palestinians by Hamas Forces During the 2014 Gaza/Israel Conflict", Amnesty International, 5/25/2015.
  7. Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, "The Origin of Hamas's Human Shields Strategy in Gaza | Opinion", Newsweek, 2/27/2024.
  8. For instance: Jessie Yeung, Duarte Mendonca, Abeer Salman & Eyad Kourdi, "UNICEF defends accuracy of Gaza death toll as horror unfolds in ravaged enclave", CNN, 11/9/2023.
  9. Yascha Mounk, "How the Media Got the Hospital Explosion Wrong", The Atlantic, 10/23/2023.
  10. John Leicester, "French intelligence points to Palestinian rocket, not Israeli airstrike, for Gaza hospital blast", AP, 10/20/2023.
  11. "Gaza: Findings on October 17 al-Ahli Hospital Explosion", Human Rights Watch, 11/26/2023.
  12. Tanisha M. Fazal, "Nonfatal Casualties and the Changing Costs of War", International Security, 11/2014.
  13. Jeremy Herb, "Between 100 and 300 believed killed in Gaza hospital blast, according to preliminary US intelligence assessment", CNN, 10/19/2023.
  14. For instance, see: Abraham Wyner, "How the Gaza Ministry of Health Fakes Casualty Numbers", Tablet Magazine, 3/6/2024.
  15. Emanuel Fabian, "IDF says 12,000 Hamas fighters killed in Gaza war, double the terror group's claim", The Times of Israel, 2/20/2024.

March 18th, 2024 (Permalink)

How to Lie with Headlines

Some recent headlines: Trump says there'll be 'bloodbath' if he loses, ramps up anti-migrant rhetoric

Trump suggests "it's going to be a bloodbath" if he loses the election1

Trump says there will be a 'bloodbath' if he isn't reelected2

Trump says there will be a 'bloodbath' if he loses the election3

This is just a selection; virtually all of the usual suspects in the establishment news media followed suit. Given the similarity of these headlines, it's tempting to think that a memo went out to these different news outlets and they all just followed directions. However, I think that temptation should be resisted; instead, I expect that this is the result of group think and herd behavior: some bellwether of the flock was the first to put out such a headline, and the others quickly followed without bothering to ask where they were going.

Some of the above reports provide enough context to debunk their own headlines. For example, beneath the CNN headline, we read:

Former President Donald Trump suggested Saturday that if he were to lose the 2024 election, "it's going to be a bloodbath for the country." The remark came as Trump promised a "100% tariff" on cars made outside the US. "We're going to put a 100% tariff on every single car that comes across the line, and you're not going to be able to sell those guys if I get elected," Trump said in Vandalia, Ohio. "Now, if I don't get elected…it's going to be a bloodbath for the country."4

Here's what Trump said in context:

If you look at the United Auto Workers what they've done to their people is horrible. They want to do this all-electric nonsense where the cars don't go far, they cost too much, and they're all made in China, and the head of the United Auto Workers never probably shook hands with a Republican before. … China now is building a couple of massive plants where they're going to build the cars in Mexico, and they think that they're going to sell those cars into the United States with no tax at the border. Let me tell you something to China: … those big monster car manufacturing plants that you're building in Mexico right now, and you think you're going to not hire Americans and you're going to sell the cars to us now, we're going to put a 100% tariff on every single car that comes across the line, and you're not going to be able to sell those guys. Now if I don't get elected it's going to be a bloodbath for the whole―that's going to be the least of it―it's going to be a bloodbath for the country, that'll be the least of it, but they're not going to sell those cars.5

Trump is difficult to understand because he tends to talk in one long, rambling, run-on sentence, frequently interrupting himself in the middle of a thought to go off on some digression, sometimes returning to finish the thought and sometimes not. So, there's often some excuse for reporters misunderstanding what he says, but little excuse in this case. In context, it's clear that the "bloodbath" he was talking about was to the automobile industry in the United States, and not some kind of civil war or rioting. Out of context, in the headlines, the false impression is created that Trump is predicting, or perhaps threatening, political violence if he loses.

Some of the news outlets quoted above have now edited their headlines to make them less misleading; for instance, the ABC News headline shown above, which is a screenshot of the original, now reads:

Trump, addressing auto industry, says there will be 'bloodbath' if he loses election6

This is better, but it still doesn't make it clear that the "bloodbath" would be to the industry, rather than that he was just "addressing" the industry when he said it.

Many people read only the headlines, and even those of us who make an effort to follow the news often do not read beyond the headlines. In fact, I usually read just the headlines, perusing the underlying articles only if the headline piques my interest. The headline-only reader will be misled into thinking that Trump was threatening a bloodbath if he's not re-elected. When I first saw these headlines, I thought instead that he was probably warning that his followers would be angry enough to riot if he were to lose again. I had to actually read one of the articles to find out that he was talking about a "bloodbath" to the automotive industry. So, even in the case when the article itself includes enough context to show that the headline is misleading, the headline will still mislead many readers.

The headlines from establishment news sources now resemble those of the old tabloid newspapers, which were notorious for promising more than the story delivered.


  1. Kit Maher & Alayna Treene, "Trump suggests 'it's going to be a bloodbath' if he loses the election", CNN, 3/16/2024.
  2. "Trump says there will be a 'bloodbath' if he isn't reelected", Today, 3/17/2024.
  3. Emma Barnett & Jillian Frankel, "Trump says there will be a 'bloodbath' if he loses the election", NBC News, 3/16/2024.
  4. Ellipsis in the original; paragraphing suppressed.
  5. "Donald Trump talks about Bernie Moreno, his presidential campaign WCPO 9in Ohio", WCPO 9, 3/16/2024.
  6. Gabriella Abdul-Hakim, Libby Cathey & Fritz Farrow, "Trump, addressing auto industry, says there will be 'bloodbath' if he loses election", ABC News, 3/17/2024.

Recommended Reading: Leo Benedictus, "The media must stop using misleading headlines", Full Fact, 5/28/2021

Detail of Photograph
March 13th, 2024 (Permalink)

Seeing is Disbelieving

  • I pay as little attention as possible to the British royal family, but I am interested in fake photography, which leads to the following entry. Kate, the Princess of Wales, has had some recent health problems, including abdominal surgery, and has been out of the public eye since last Christmas. In an apparent attempt to reduce the spread of rumors about her state of health, a photograph that appears to show her with her children was released. Subsequently, the photo was retracted by the Associated Press (AP)1, Reuters2, and even the official UK news agency PA3. Finally, the princess herself issued a public apology for supposedly personally "editing" the photo4.

    What exactly was wrong with the photo? I'm not an expert on Photoshop―in fact, I've never used it―so I'll simply point you to some expert discussions in the notes5. However, while the photo can certainly pass the sort of casual glance that most people are likely to give it, even the untrained eye can see some odd things on closer examination. To me, the most glaring fault is at the top of the daughter's skirt on the side closest to her mother, where it appears that a part of the skirt was copied and pasted. Also, as pointed out by the AP and others, the daughter's left sleeve is misaligned with her hand, suggesting that the position of her arm may have been moved―see the detail of the photograph, above; you can see the full photo in any of the sources listed in the notes, below.

    The family has so far refused to release the original, unedited photograph, thus contributing to suspicions about why it was retouched. In the absence of a full explanation, all we're left with is speculation as to how and why the photo was manipulated. For what little it's worth, my own speculation is that Kate's face and hands were added from one or more different photos, presumably older ones. If so, I hope it was done out of vanity and not from some more sinister motive.

    Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this affair is that the experts insist that the work done on the photo was amateurish, which is why some of the changes are so glaring. This suggests that a more professional job might have passed scrutiny. In the near future, it may be impossible to tell a professionally faked photo from a "real" one; in fact, the distinction between fake and real photography may be disappearing.

  • Update: Late last year, I described how the sports website Deadspin smeared a boy as a racist by means of a misleading photograph6. Deadspin has now been sold and its entire staff laid off7. How much the sudden sale had to do with the controversy is unclear, but the boy's family filed a lawsuit just last month8. I'm no more a lawyer than I am a photography expert, but the parents seem to have a strong case against Deadspin for libel9.


  1. Brian Melley, "Why the AP retracted the first official photo of the Princess of Wales since her abdominal surgery", AP, 3/11/2024
  2. "News agencies withdraw photo of UK's Princess of Wales", Reuters, 3/11/2024
  3. "Kate apologises for 'confusion' after digitally editing family photo", PA, 3/12/2024
  4. Bill Chappell & Fatima Al-Kassab, "What to know about the 'confusion' over Kate Middleton's edited family photo", NPR, 3/11/2024
  5. See:
  6. How to Lie with Photographs, 12/9/2023
  7. Liam Reilly, "Deadspin's entire staff has been laid off after the sports site was sold to a startup", CNN, 3/11/2024
  8. Ahjané Forbes, "Family sues Deadspin after blackface accusation at Kansas City Chiefs game", USA Today, 2/8/2024
  9. See: Jonathan Turley, "Deadspin Defamation: Parents of Holden Armenta Move Toward Libel Action Over Black Face Allegation", 12/6/2023

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