The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 19 2016.
Critical Thinking and Ethics
I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. Reams have been written to define the term but Webster’s has the short definition: “the mental process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, applying analysing, synthesising, and evaluating, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion”.
I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. It seems to be impossible to discuss Sri Lankan politics without encountering bizarrely false assumptions about my character, beliefs, allegiances and associations. I have been called both a government stooge and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state.
My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, a lecturer and broadcaster who has published many books and articles defending rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”.
I was dismayed when Mr Malik used his visit to the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016 to recycle the fictional figure of 40,000 plus civilian casualties at the end of the war against the LTTE. I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought, researched the topic extensively and discussed it with many people. I do not think that Mr Malik has had the time in his busy schedule to study the matter in so much depth. This has not deterred him from putting forward strong views on the topic.
Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before intervening in Sri Lankan affairs but seems to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. He responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war” as if it were a neutral and accurate investigation of the last days of the war. In reality, this was not an official UN report but a report by a “panel of experts” called by the UN General Secretary as a preliminary to further investigation and action. The panel did not carry out any investigations of its own (and recognized that it had no mandate to do so) but had to rely on second-hand “evidence” that was not evidence in the normal sense of the word. The Marga Institute evaluation of the report said that this forced the panel “into an adversarial stance with the Government” in which it assumed the role of prosecutor.
Moving the Goalposts
In his response to comments by Professor Roberts and myself, Mr Malik shifted his ground and brought in the idea of “apologists for the Sri Lankan Army.” “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making.” He continued: “where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for those provided by more objective collectors of those figures, which is what I did.”
I would contend that the figures I cited were even more objective as many of them were calculated by Tamils, including Navi Pillay of the UNHRC and the Tigers’ own website. Mr Malik’s argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians and that anyone who disagrees with that position is an “apologist”. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one looks at a spectrum from the zero casualties ludicrously asserted by the government at one time, to the 147,000 claimed by Frances Harrison, zero casualties would demolish the contention that the SLA was targeting civilians (unless their aim was very poor). If it is true that 147,000 were killed, the case that there was deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.
War Crimes Apologist?
Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Roberts’s mouth when he says Roberts was arguing that “the actions of the LTTE somehow justified the actions of the Sri Lankan Army”. I have read and re-read Professor Roberts’s words and he is saying nothing remotely like what Mr Malik attributes to him. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned, but, if they behaved badly, it was not a tit-for-tat because the LTTE behaved badly. Malik claims “You do not, as far as I can see, contest the empirical claim that the Sri Lankan Army fired into what it had declared to be No Fire Zones or on hospitals or civilian areas.” Michael Roberts and many others have indeed contested that claim.
In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton list alphabetically the many tropes used to manipulate argument. One trope is “truth by authority”. Warburton writes: “Unwary members of the public may make the unreliable assumption that because someone is a recognised authority…in a particular area he or she must be capable of speaking with authority on any other subject”. The problem is that when one covers a vast array of subjects, one exposes oneself to the danger of being downgraded from polymath to dilettante.
Tropes Employed by Online Commenters
One Facebook commenter chose to place his trust in the UN. He wrote: “I doubt if the UN plucked this figure out of thin air”. He ignored the many analyses which showed in detail why it seemed that the UN figure was plucked out of thin air. He does not explain why he refuses to accept criticisms of the Darusman Report but relies on faith: “The UN report was done by eminent legal personalities and it is doubtful if they would quote numbers which they cannot defend in a court of law. If not their reputation would be in tatters.”
In his book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law uses the term “immunising strategies”. He shows how Young Earth Creationists counter the arguments of evolutionists by claiming that, however much evidence is presented, they will still claim it is provisional and incomplete. Those who claim high figures of civilian casualties dismiss contesting calculations with responses like: “It was a war without witnesses” or: “No-one can know without forensic evidence”. Informed estimates have been made which could be refuted or accepted. “Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities” contends the IDAG report. There were witnesses. Murali Reddy was embedded with the SLA and wrote about what he saw for the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline.
Guilt by Association
It is a common trope on comment threads, particularly with Sri Lankans, to avoid discussion by saying “He’s not worth considering because he has an agenda or he is close to so and so or his father did blah”. I have decided to call this move “The Mandy Rice-Davis Trope”. One commenter claimed that he had inside knowledge that two of the people whose calculations I cited were “buddies of Gota”. He refused to say which two so we could concentrate on the others.
I asked why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation), the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Dr Rajasingham Narendran, Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (of the Point Pedro Institute of Development), Dr Noel Nadesan, the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka, all come up with lower figures? “Are they all buddies of Gota? Have you read any of their arguments?”
Do Numbers Matter?
The aim of the SLA (the legitimate armed forces of a democratically elected government trying to end an insurrection within the borders of its sovereign territory) was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known with no democratic mandate) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. Many will disagree with me, but I do not believe that civilians were targeted as a matter of policy. I do believe that the aim was to limit the number of civilian casualties as far as possible in a situation where the enemy was using its own people as human shields. In this context, the number of dead being cited is of crucial importance if one is making the assumption that the government deliberately engaged in the punitive “mass killing of civilians”. Mr Malik, having raised the issue brushes it aside as “not central to his argument” when challenged.
A longer version of this article with footnotes can be found here: