Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Worst Atrocities

Are you surprised there's a researcher who considers himself an "atrocitologist"? His name is Matthew White, and he's made a list of the 21 worst things people have done to each other. (There are 21 because of a tie for 20th place. I don't mean to be flip about it.)

White plays an important part in the early sections of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. Because White has documented and quantified atrocities through the ages, he helps Pinker prove his point that historical myopia is responsible for the common belief that the 20th century was the most violent of all, and that things are going to hell in a hand basket.

Another name for this historical myopia is the availability heuristic, as described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Basically, if you can think of it, it must be important. In terms of violence, Pinker says, "When we are judging the density of killing in different countries, anyone who doesn't consult the numbers is apt to overweight the conflicts that are most recent, most studied, or most sermonized."

To demonstrate, Pinker asked 100 interweb users to list as many wars as they could remember in five minutes. I tried it myself, and asked my family to do it also. Not surprisingly, he (and I) found the resulting lists weighted to world wars, U.S. wars, and 20th century wars. "Though the earlier centuries had far more wars, people remembered more wars from the recent centuries" (p. 194).

Page 195 of Angels contains White's table of death tolls from atrocities. In absolute numbers, 7 of the 21 are from the 20th century. But scaled for world population at the time of the atrocity (in essence, putting it at a rate per 100,000), only one atrocity from the 20th century makes the top 10 (World War II, coming in at number 9).

World War II killed the most people in absolute numbers, to be sure (55 million). But scaled for world population, the worst atrocity killed eight times as many and the second worst killed more than five times as many. I'm chagrined to admit I had never heard of the worst atrocity. These numbers are adjusted to equate with population in the 20th century:

  1. An Lushan Revolt, 8th century
    429 million (absolute number: 36 million)
  2. Mongol Conquests, 13th century
    278 million (absolute number: 40 million)
  3. Mideast Slave Trade, 7th-19th century
    132 million (absolute number: 19 million)
  4. Fall of the Ming Dynasty, 17th century
    112 million (absolute number: 25 million)
  5. Fall of Rome, 3rd-5th century
    105 million (absolute number: 8 million)
  6. Tamerlane, 14th-15th century
    100 million (absolute number: 17 million)
  7. Annihilation of American Indians, 15th-19th century
    92 million (absolute number: 20 million)
  8. Atlantic Slave Trade, 15th-19th century
    83 million (absolute number: 18 million)
  9. World War II, 20th century
    55 million (absolute number: 36 million)
  10. Taiping Revolution, 19th century
    40 million (absolute number: 20 million)
Stalin comes in 15th with 20 million, and World War I at 16th with 15 million.

It's an odd thing, ranking actions that resulted in millions of deaths. I don't think Matthew White or Steven Pinker mean to make light of it in any way. But they are interested in quantifying historical inhumanity so that we can be prepared with the best information when we make pronouncements about what's happening today.


Part 3 of Steven Pinker Week at Daughter Number Three.

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