Statistics of Deadly Quarrels

by Fred Ray on April 24, 2008 · 1 comment

If war interests you I recommend an article in American Scientist online, “Statistics of Deadly Quarrels,” which takes a look at the work of British mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson, who attempted a mathematical analysis of war and unpleasantness generally.

In organizing his data, Richardson borrowed a crucial idea from astronomy: He classified wars and other quarrels according to their magnitude, the base-10 logarithm of the total number of deaths. Thus a terror campaign that kills 100 has a magnitude of 2, and a war with a million casualties is a magnitude-6 conflict. A murder with a single victim is magnitude 0 (since 100=1). The logarithmic scale was chosen in large part to cope with shortcomings of available data; although casualty totals are seldom known precisely, it is usually possible to estimate the logarithm within ±0.5. (A war of magnitude 6±0.5 could have anywhere from 316,228 to 3,162,278 deaths.) But the use of logarithmic magnitudes has a psychological benefit as well: One can survey the entire spectrum of human violence on a single scale.

My only criticism of Fry’s work is that ultimately it turns into a body count—a war with a larger number of deaths is rated at a greater magnitude. However, it does not take into account the percentage of the population killed. Thus, if between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War when the population was around 32 million, proportionately this is pretty big even though the total numbers to not approach WWII. Thus if the numbers of bodies go up but so does the population, is the war really “worse?” For example one of the most destructive wars ever fought in the Americas broke out just as ours was ending. The War of the Triple Alliance, fought in South America, eventually killed some 80% of the male population of Paraguay (as opposed to 25% for the military aged males of the Confederacy), so it’s hard to say that it was more destructive than, say, WWI, at least to Paraguay.

Speaking of magnitudes, Fry rates the two World Wars in the 20th Century at magnitude 7, and lists these as magnitude 6 (the La Plata War is the same as the Triple Alliance mentioned above).

The seven megadeath conflicts listed by Richardson are, in chronological order, and using the names he adopted: the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864), the North American Civil War (1861–1865), the Great War in La Plata (1865–1870), the sequel to the Bolshevik Revolution (1918–1920), the first Chinese-Communist War (1927–1936), the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the communal riots in the Indian Peninsula (1946–1948).

In all, an interesting article and book.

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