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Statistics of Deadly Quarrels

Statistics of Deadly Quarrels

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Published by: Jeff Pratt on Feb 28, 2008
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Brian Hayes
A reprint from
American Scientist
the magazine of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research SocietyVolume 90, Number 1 January–February, 2002pages 10–15
This reprint is provided for personal and noncommercial use. For any other use, please send arequest to Permissions,
 American Scientist
, P.O. Box 13975, Research Triangle Park, NC, 27709, U.S.A.,or by electronic mail to perms@amsci.org. © 2002 Brian Hayes.
ook upon the phenomenon of war with dis-passion and detachment, as if observing thefollies of another species on a distant planet:From such an elevated view, war seems a punyenough pastime. Demographically, it hardly mat-ters. War deaths amount to something like 1 per-cent of all deaths; in many places, more die bysuicide, and still more in accidents. If saving hu-man lives is the great desideratum, then there ismore to be gained by prevention of drowningand auto wrecks than by the abolition of war.But no one on this planet sees war from such aheight of austere equanimity. Even the gods onOlympus could not keep from meddling inearthly conflicts. Something about the clash ofarms has a special power to rouse the strongeremotions—pity and love as well as fear and ha-tred—and so our response to battlefield killingand dying is out of all proportion to its rank in ta- bles of vital statistics. When war comes, it mus-cles aside the calmer aspects of life; no one is un-moved. Most of us choose one side or the other, but even among those who merely want to stopthe fighting, feelings run high. (“Antiwar mili-tant”is no oxymoron.)The same inflamed passions that give war itsurgent human interest also stand in the way ofscholarly or scientific understanding. Reachingimpartial judgment about rights and wrongsseems all but impossible. Stepping outside the bounds of one’s own culture and ideology isalso a challenge—not to mention the bounds ofone’s time and place. We tend to see all warsthrough the lens of the current conflict, and wemine history for lessons convenient to the pres-ent purpose.One defense against such distortions is the sta-tistical method of gathering data about many warsfrom many sources, in the hope that at least someof the biases will balance out and true patternswill emerge. It’s a dumb, brute-force approach andnot foolproof, but nothing else looks more promis-ing. A pioneer of this quantitative study of warwas Lewis Fry Richardson, the British meteorolo-gist whose ambitious but premature foray into nu-merical weather forecasting I described in thisspace a year ago. Now seems a good time to con-sider the other half of Richardson’s lifework, onthe mathematics of armed conflict.
Wars and Peaces
Richardson was born in 1881 to a prosperousQuaker family in the north of England. He stud-ied physics with J. J. Thomson at Cambridge,where he developed expertise in the numericalsolution of differential equations. Such approxi-mate methods are a major mathematical indus-try today, but at that time they were not a popularsubject or a shrewd career choice. After a series ofshort-term appointments—well off the tenuretrack—Richardson found a professional home inweather research, making notable contributionsto the theory of atmospheric turbulence. Then, in1916, he resigned his post to serve in France as adriver with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. Be-tween tours of duty at the front, he did most ofthe calculations for his trial weather forecast. (Theforecast was not a success, but the basic idea wassound, and all modern weather prediction relieson similar methods.)After the war, Richardson gradually shifted hisattention from meteorology to questions of warand international relations. He found some of thesame mathematical tools still useful. In particular,he modeled arms races with differential equa-tions. The death spiral of escalation—where onecountry’s arsenal provokes another to increase itsown armament, whereupon the first nation re-sponds by adding still more weapons—has aready representation in a pair of linked differen-tial equations. Richardson showed that an armsrace can be stabilized only if the “fatigue and ex-pense” of preparing for war are greater than theperceived threats from enemies. This result ishardly profound or surprising, and yet Richard-son’s analysis nonetheless attracted much com-ment (mainly skeptical), because the equations of-fered the prospect of a
measure of warrisks. If Richardson’s equations could be trusted,then observers would merely need to track ex-penditures on armaments to produce a war fore-cast analogous to a weather forecast.Mathematical models of arms races have been
10American Scientist, Volume 90
Brian Hayes
Brian Hayes is Senior Writer for
American Scientist.
 Address:211 Dacian Avenue, Durham, NC 27701; bhayes@amsci.org
2002 January–February 11
further refined since Richardson’s era, and theyhad a place in policy deliberations during the“mutually assured destruction”phase of the ColdWar. But Richardson’s own investigations turnedin a somewhat different direction. A focus on ar-maments presupposes that the accumulation ofweaponry is a major cause of war, or at least has astrong correlation with it. Other theories of the ori-gin of war would emphasize different factors—the economic status of nations, say, or differencesof culture and language, or the effectiveness ofdiplomacy and mediation. There is no shortage ofsuch theories; the problem is choosing amongthem. Richardson argued that theories of warcould and should be evaluated on a scientific ba-sis, by testing them against data on actual wars. Sohe set out to collect such data.Richardson was not the first to follow this path.Several lists of wars were drawn up in the earlyyears of the 20th century, and two more war cata-logues were compiled in the 1930s and 40s by theRussian-born sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin and by Quincy Wright of the University of Chicago.Richardson began his own collection in about 1940and continued work on it until his death in 1953.His was not the largest data set, but it was the bestsuited to statistical analysis.Richardson published some of his writings onwar in journal articles and pamphlets, but hisideas became widely known only after twoposthumous volumes appeared in 1960. Thework on arms races is collected in
 Arms and Inse-curity
; the statistical studies are in
Statistics of Dead-ly Quarrels
. In addition, a two-volume
Collected Pa- pers
was published in 1993. Most of what followsin this article comes from
Statistics of Deadly Quar-rels
. I have also leaned heavily on a 1980 study byDavid Wilkinson of the University of California,Los Angeles, which presents Richardson’s data ina rationalized and more readable format.
“Thinginess Fails”
The catalogue of conflicts in
Statistics of DeadlyQuarrels
covers the period from about 1820 until1950. Richardson’s aim was to count all deathsduring this interval caused by a deliberate act ofanother person. Thus he includes individual mur-ders and other lesser episodes of violence in addi-tion to warfare, but he excludes accidents and neg-ligence and natural disasters. He also decided notto count deaths from famine and disease associat-ed with war, on the grounds that multiple causesare too hard to disentangle. (Did World War I“cause” the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919?)
Figure 1. The Great War in La Plata (1865–1870), also known as the War of the Triple Alliance, is ranked among theworst calamities of modern history, yet it is little known outside the countries where it was fought:Paraguay, Uruguay,Argentina and Brazil. The war reached magnitude 6, meaning that about 10
combatants died. Shown here is a detail of“After the Battle of Curupaytí,” by the Argentinian artist Cándido López, who lost his right hand at Curupaytí andtherefore learned to paint with his left. The painting is held by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires.

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