Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Quote

My friend Syd told me about the following intriguing quotation from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. 'Bless me!' he mused. 'How long have I been asleep?' For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. 'Why, what a dream I've had!' he muttered. 'I am glad to wake!' He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.

Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: 'It wasn't a dream! Then where are we?'

And a voice spoke softly behind him: 'In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.' With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. 'Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?' he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: 'Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?'

'A great Shadow has departed,' said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

'How do I feel?' he cried. 'Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel' -- he waved his arms in the air -- 'I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!' He stopped and he turned towards his master. 'But how's Mr. Frodo?' he said. 'Isn't it a shame about his poor hand? But I hope he's all right otherwise. He's had a cruel time.'

'Yes, I am all right otherwise,' said Frodo, sitting up and laughing in his turn. 'I fell asleep again waiting for you, Sam, you sleepyhead. I was awake early this morning, and now it must be nearly noon.'

'Noon?' said Sam, trying to calculate. 'Noon of what day?'

'The fourteenth of the New Year,' said Gandalf; 'or if you like, the eighth day of April in the Shire reckoning. But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King. He has tended you, and now he awaits you. You shall eat and drink with him. When you are ready I will lead you to him.'

Syd pointed out an interesting thing about this passage. The day when "everything sad [is] going to come untrue" and when "A great Shadow has departed" is the 25th of March, a day we do not celebrate. Instead, we celebrate nine months later. And now the King who has tended and will tend us, and with whom we shall eat and drink, awaits us. "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests".

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens - 1949-2011

I was sad to read this morning that Christopher Hitchens lost his battle with cancer at the age of 62. I won't pretend I agreed with him on many things - in particular I found his treatment of history to be very one dimensional. None of that really mattered because of his panache and eloquence. His articles and his debates were always entertaining; even 'God is not Great' in places is the sort of rollicking good polemic which is so rare these days.

By way of tribute here is a young Christopher Hitchens debating foreign policy in the Reagan years and chain smoking (skip to 47.48 to see him deliver the Hitch smackdown on a caller).

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Thursday, December 15, 2011

'This is a bogus statistic'


A comment on one of my previous posts has alerted me to the fact that Steven Pinker has an FAQ up on his site concerning ‘Better Angels of our Nature’. None of the questions appear to take him to task for using made-up statistics. Some of the responses he gives are highly entertaining. For example when asked about ‘atheist regimes in the 20th century’ he says:

‘according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White's Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe‘


Whether the Thirty Years War was more destructive than World War I and II is an interesting question; Germany and large parts of Central Europe undoubtedly suffered a demographic collapse in the 17th century (15-20% in the German States). However the overwhelming majority of deaths during the 30 Years’ War were caused by disease – specifically typhus, dysentery and bubonic plague. This situation was partially caused and exacerbated by the movement of the various armies through the German countryside – resulting in food shortages and the outbreak of epidemics. According to the detailed treatment given in Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H Wilson death records from towns appear to show few directly related to military violence and 30 years of warfare reaped around 450,000 military casualties.

It could be argued, in fact it should be argued that much of this mortality would not have happened were it not for the conflict - other areas of Europe suffered population declines in this period but not as precipitous as Germany’s – so there is a direct responsibility there and disease related deaths should be added to the tally. However if that is the case then you have to compare like with like. Close troop quarters and massive troop movements helped facilitate an influenza pandemic at the end of World War I – perhaps the greatest medical holocaust ever. Add these to the 15,000,000 slaughtered in World War and it becomes proportionally the deadliest conflict in world history.

In answer to another religion related question Pinker states:

‘Jesus deserves credit for stigmatizing revenge, one of the main motives for violence over the course of human history. But things started going downhill in 312 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the historical facts are not consistent with the claim that Christianity since then has been a force for nonviolence:


The Crusaders perpetrated a century of genocides that murdered a million people, equivalent as a proportion of the world’s population at the time to the Nazi holocaust.

Shortly afterwards, the Cathars of southern France were exterminated in another Crusader genocide because they had embraced the Albigensian heresy.

The Inquisition, according to Rummel, killed 350,000 people.

Martin Luther’s rant against the Jews is barely distinguishable from the writings of Hitler.

The three founders of Protestantism, Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII, had thousands of heretics were burned at the stake, as they and their followers took Jesus literally when he said, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”


Following the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Christians killed 60,000-100,000 accused witches in the European witchhunts.


The European Wars of Religion had death rates that were double that of World War I and that were in the range of World War II in Europe.


Christian conquistadors massacred and enslaved native Americans in vast numbers, and perhaps twenty million were killed in all (not counting unintentional epidemics) by the European settlement of the Americas.


World War I, as I recall, was a war fought mostly by Christians against Christians. As for World War II and its associated horrors, see my answer to the previous question.

I was pleased to see Pinker’s statistics on the witch hunts – 60,000 over 3 centuries - are reasonably accurate (on the internet you regularly see figures of 9 million waved about) One wouldn’t want to act as some kind of apologist for killing people for imaginary crimes, however the figures for the Inquisition are far too high – 10,000 over six centuries is a more credible estimate. As far as I can make out from a quick scout through ‘google books’ Henry VIII burned 81 heretics, Calvin burned 1 (Servetus) and Luther believed that burning heretics was against the will of the Holy Spirit, thus giving the softie a fat 0. Not a very impressive total for the 3 founders of Protestantism.

The most bogus figure of the lot is the (non-disease related) extermination of 20 million native Americans during the settlement of the Americas. Pinker appears to have got this number from White’s necrometrics – however as his discussion of it on his site shows he basically plucked the number out of thin air (he has taken the median of 4 clearly made up estimates). The conquest was often one of murderous oppression but the demographic collapse – 90% in some areas was as a result of epidemics. For example – the native population here in New England may well have been some 72,000 to 114,000 before colonisation. By 1670 that number had been reduced to only 8,600.

The decline was not the result of a genocide campaign, in fact, in the case of the Spanish the settlers were small in number and depended on native communities to build and sustain their colonies. As a result officials became concerned about the mortality that was occurring and passed edicts to protect natives from colonial excesses; they had become convinced by voices such as Las Casas who argued it was Spanish rule causing the disaster, not understanding the horrific role of disease. None of this probably sprang from any noble motive but it shows how tenuous the accusation of genocide is.

In answer to one question (I’ve read that at the beginning of the 20th century, ninety percent of deaths in warfare were suffered by soldiers, but at the end, ninety percent were suffered by civilians) Pinker writes:

‘This is a bogus statistic; see pp. 317–320

No – if you want to see a load of bogus statistics start at page 1 and keep reading till you get to page 832; then read the FAQ for good measure.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How bad were the Mongols ?

Separate piles of heads of men, women and children were built into pyramids; and even cats and dogs were killed in the streets.

Sayfi Heravi on the sacking of Naishapur

Exactly how nasty were the Mongols? Let’s be honest, they would probably be the last people in world history you would invite round for wine tasting and canap├ęs. One famous anecdote concerning their rule for example claims that un-cooperative Russian nobles were assembled and forced to lie on the ground. A heavy wooden gate was then thrown on them and a table and chairs set up on the top side of the gate. Following this a victory banquet was thrown (which no doubt involved some stamping and enthusiastic dancing) and the unfortunate Russian princes were suffocated under the weight of the platform. Ironically, in doing so the Mongols were showing a certain degree of respect by not shedding noble blood; a similar principle was applied with the last Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad who was executed by being rolled in a carpet and kicked to death by horses.

In ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ Stephen Pinker (quoting White’s estimates again) claims that the hordes of Genghis Khan and his successors managed to wipe out 40,000,000 people. This puts them at second in the all-time ‘Possibly the worst things people have done to each other’ list with an adjusted death toll of 298,000,000 (mid-20th century equivalent). Pinker writes:

The Mongol invasions of Islamic lands in the 13th century resulted in the massacre of 1.3 million people in the city of Merv alone, and another 800,000 residents of Baghdad. As the historian of the Mongols J. J. Saunders remarks "There is something indescribably revolting in the cold savagery with which the Mongols carried out their massacres. The inhabitants of a doomed town were obliged to assemble in a plain outside the walls, and each Mongol trooper, armed with a battle-axe, was told to kill so many people, ten, twenty or fifty. As proof that orders had been properly obeyed, the killers were sometimes required to cut off an ear from each victim, collect the ears in sacks, and bring them to their officers to be counted. A few days after the massacre, troops were sent back into the ruined city to search for any poor wretches who might be hiding in holes or cellars; these were dragged out and slain". The Mongols’ first leader, Genghis Khan, offered this reflection on the pleasures of life: “The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”[1]

How credible are such estimates? It is certainly plausible if we take the contemporary chroniclers such as Ibn al-Athir and Al-Nasawi at face value. These state the Mongol Army (estimated at perhaps 130,000 men) massacred hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of people. 1,600,000 people were killed at the sack of Harat, and 1,747,000 at Nishapur (another source says 2,400,000). The Mongol leader Hulegu claimed in a letter to Louis IX of France that he killed two million people during the sack of Baghdad [2]. This would mean the Mongols were pulling off operations on the scale of the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad regularly over the course of their conquests. According to Jack Weatherford in ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ these figures are ‘preposterous’. David Morgan in ‘The Mongols’ is as sceptical, but less emphatic, regarding these estimates as not statistical information but instead ‘evidence of the state of mind created by the character of the Mongol invasion’.

Weatherford states that ‘conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years’, however ‘even this more modest total…would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people’. If we took the chroniclers estimates, according to Weatherford this would mean ‘a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier’ (this would trump even the 87 people killed by Arnold Schwarzenegger during the course of the movie Commando).

Even so, it is somewhat glib to say that the chroniclers exaggerate – though this is often the case in ancient and medieval history [3]. One approach to determine their authenticity is to try to quantify exactly what the population of Central Asia was at the time. According to David Morgan this is difficult due to the lack of comprehensive Islamic archaeology and the fact that mud brick buildings do not respond well to repair. In many places however, such as at Harat it is possible to see where the pre Mongol walls stood – according to Morgan none of the sites appear to have been big enough to accommodate the populations noted in the sources; even under a siege where the population would have been swelled by refugees [4]. Another problem is that if we accept the contemporary figures then this would indicate the Mongols were outnumbered by ratios of 50-1 and you would think they would have greater success at fighting off their assailants.

Bernard Lewis and David Morgan state that the Mongol devastation was not universal. Only Transoxania and Khurasan had to suffer Mongol wrath at its worst whereas South Asia was never submitted to a full scale assault. Parts of Russia were devastated but some areas escaped lightly or completely [5]. The campaign against the Chin Empire in China was destructive but that later undertaken against the Sung was less so in order to take over as intact a country as possible,

The only way in which the 40 million figure given in ‘Better Angels of our Nature could be rendered plausible is if the statistics given for China from Sung and Chin times to after the expulsion of the Mongols in 1382 are accurate. These show a drop in population from 100 million to 70 million in 1290s [6] and 60 million in 1393 – a drop of 40 million. How responsible are the Mongols for this apparent holocaust?

We have already seen the problems with attempting to rely on the Chinese censuses which all too often appear to reflect the effectiveness of the central administration rather than the actual population. According to Timothy Brook in ‘The Troubled Empire’ many Chinese in Mongol areas were simply not reported, having been en-serfed and thus disappeared from the records altogether. Additionally the 14th century in China saw extensive flooding of the Yellow river and the subsequent famine, outbreaks of disease in the 1330s and a major outbreak of what is thought to have been the Black Death from 1353-4.[7] China in the 14th century experienced below average temperatures, harsh winters and a shorter growing season. The Yellow river flooded 6,000 square miles and 17 walled cities causing severe epidemics. Military disruption would have caused refugees to move south into communities where they would have been treated as transients and therefore not counted in taxation censuses.

What conclusions can be made – if any - on the extent of Mongol destructiveness? Certainly the invasions were appalling and exacted a heavy toll on agriculture and towns. Some modern studies tend to take a revisionist stress the positive aspects of Mongol rule, however as Hugh Kennedy remarks in Mongols, Huns and Vikings:

‘Revisionist historians have questioned the extent of Mongol ferocity and destructiveness, suggesting that such accounts are largely rhetoric and hyperbole. However, the weight of contemporary evidence is very strong and it is backed up by the archaeology. Of the great cities sacked by the Mongols, only Bukhara and Urgench were rebuilt on the same site: Balkh, Otrar and Nishapur were ruined for ever and at Merv a new town was founded two centuries later well away from the remains of the old. Samarkand was rebuilt outside the old walls while the ancient city remained as it is today, a desolate .waste of mud-brick ruins’.

Nonetheless – while the Mongols themselves would have been absolutely delighted to have been credited with the annihilation of 40 million people in the 13th century (around 9% of the world’s population at the time) – the number seems pretty unlikely. It’s the same as the number of civilians killed in World War II with a vastly higher world population and more destructive forms of weaponry. 11-15 million doesn’t seem outside the realms of possibility – a staggering total but still some way short of the inflated total given by Pinker [8]. If that figure is correct then the Mongol Conquests killed 2.5% of the world's population (450 million) in over a hundred years - from the 1230s to the late 14th century. By contrast World War II managed to wipe out between 1.5 and 2% of the World's population in only six years.

[1]One of the less well known aspects of the Mongol conquests was their capacity for propaganda. Regarding the above quote Jack Weathersford writes in ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World that:

‘Rather than finding such apocalyptic descriptions derogatory, Genghis Khan seemed to have encouraged them. With his penchant for finding a use for everything he encountered, he devised a powerful way to exploit the high literacy rate of the Muslim people, and turned his unsuspecting enemies into a potent weapon for shaping public opinion. Terror, he realized, was best spread not by the acts of warriors, but by the pens of scribes and scholars. In an era before newspapers, the letters of the intelligentsia played a primary role in shaping public opinion, and in the conquest of central Asia, they played their role quite well on Genghis Khan’s behalf. The Mongols operated a virtual propaganda machine that consistently inflated the number of people killed in battle and spread fear wherever its words carried.’

Similarly George Lane remarks that the Mongols ’deliberately exaggerated and encouraged the horror stories that circulated around them and preceded their arrival in order to ensure an unhesitating surrender of the cowed population’.

[2] In David Morgan’s ‘The Mongols’ he states this figure as 200,000 however he was misled by an editor’s translation and has corrected it to 2 million in later editions. Clearly this figure is ludicrously high (see the estimates for Baghdad’s Medieval population in footnote 4).

[3] Even such a towering figure as Julius Caesar in his ‘Gallic Wars’ claimed that in a single battle against two tribes he had defeated an enemy 430,000 strong without losing a single soldier.

[4] Estimates of Baghdad’s population range from 96 million (!?!) by an 11th century source Hilal al-Sabi to perhaps 200,000 to 500,000 inhabitants (Jacob Lassner Massignon and Baghdad) The most plausible range for the time is probably between 200,000 and 600,000, a very large city by Medieval standards but not sufficiently large to meet Hulugu or Pinker’s total. Estimates of the killed range from 80,000 to 1 million. The lower end seems far more credible.

[5] John Fennell argues that although some Russian cities were captured and presumably damaged or destroyed, many others were probably bypassed and escaped sack.

[6] The 1290 census did not include Yunnan and other areas and also did not enumerate several categories of people, claiming that ‘migrants living in the wilderness are not included in the total’. According to Peter C. Perdue in ‘Exhausting the Earth’ it is generally accepted that the 1393 census did not count the entire population

[7] The Mongols don’t get off the hook completely here as it was the creation of their empire that cleared the way for the advance of plague from Central Asia into China.

[8] Any estimate has to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt. John Man estimates that the Khwarezmian massacres claimed 1.2 million lives – 25-30% of 5 million. Hulagu’s conquests may have claimed roughly the same number and a slightly lower total can be assumed for the incursions into Eastern Europe and Rus. Clearly the Chinese census cannot be taken at face value in estimating population lost & most of the total must be due to plague. Assuming the real decline was 30 million (allowing for a significant undercount in the censue) and Mongol actions accounted for 25% of deaths gives 7.5 million. This would give a grand total of 11.5 million over the course of around a century.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Classical Global Skepticism and the EAAN

Update (Sep. 12, 2015): I'm temporarily taking this post offline -- like for a year or so -- because it inspired me to write a more detailed article that is being published in an academic journal. Even though a blogpost doesn't (or at least shouldn't) count as a prior publication of something, and even though the article and blogpost are only similar in very broad strokes, I'd like to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum