Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2006

Noam Chomsky, Crooked Timber and crooked numbers

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Over on the Crooked Timber group blog, which occupies a kind of no-man’s-land between academia and the normal world, there’s been a heated discussion of Noam Chomsky–how could it be otherwise?


Oliver Kamm and Brad DeLong

These periodic flare-ups always involve charges that Chomsky is a David Irving-like “revisionist,” who minimizes civilian deaths in Srebrenica. Among the Chomsky bashers is one Oliver Kamm, an oleaginous bond trader from London who has written a book titled “Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy” that ranks #73,123 in sales at amazon.co.uk. By contrast, Chomsky’s “Failed States” ranks #352 on amazon.com. So I guess the average person is not that much into neoconservative foreign policy. Can’t say you can blame them with reports of GI’s raping and murdering Iraqi civilians appearing with depressing regularity nowadays.

People like Kamm have a tough job. It is really an uphill battle to get anybody with a brain to make common cause with the Donald Rumsfelds and Paul Wolfowitz’s of the world, unless your brain is fairly rotted out with alcohol like Christopher Hitchens’. Lately some of these pro-war leftists have given up on the whole project, most notably David Rieff who wrote the following in his new book “Point of the Gun”:

“At the time of the Kosovo war, I had written that, if I had to make the choice, I would choose imperialism over barbarism. In retrospect, though, I did not realize the extent to which imperialism is or at least can always become barbarism.”

Berkeley professor Brad DeLong, another well-known Chomsky-basher, has entered the fray as well. He has gotten all worked up over Chomsky’s statement on Cambodia that “such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands.” Evidently, this puts him in the same category as holocaust deniers who are always trying to minimize Jewish deaths.

DeLong once wrote an article on his blog titled “My Very, Very Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky: Khmer Rouge, Faurisson, Milosevic” that described Chomsky as an intellectual totalitarian and an apologist for Stalin’s crimes. Like a piece of dirt in an oyster, this article serves a higher purpose, namely to allow Edward Herman to dismantle it with a pearl of an article on Counterpunch.

Since DeLong was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy in the Clinton administration, it should come as no big surprise that he enjoys misusing statistics on behalf of questionable political objectives. The Treasury Department, under Republicans and Democrats alike, has always seen fit to exaggerate economic growth and minimize unemployment. When they hired Brad DeLong, they obviously understood that they were getting a seasoned performer who knew how to juggle the books.

For all the venom directed at Chomsky’s alleged misuse of statistics, Delong has no problem counting on Rudy Rummel as an expert when it comes to determining how to rank mass murderers in the 20th century. Rummel is a retired U. of Hawaii professor who has written a number of books that exaggerate the number of deaths under Communism and minimize those that the U.S.A is responsible for. On his website, there’s a table that lists the USSR as first with nearly 62 million dead. Remarkably, the U.S.A. is not even listed. This imbalance, bordering on American holocaust denial, is shrugged off by DeLong who believes “that there is really no other place to start assessing the history of the twentieth century” when it comes to the numbers that Rummel has produced.

Not everybody is persuaded by Rummel’s statistics, least of all a shrewd and canny person named A.J. Philbin who got sick and tired of trolls crossposting Rummel’s nonsense to the newsgroup alt.politics.socialism.trotsky. This is what he (or she) thought of Rummel’s work:

Would it surprise you to learn that I have downloaded and printed the online version of Dr. Rummel’s tome, Lethal Politics? I don’t know if it is the same as the printed version, but I assume, since it is linked to his academic website, that old Doc Rummel wouldn’t have allowed it to go up if it didn’t reflect the substance of his printed work. I haven’t read the whole thing thoroughly, but I’ve read enough to come to the following preliminary conclusions, based on my admittedly cursory reading (subject to revision if and when I have time to give it a more thorough read):

1) Rummel is clearly not a statistician, and the sloppiness of his methods show that he didn’t consult one, at least not routinely or in depth. This is obvious from both the method he uses and his own inadvertent statements in the text. His method consists of taking widely (I would say wildly) varying estimates from sources he regards as “authoritative” and averaging them. I saw nothing that indicates how he decide how much credence to give these vastly differing estimates. He also uses categories that clearly are greatly overlapping, but makes no attempt to compensate for the overlap. (I’m no statistician, but the errors are so glaring that I am forced to wonder how Rummel could have missed them).

2) Rummel desperately wishes to prove his basic thesis that government sponsored internal repression has killed more people than war. This is his a priori bias, and it colors his analysis throughout, and renders him susceptible to making (or using) huge estimates as components of his totals.

3) Since Rummel provides much of the data he used, and makes statements that inadvertently show how his bias affected his conclusions, I cannot conclude that he is dishonest. The only reason I suspect any possible deliberate dishonesty (as opposed to credulousness and self-delusion), is the glaring nature of some of the errors. I am a layman, and yet I spotted them without much trouble. Nonetheless, his own inadvertent statements (as well as his apparent inability to grasp their full import) tend to exculpate Rummel of deliberate fakery, while convicting him of credulousness and apriori bias in the first degree. I will now demonstrate what I have stated above.

On the third page of the chapter entitled 61,911,000 Victims: Utopianism Empowered, second full paragraph down, Rummel makes the following statement:

“In sum, the Soviets have committed a democide of 61,911,000 people, 7,142,000 of them foreigners. This staggering total is beyond belief. But, as shown in Figure 1.1, it is only the prudent, most probable tally, in a range from an highly unlikely, low figure of 28,326,000 (4,263,000 foreigners); and an equally highly unlikely figure of 126,891,000 (including 12,134,000 foreigners). This is arange of uncertainty in our democide estimates — an error range — of 97,808,000 human beings.”

Incredible. This statement demonstrates, concisely and clearly, everything I stated above. Let’s start with a priori bias. Rummel characterizes the low estimate (28,326,000) and the high estimate (126,891,000), as being “equally unlikely.” Killing 28 million people requires a stupendous, if horrific, effort of political will and organization. yet a figure more than four times that amount is only “equally unlikely?” Let us leave aside the fact that this high figure is greater than the 1910 population of the Russian Empire (120 million), the present day population of European Russia (120 million), and more than half the present day (1992) population of the former USSR (223 million). Only an extremely biased scholar could claim these two figures are “equally unlikely,” and not instead conclude that his component estimates are virtually useless. But that isn’t the worst, even in this one paragraph. The last sentence demonstrates the worthlessness of his chosen method. The error range (97,808,000) is larger than his “estimate” (61,911,000). I don’t have to be a statistician to know that when your estimate is smaller than your error range, your method is about as good as a ouija board — wait, I take that back: the ouija board has the advantage of being less laborious and more fun. So does a divining rod.

But Rummel goes on, sealing both his conviction on grounds of credulousness and his acquittal on charges of fakery. In the very next paragraph, he exclaims:

“Just consider the error range in Soviet democide, as shown in Figure 1.1. It is larger than the population of 96 percent of the world’s nations and countries. Actually, if France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland were blasted clean of all human life in a nuclear war, the human toll would be less than just this range in the Soviet’s probable democide — the range, and not even the total murdered.”

Exactly what are we supposed to conclude from this? Why, those Soviet commies must have been unbelievable monsters — look at the error range they caused in my estimates!! They must have truly been genocidal (excuse me, democidal) butchers to cause me to find such wide ranging death toll estimates! Just imagine how many people they REALLY must have killed in order to create such a wide disparity in available statistics!

But let us turn to Table 1.1. On the horizontal axis, Rummel lists the following democide components: terror, deportation, camps, and famine. Rummel makes a good case for separating deportation and camp deaths in the text, and mentions that he includes transportation deaths in both categories. But I could find nowhere an explanation of what he meant by “terror,” or why “terror” is separated from camps and deportations. While famine might be clearly a separate category, but in the case of the USSR, given the claims that famine was an instrument and result of “terror,” this is not at all clear. Isn’t transportation and existence in the GULAG considered part of “terror?” It would certainly terrify me! “Terror” is not a method of killing — it is a description of a general policy or period of repression (which certainly includes killing). Indeed, on the vertical side of the table, the “Great Terror” of 1936 is listed as a period in which all the horizontal categories occured. We are told that, during the Great Terror of 1936, that 3,280,000 people died in the camps (or en route), 65,000 from deportation, and 1,000,000 from “terror.” Yet most other periods mentioned on the vertical side show more deaths from “terror” than the Great Terror of 1936. Clearly, “terror” is a category that is partially overlapped by famine, and perhaps almost totally by camps and deportations. “Terror” is supposed to account for 8,298,000 deaths overall. This is assuming the figures are correct in the first place, which I am not, and have dealt with above. There are other examples, this being merely the first one I found. I will relate them if you ask.

Essentially, what Rummel did was to compile hearsay estimates, do sloppy statistical work, and plow ahead to a conclusion that the data couldn’t support. The only legitimate coclusion that he could have come to was that no conclusion was possible regarding probable death tolls in the USSR, based on the figures he had. But who wants to publish a book with such an anti-climactic ending?

BTW, the figure of up to 10,000,000 killed, given by Otto Pohl in this thread, is the most common figure I heard when I was associated with the Trotskyite movement. I don’t know what these figures were based on, but clearly they were closer to the mark, and formulated with greater caution than either Rummel’s estimate, or the estimates he based his work on.

A.J. Philbin

July 3, 2006

Thomas Brown, Ward Churchill and prison terms for “research misconduct”

Filed under: indigenous,repression — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

For anybody following the Ward Churchill witch-hunt, the name Thomas Brown should ring a bell. This is a professor from Texas who has been pursuing Ward Churchill like Ahab pursued Moby Dick. He achieved a certain recognition for exposing Churchill’s failure to properly document the charge that the U.S. Army handed out smallpox blankets to the Mandan Indians in 1837. Churchill cited Evan S. Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn” and Russell Thornton’s “American Indian Holocaust and Survival” but neither book says anything about the army playing such a role.

In my view, Churchill made this mistake because of a predisposition to see the genocide against the Indians in the light of the German genocide against the Jews, which did involve systematic murder. Although army raids did cost the lives of many tens of thousands of Indians, most died because of diseases that they had no resistance to or from the effects of stealing their land and killing their game. Apologists for the American genocide state that this lets the U.S. ruling class off the hook because Indian deaths were “accidental”. However, everybody knew that smallpox could be spread through contact, including Lord Amherst, the British officer who did distribute smallpox blankets to Indians in 1763.

Brown pops up on the comments pages at Inside Higher Education whenever an article appears about Ward Churchill. This is an online publication that was launched by former editors and reporters at Chronicle of Higher Education, a print publication that has much more clout than the upstart Inside Higher Education. Both publications hew to a careful “balanced” approach which amounts to printing articles pro and con about Ward Churchill.

However, some of the articles are harder to define in this fashion, especially Jon Wiener’s “A Lesson From the Churchill Inquiry,” that appears in the June 30 edition. Wiener is a Nation Magazine contributor who has written about the culture wars in the academy, John Lennon and lots of other subjects from a generally progressive standpoint. In this article, he goes out of his way in an unseemly fashion to praise the investigating committee at the U. of Colorado:

“Ward Churchill should be fired for academic misconduct — that’s the decision made by the interim chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, after receiving a report from a faculty committee concluding that Churchill is guilty of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. That report shows that, even under difficult political conditions, it’s possible to do a good job dealing with charges of research misconduct.”

I posted a brief reply to Wiener shortly after his article appeared:

“I think the usually astute Jon Wiener is missing the point. It would have backfired if the investigating committee had been composed entirely of yahoos from the U. of Colorado law school who had been after Ward’s scalp for years now. By adopting the discourse of the touchy-feely humanities world, the committee made it easier for people like Jon Wiener to swallow a bitter pill. There never should have been an investigation to begin with, not as long as the U. of Georgetown is hiring people like Douglas Feith.”

A day later Thomas Brown chimed in:

“Does the fact that other academics found guilty of misconduct have received lesser sanctions automatically mean that Churchill’s sacking is inappropriate? Not at all.

“Take the time to read the CU investigative committee’s report on Churchill. They researched the sanctions given to offenders such as Churchill, and found that sacking is a common outcome. A perpetrator who is caught in one offense and who repents may escape firing. But a repeat offender such as Churchill–who is also loudly proclaiming that he did nothing wrong and that he intends to keep on doing what he’s doing–can expect to be dismissed.

“Just this week, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor was given a year in prison for research misconduct. Churchill should consider himself lucky that he’s only getting fired.

“As to the political context of the situation, I think that Prof. Eckstein put it rather succinctly. Live by it, die by it.”

(The Eckstein referred to above, by the way, is as obsessed with Ward Churchill as Thomas Brown. He is a U. of Maryland professor who has contributed to David Horowitz’s Frontpage four times in the past.)

Although the comments editor at Inside Higher Education was beneficent enough to allow one of my comments to appear on their august publication’s website, two have not been forwarded. Since I have a reputation for being something of an ill-mannered lout, let me assure you that my comments were beyond reproach in keeping with the faculty club atmosphere of Inside Higher Education. In fact, compared to a number of the anonymous rightwing ranters who haunt the comments section of Inside Higher Education, I would come across as St. Francis of Assisi.

Since the comments editor has seen fit to exclude my latest comment, I am repeating here on these mailing lists and my own blog:

In his comments on Ward Churchill, Thomas Brown states, “Just this week, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor was given a year in prison for research misconduct. Churchill should consider himself lucky that he’s only getting fired.”

My eyebrows went up when I read this. When the hell did professors start going to jail for “research misconduct”? I spent an hour on Lexis-Nexis and Google News trying to find evidence of such a thing, but could not turn up a thing. The plain fact is that there is no such crime as “research misconduct”. People go to jail for car theft, battery, bank robbery, etc.–not for improper citations or plagiarism.

Of course, if people like Thomas Brown, Art Eckstein and David Horowitz had their way, people would go to jail for “false” beliefs just the way that they did in the 1950s. Perhaps Brown was confused by his own call for jailing Churchill on the charge of perjury. Brown raised this question after Churchill referred to the Mandan incident at a Colorado trial stemming from his role in Columbus Day protests. After I raised hell on the Internet for Brown raising the question of jail time for perjury, he amended his attack on Churchill as follows: “The first draft speculated that Churchill *may* have committed perjury. I am not a lawyer, and used the word “perjury” as any layman would, to describe dishonesty in a court proceeding. Given that the technicalities of perjury rules can vary from one venue and one situation to the next, I have removed that statement.”

At any rate, if Brown or anybody else could provide the documentation for professors at the University of North Carolina being jailed for “research misconduct,” I’d like to hear about it. That sounds like we would be much further along toward the fascist state that David Horowitz, Art Eckstein and Thomas Brown obviously long for.


Apparently Brown was referring to a U. of Vermont scientist who falsified research findings in order to get millions of dollars in grant money but what probably got him prosecuted was his role in persuading women to take unnecessary hormone therapy. This and failing to adequately document an incident in American history from 1837 obviously have nothing to do with each other except in Brown’s diseased mind.

Menopause Doc Fudged Data

BURLINGTON, Vt., June 21, 2005(CBS) Millions of women have taken hormone therapy, only to learn in recent years that its health benefits were never proved and there were risks involved instead. Now it turns out a key researcher who touted the benefits of hormone replacement is facing a five year jail term, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson. Dr. Eric Poehlman was renowned for his groundbreaking research on women and menopause. He theorized that menopause makes women lose muscle and gain fat, and causes health problems hormones could help fix. His work was considered so significant it prompted doctors to prescribe hormones for years – a treatment now called into question because of its health risks. “Dr. Poehlman was a mentor to me in many ways,” said Walter DeNino, Poehlman’s research assistant at the University of Vermont.

But he discovered a dark side to his mentor, Attkisson reports.

It turns out menopausal women weren’t deteriorating the way Poehlman thought they would in his study. “In some cases, some patients improved in terms of heart disease risk and energy expenditure,” DeNino said. “After menopause.” But the idea of healthier women after menopause jeopardized the foundation of Poehlman’s work, so he did the unthinkable: he fabricated the data to make it fit his theory. DeNino confronted him and turned him in to the university; they found it wasn’t the first time. Once Dr. Poehlman’s fraud was exposed, the horrible implications were clear. Years of research which doctors relied on to treat menopausal women were now in serious doubt.

The case was referred to U.S. Attorney David Kirby.

“I think the scope of the wrongdoing in the case made it criminal,” Kirby told Attkisson.

It was also criminal because Poehlman had used $2 million in government grants -taxpayer money – for studies to perpetrate his fraud.

Susan Real was in one of those faked studies. Back then, she was a bodybuilder entering menopause and, by volunteering for Poehlman’s research, was hoping to “make a difference.” Now, she knows she didn’t.

“I was outraged. I felt exploited. And I was really amazed that anyone would be doing something like that,” Real said.

Dr. Poehlman pleaded guilty to a criminal charge and faces up to five years in prison.

As for his one-time protégé, he’s applying to medical school.

“I would like to think Dr. Poehlman is more or less an isolated case,” DeNino said. DeNino wants to become a researcher in his own right – he just no longer hopes to follow Poehlman’s path.

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