Rome Didn't Fall in A Day.

Objective Truth Exists, and is Accessible to Everyone.

All Human Problems can be Solved with Enough Knowledge, Wealth, Social Cooperation and Time.

Photo: Rusty Peak, Anchorage, Alaska


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Syrian Civil War

The civil war in Syria is complicated.  

I could also say that the civil war in Syria is a *********** of incredible proportions.  
You can choose your own obscenity to fill in the blank.  Mine has eleven letters.

One of the themes of this blog is the graphical representation of information, because a picture really is worth a thousand words.   I’m hoping that a graphical representation of the conflict can show the complexity of the conflict, and the global scope of the secondary parties to the conflict. 

Any policy that does not recognize the complexity of the war is doomed to failure.  The global scope of the secondary parties raises the risk that the Syrian Civil War could develop into a much larger conflict, in the way that a terrorist act in Serbia in 1914 led to World War I. 

This post will examine the war in a progressive fashion, and build a schematic illustration representing the internal and external combatants, the direct military actions, and the flows of money, weapons and military advisors into the war, and religious, ethnic and political affiliations.  Here is the final schematic:
I'm sure all this will soon be clear. 

Syria is a small nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  Syria is about the size of Washington State.  It is a bit smaller than Belarus, and a bit larger than Cambodia.

Syria is bordered by Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.  The population of the country was about 22 million at the beginning of the war in 2011. 

About 12 million people are now homeless due to the war.  About 3.5 million people have fled the country, including about one-half million to Europe.  Most of the refugees are located in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.  About 8.5 million people are internally displaced within Syria. 

Although estimates vary, it is likely that about 250,000 people have died in the war to date; perhaps one-half to two-thirds of the deaths were civilians.  There is no estimate on the number of wounded.

Syria has suffered from a multi-year drought from 2006 through at least 2014.  Some climate researchers assert that the drought is due to the northward migration of deserts due to global warming.   Declining agricultural productivity and the rising cost of food may have been factors in the original civil unrest at the beginning of the war.

The Warring Factions
The war began in 2011, as part of the “Arab Spring” revolts throughout the Middle East.  Government suppression of protests was particularly harsh in Syria.   The protests became and armed conflict, and then a civil war, as the violence escalated.  Some of the Syrian Army rebelled, forming the Free Syrian Army.  Other groups also formed, to pursue their own goals, or were pushed into the conflict by the escalating violence on all sides.   By 2013, the BBC estimated that over 1000 distinct armed rebel groups were active in Syria.  Some of these groups have formed alliances, such as the Islamic Front; the alliances are sometimes contentious, and there is violence between rival rebel groups.  Wikipedia lists 38 distinct armed Syrian factions in the war, plus 16 external nations or organizations

I’ve divided the warring factions into seven groups.
·         Syrian Government – a dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and the Baathist Party (formerly associated with Saddam Hussein).
·         Free Syrian Army – formed by Arab Spring protesters and rebels from the Syrian Army, this is the group considered to be “moderate” rebels, supported by the U.S. government.
·         Islamic Front – formed by an alliance of seven Islamic groups, and successor to an earlier alliance.  The Islamic Front was formerly allied with the Free Syrian Army, but one of the member groups, Ahrar Al Sham, violently turned on the FSA, capturing weapons.  
·         Al Nusra Front – allied with Al Qaeda.   Formerly associated with the ISIL, but split in the early days of the war.  Relatively small, but one of the most effective of the rebel groups.
·         Syrian Kurds – one of four groups of Kurds (the others being in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran).  A very significant ethnic minority in Northern Syria. 
·         Turkmen – A smaller ethnic minority, but significant because of ties to Turkey.   The escalating conflict between Russia and Turkey results issues regarding Russian aggression against the Turkmen, and Turkish retaliation by shooting down a Russian warplane.
·         ISIL – The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  The word Levant is significant, because it indicates that ISIL aspires to control an area including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel.   ISIL, like Al Qaeda, is a global jihadist/terrorist organization, with operations in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and capable of performing terrorist acts around the world.  

Figure 1.  Warring Factions in Syria.   Locations are schematic; the Islamic Front and Nusra Front are active in the north of the country.
The besieged Syrian government controls remnants of territory, mostly in Western Syria, with a few islands around population centers in other areas.   The Free Syrian Army and Islamic groups have established a number of enclaves in the heavily populated western part of the country, but most areas are still under government control.  Population centers of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus have been the site of intense conflict and destruction.   Kurds have gained control of the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey.  ISIL controls the sparsely populated, eastern and central desert. 

Figure 2.  Active Zones of Control by Warring Factions in Syria.  Figure modified from Wikicommons, 2015.
In-Country Direct Military Conflicts
All of the rebel factions are in conflict with the Syrian government, as might be expected.  What is unusual in the Syrian Civil War is the degree of conflict between rebel groups.   ISIL in particular has been savage and brutal in acquiring territory in Iraq and Syria.  Genocide against ethnic minorities and brutal execution of prisoners has been standard procedure as part of a campaign of intimidation against all opponents.   ISIL is in direct military conflict with the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds, the Al Nusra Front and the Syrian government.   The Islamic Front has also been in conflict with the Free Syrian Army.

Figure 3.  Dark red arrows indicate direct military action between the warring factions in Syria.
Other Countries Participating or Supporting the Conflict
The war has attracted supporters on various sides of the conflict.  The reasons for intervention by outside countries vary.  In a way, no doubt every country intervening in the war has the best of intentions, to make the situation better, according to their values and interests.

The brutality of the conflict, particularly against civilian populations, provoked  intervention by Western nations.  The use of poison gas by the Syrian government against a rebel village, killing 1700 civilians, brought the United States and the United Kingdom into the conflict, firmly on the side of the rebels.  Wealthy private Islamic interests in the Arabian Gulf region funded ISIL, the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front on the basis of religious fundamentalism.  Sectarian interests against the Sunni fundamentalists, as well as traditional alliances, brought Iran and Hezbollah in support of the Syrian government.  Russia supports the Syrian government as a strategic ally.   Russia has a long-standing friendly relationship with the Syrian government and has maintained a naval facility at Tartus (the only Russian facility in the Mediterranean) since 1971.  Turkey supports the ethnically related Turkmen and opposes the Kurds, who are related to the separatist Kurds within Turkey.  Traditional alliances and conflicts have drawn other nations into the conflict as well.

Figure 4.  External countries and groups involved in the Syrian Civil War.
Every nation opposes ISIL.  ISIL has an unmatched record of brutality against all of humanity, including genocide of ethnic and religious minorities in conquered territories; sex slavery of captive women; brutal executions of captured prisoners and kidnap victims from the US, UK, Jordan, Japan, France , Ethiopia and others; the bombing of a Russian passenger jet; a major terrorist attack in Paris, and a minor terrorist attack in the United States.

Direct Military Action by External Countries
External countries have engaged in direct military strikes against combatants in the civil war.  Most of the military actions have been air strikes against ISIL.  The United States, France, Britain, Jordan, and Russia have conducted air strikes against ISIL.  Russia has conducted air strikes against other rebel groups as well.   Turkey has conducted strikes against the Kurds, and shot down a Russian warplane.  Israel has made strikes against Hezbollah weapons shipments and personnel in Syria.

Following the disastrous war in Iraq, the United States has been reluctant to commit ground forces to combat in Syria.  But air strikes alone are insufficient to defeat ISIL, even in support of Iraqi and other ground forces.

Figure 5.  Direct Military Action by External Countries
Figure 6. Internal and External Direct Military Actions in Syria.
Financial Support, Weapons , and Military Personnel provided by External Countries
External countries have provided financial support, weapons, and military advisers to warring factions in Syria.  Recently, Russia has committed the largest contingent of active ground troops in the conflict. 

Figure 7.  Color-coded arrows indicate flows of money, weapons, resources, and military advisors to warring factions in Syria.
Figure 8.  All external military actions and support in the Syrian Civil War.
Figure 9.  Internal and External Military Actions, plus External Flows of Money, Weapons and Advisors
Affiliations and Alliances
Ethnic and religious affiliations, alliances and long-standing enmities shape and exacerbate the conflict, within Syria and between the other countries involved.    The Shiite – Sunni religious divide is one of the deepest enmities on the planet.   There are further divides between Arab groups seeking government by Islamic Law, and those seeking secular government.   Russia, and nations related to the former Soviet sphere of influence are aligned in opposition to NATO allies.  Enmity between Russia and Turkey is high, and is unlikely to improve in the aftermath of Turkey’s downing of Russia’s warplane.   

Figure 10.  Affiliations and Alliances of Groups Involved in the Syrian Civil War.
The civil war in Syria has left a quarter of a million people dead, and 12 million people homeless.  This blog post is intended to provide understanding of the complexity of the war and the number of powerful external countries participating in the war.  For four years, the American government has failed to recognize the seriousness of the conflict, or to implement policies that lead to peace.  The first step toward forming appropriate policies is to better recognize the complexity of the problem.

Here are some of my conclusions.

·         The war will not end as long as external countries continue to supply money, weapons and advisors to the warring factions.  To put out the fire, you must first stop adding fuel. 

·         There is no unilateral policy that can end the war, due to the complexity of the war and the number of powerful nations participating in the war.  Some American politicians believe that America can do some simple thing to solve the problem (such as dropping more bombs).   Any solution to the conflict will require the actions of more than one nation.

·         There can be no political settlement without the approval and active support of Russia, Iran, and Turkey.  Russia and Iran have existing interests in Syria that must be respected to end the war.  Turkey is also essential, because of its proximity, military strength and place of sanctuary for Syrian refugees.

·         The Islamic State (ISIL) is an existential threat to the security of all nations.  It is clear that the air campaign alone is insufficient.  We cannot bomb ISIL until they behave better, and this strategy exacts an inhumane toll on civilian population.  ISIL must be eradicated by coordinated action by the US, NATO, Russia and Iran, including a standing ground force that will not allow a resurgence of the terrorist movement.

·         There is a risk of a larger conflict.  There are troubling similarities between the Syrian Civil War and the situation in the Balkans before World War I.  There are many entangling alliances and powerful external nations, involved in a conflict in a war-torn region, beset by religious and ethnic enmity.  There is a real risk that the Syrian conflict could spiral out of control, and consume some of the countries that are now only on the periphery of the conflict.

From 2011 to the present, the world fiddled while Syria burned.  In fact, in many ways the rest of the world was pouring gasoline on the fire.   An immense human tragedy occurred and is still unfolding.  If any lesson can be learned from this catastrophe, it is that the powerful nations of the world should never again allow such a civil war to occur.   The human costs of the war exceed the wrongs which were the cause of the war.  The people whom America was trying to protect have been damaged more by the civil war than they were damaged by the government of Syria.

·         On a more hopeful note (it is always good to close on a hopeful note, no matter how unlikely), perhaps the process of arriving at peace in Syria can become a template for ending conflicts in neighboring nations – Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Iraq and the Kurdish territories.  It is possible.


As I was writing this post, my son brought to my attention two other graphical representations of the complexity of the Syrian Civil War.  The first is Slate’s Syrian version of their Middle Eastern Friendship Chart.  I have used this without permission and without profit, and will remove it upon request.
The second is from Atlantic Magazine, titled “The Confused Person’s Guide to Middle East Conflict”.

This is also used without permission and without profit, and I will remove it upon request.

Syrian Civil War References
Syrian Civil War.    38 internal factions listed.  16 external countries and groups listed.
Good 5-minute video on the history of the war.   Divides the war into four warring factions with foreign supporters.

Casualties in the Syrian War
Over 250,000 killed.  October, 2015
most reliable estimates between 220,000 and 340,000 killed, as of early 2015.

Syrian Warring Factions
Figure 2 modified from Wikicommons:

       Controlled by the Syrian Armed Forces
       Controlled by the People's Protection Units (Kurdish Forces)
       Controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
       Controlled by the Syrian National Coalition (Opposition Forces)
       Controlled by the al-Nusra Front
       Disputed frontline between the forces

Guide to the Syrian Rebels  -- BBC  Dated 2013
As many as 1000 different armed rebel groups in Syria, representing 100,000 fighters.
Free Syrian Army –  Formed by rebel defectors from Syrian Army in 2011.  “Moderate” rebels supported by the U.S. and some Gulf States.  Leadership has little operational control over the movement.  Leadership acts as spokesman and conduit for weapons and funding.
Islamic Front – An alliance of seven Islamic groups not directly aligned with ISIL.  One of the strongest, Ahrar-Al-Sham, led an earlier Islamic alliance(Syrian Islamic Front) which was allied with the Free Syrian Army.   With the formation of the Islamic Front, Ahrar-Al-Sham turned on the Free Syrian Army, causing the US and UK to suspend military support for rebels in Northern Syria.  Ahrar Al Sham provides social services and public works. 
Nusra Front – includes Al Queda in Iraq, and is one of the most effective rebel groups.
5000 – 7000 fighters. 
Performs social services and public works.
ISIL (Daesh) – fought with other rebels groups, including those considered Islamist.  Targeted Shia and Alawite civilian populations.
5000 fighters (2013)
Kurdish Rebels – YPG
10,000 – 15,000 Kurdish fighters
Syrian Democratic Forces include Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and Turkmen militias. 
SDF founded in October 2015.
1.5 million to 3.5 million ethnic  Turkmen; estimated 200,000 in Syria.
Discussion of Turkmen – widely varying estimates of population.

Foreign Participants in the Syrian War:
Conflict between Syrian rebel groups.
US govt report on war against ISIL
Indicates no direct strikes against Syrian government.  US provides one hour advance notice of strikes against ISIL.

Interactive site showing global distribution of US foreign aid.


Complexity of the War

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Consequences of Civil War

In recent years, America has supported or encouraged rebellions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Ukraine.  Americans and their government cheered the events of the “Arab Spring” in 2011.  The consequence of these rebellions has been civil war, death, and great human suffering.  The conflicts have created millions of refugees, taxing humanitarian resources and causing social instability in receiving countries.  The poverty and misery from these wars will cause problems for decades, much as the poverty following the first World War contributed to the second World War. 

The unrest leading to these rebellions existed before the involvement of the United States.  The rebellions may have occurred anyway.  But the United States voiced support for these rebellions, and in some cases contributed money, training, supplies, and military action in support of the rebellions.   The consequence of these rebellions is still an unfolding tragedy.

Any policy which could lead to such consequences is seriously misguided.  The rebellions which were encouraged and supported by the United States are spreading terrorism and the risk of war to other countries – including the United States.

Let’s agree on one simple thing.  Civil wars are bad.

In the American Civil War (1860 – 1864) about 700,000 people died, over 2 percent of the population, or about 8 percent of white adult men.   In the Russian Civil war (Nov. 1917 – Oct. 1922), following the Bolshevik Revolution, an estimated 9 million people died, mostly civilians, from famine, disease, and violence, out of a population of 185 million people (also about 2% of the population).   Since 1945, civil wars have resulted in the deaths of 25 million people and the displacement of many millions more.  Civil wars often destroy the fabric of a country, and leave a legacy of poverty and violence for many years past the end of the war.

During the Cold War, the United States condemned the Soviet Union for encouraging communist uprisings around the world.  Communist regimes were established in China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam.  Unsuccessful insurgencies occurred in Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Angola.  Civil wars followed in a number of countries.  While some of these countries have established stable governments, most continue to suffer from poverty and instability.

At the same time, the United States pursued its own cold war goals.  The United States toppled the government of Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973.  Further civil instability followed most of these for decades, and these countries also continue suffer from continuing poverty and instability. 

In recent years, the United States has done exactly what it condemned 40 years ago.

Neoconservative Foreign Policy Becomes American Foreign Policy
In the 1990s, the neoconservative political movement became dominant in American foreign policy.  Neo-conservatives include both the senior and younger Presidents George Bush and prominent members of their administrations.   The neoconservative movement advocates aggressive promotion of democracy and American interests around the world.  This aggression includes the use of military force and inciting rebellion against regimes oriented against American interests.   The intellectuals of the neoconservative movement seem to have missed the irony of using military force to achieve democracy.  They are also unfazed by the general failure to achieve a viable democracy through military intervention.

The neoconservative movement originated in the Republican Party.  It is surprising to me, then, that the  goals of the neoconservative movement have been adopted, by mainstream Democrats, including Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.  Even the Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders does little to condemn the foreign policy of earlier administrations.

During the Obama administration, and under the Secretary of State (foreign affairs) Hilary Clinton, the United States encouraged revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine.  Anti-government movements existed in these countries, independent of the United States.  But the United States offered encouragement at a minimum, and in some cases, direct military action.
The policy has been described as “covert intervention”, allowing the United States to fight small wars, with little direct involvement.  Democratic Party politicians are reluctant to directly invade other countries with American troops, but they show little hesitation in encouraging rebellions, by providing weapons, advisors, covert action by the CIA, and active bombing by US aircraft.

The Human Cost of Recent Wars

Libya – 30,000 killed, 50,000 wounded.
Egypt – 846 killed in the 2011 revolution; more than 2600 killed in post-coup unrest.
Syria – 270,000 killed.
Ukraine – More than 6000.
Iraq – Estimates vary widely, from 115,000 to 500,000.

Refugees are an inevitable consequence of civil war, and the most wide-scale tragedy.  Refugee’s families and lives are shattered.   Refugees suffer from poverty, disease, rape, loss of housing, employment, and education.  It is human tragedy on a massive scale, greatly exceeding the number of those killed and wounded. 

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reported earlier this year that the number of people displaced by conflict and persecution was at an all-time high.  About 60 million people are now counted as refugees, or almost 1% of all the people in the world.

There are now about 11 to 12 million refugees from the civil war in Syria, representing about half of the pre-war population of 22 million people.  That number is rapidly growing as the war escalates.  Over 4 million people have fled the country, with most finding refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordon.  Other Middle Eastern countries hosting large numbers of refugees include Egypt and Iraq.  An estimated 825,000 refugees from Syria have entered Europe, with 459,000 arriving by sea in 2015 alone.

In 2015, there are approximately 4 million refugees from war in Iraq.  This is the same number as reported in 2007.  About 3.5 million refugees are internally displaced within Iraq.  Nearly 500,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are now in other countries. 

In Ukraine, there are about 1.4 million internally displaced refugees, and about 900,000 who have fled to neighboring countries.  About 1 million people lack access to safe water.

There are about 800,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan, and about 2.7 million people who have fled the country.

The conflict in Libya has displaced over 360,000 people within the country. 

The Failed Foreign Policy of “Regime Change”
There are countries on earth with governments that are undemocratic.  There are countries on earth with leaders who are corrupt and tyrannical.  There are countries on earth that actively work against the interests and welfare of the United States.  It might be that the people in those countries would be better off with a different government.  And in those countries, there are probably citizens who deeply desire change.

By what right should one country intervene in the affairs of another country?  There are certain circumstances, such as genocide, where the history of the last 70 years shows that intervention is sometimes necessary to confront evil.  But when the problem is simply bad government, there is little justification for encouraging a rebellion against an established government. 
In cases of violence against civilian populations, as happened under Saddam Hussein and Bashir Assad, there is an impulse to charge to the rescue.  But in each of these interventions, the lives of the people at risk are now immeasurably worse, than if they had continued to live under the repression of these dictators.

The process of regime change is never simple.  There are few examples of a peaceful transition from one system of government to another.   In Iraq, American leaders have imagined that regime change would be quick, painless and inexpensive.  But the war which toppled Saddam Hussein spawned sectarian violence, spread beyond the borders of Iraq and encouraged the formation of the most violent Islamic organization of modern times.   Thirteen years after the American invasion, the situation continues to spiral out of control.  There is a very real threat that the Syrian war could ignite the next world war. 

No one is better off as a result of the rebellions and revolutions in these countries.  If you regard the situation from a humane viewpoint, the people of these countries were better off under their repressive and corrupt former leaders.  If the strategists in the State Department are only looking at the cold geopolitical analysis of Western interests, it is still clear that America and Western Europe would be better off if these revolutions had not happened.  The flood of refugees will cause social chaos and is a breeding ground for terrorists.

America’s policy of encouraging rebellions and overturning dictators has been disastrous to the people of those countries.  These rebellions produced violence and social instability, and are spreading terrorism and the risk of war to other countries – including the United States.


The US performed the largest role in the NATO’s military action to depose Ghaddafi. 

US spending of about $1 billion on military action, the second highest of any nation.  Major military resources committed.

Victoria Nuland speech admits 5 billion dollars of investment to encourage association with Europe.

Obama quoted as saying the United States “brokered a power transition in Ukraine”.

Victoria Nuland phone conversation discussing abilities of Ukrainian leaders, and which leaders would be acceptable to the United States.

John McCain encouraging Ukrainian revolution.



Saturday, May 9, 2015

Willful Ignorance in the Age of Misinformation

This post is a departure from my usual presentation of quantitative, objective data in the form of charts.   This post is more personal, less quantified, and possibly more important.

This post is about truth.  It is about misinformation campaigns in the media.  It is about people who believe in propaganda, and people who create an alternate, irrational reality. 

This post is about how news media have been subverted by political interests in the United States, and by state interests in other parts of the world.  It is about how news media use human psychological weaknesses to manipulate public opinion.

This post is about people who believe in nonsense.  It is about those who believe the Apollo moon landing was faked in Hollywood.  It is about people who don’t believe in climate change.  It is about those who believe President Barack Obama plans to mobilize the U.S. Army to declare martial law in Texas.  (And about the Texas governor who gives credence to such nonsense).  It is about those who believe President Obama was born in Kenya, or is a Muslim, or would in any way betray the United States.  It is about those who believe anti-American propaganda in Russian state-owned media.
It is about people choosing to believe nonsense instead of documented truth.   It is about people choosing to live in deliberate and willful ignorance. 
Willful Ignorance
Not long ago, I had an altercation on Facebook. 

A friend posted something about American astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the moon.  I commented that my uncle, a former military pilot and aerospace engineer, had designed the antenna on the lunar lander.  My uncle’s antenna allowed the lunar lander to communicate across 250,000 miles to earth, sending mechanical parameters, voice and video signals across that vast distance.   My uncle was quietly proud; he never spoke about the work, but a plaque hung in the hallway of his house.

Someone commented that he didn’t believe that men had landed on the moon. 

I was astonished.  I was outraged.

We argued.

I wrote about the tens of thousands of people, like my uncle, who worked on the program.  I mentioned 4 billion-year-old moon rocks, which were analyzed at my university while I attended graduate school.  Such rocks could not have been counterfeited.  I wrote about the cost of the program, representing 0.5 % of America’s GDP during the Vietnam War.   There is physical evidence.  There are photos of the abandoned landing modules made by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.  There are laser reflectors placed on the moon by Apollo astronauts which are still used for precisions measurements of the moon’s orbit. 

All of my words were futile.  My antagonist was unmoved.  His arguments became more absurd; his comments became more insulting.  He suggested that robots had landed on the moon in the 1960’s – ridiculous, as the required computer technology did not exist in the 1960s. 

Words cannot express my anger.  With unbelief, this apparently intelligent person dishonors one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind.  He dishonors those who accomplished the feat.  This person chooses to reject all reasonable evidence of truth and to believe something nonsensical. 

I call that willful ignorance.
We live in an age of misinformation. 

In America, commercial interests with a political agenda have taken control of many of the major news services in the country. At best, these commercial interests have abandoned the idea of objective reporting, in favor of “news-ertainment”, anything that produces better ratings and advertising revenue.  At worst, these interests have deep political objectives and are manipulating the news for political gain.  Journalistic ethics are failing, and objective reporting has been replaced by advocacy journalism, or in simpler terms, propaganda.  Reporting is relentlessly biased, opinionated, incomplete, and constructed for the purpose of manipulating public opinion.

In many countries, the government or government-controlled organizations have taken control of new services.  Governments are increasingly aggressive in censoring the internet and censoring the news.  Some nations have hired armies of shills (“trolls”) to write commentary on the Internet, and funded false “independent” websites dedicated to spreading government lies.  Currently, Russian state-owned media is engaged in propaganda campaigns against America, western Europe, and to justify Russian intervention in Ukraine.  This propaganda uses distortion across a wide spectrum from fascism to homosexuality to impugn the character of the west.  The strangest accusation that I encountered in Russian media was that American psychologists approve of pedophilia.  Social media is used to spread such lies and deception; I just watched an anti-American video posted on You-tube.  The video is a fraud; the events it depicts did not happen.  But the video allegedly attracted 500,000 views on the first day.

Misinformation is generally not in the form of outright lies.  Rather, the general technique in America is more subtle.  Misinformation consists of innuendo, irrelevant negative associations, selective and incomplete evidence, pejorative photography or reporting, etc.  Many of these techniques are based on well-known psychological phenomena, such as those discussed by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational (, and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (  It is disturbingly easy to manipulate the human mind and modern news organizations are ready to do it. 

Techniques of Opinion Manipulation
News organizations are increasingly manipulating public opinion for political gain.  Here are some of the techniques used to influence the public perception of a story.

Confirmation Bias
One of the strongest techniques of manipulation is self-induced by viewers.  People invariably favor evidence that reinforces existing beliefs, and tend to discount or discredit evidence that opposes their existing beliefs.   

Anchoring is the technique of providing a reference point to the viewer.  The viewer is biased by the reference point in weighing deviations from that point.

Emotional Arousal
Emotional arousal is used to influence viewers.  Typically, something of highly negative emotional content is used to smear a political opponent.  I sometimes call this “pushing the ‘outrage’ button”.

The Halo Effect
An irrelevant positive or negative trait is associated with a target, in order to bias the viewer’s perceptions about unrelated traits.

The Endowment Effect
People value things they possess higher than things they do not possess.   Suggestions of possession are used to promote nationalism.

“Expert” Opinion
Disproportionate or illegitimate “expert” testimony is broadcast to influence viewers, regardless of whether the expert opinion actually represents the mainstream expert viewpoint. 

These techniques can be seen every day on Fox News (with its Orwellian motto “Fair and Balanced”), on MSNBC, on RT (Russia Television) News, in the opinion pages of The Dallas Morning News and other papers, and sadly, the newest acquisitions of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s magazine.  These formerly had the highest standards of journalistic integrity, and are now corrupted.   It is becoming more and more difficult to find objective news.

Integrity in Journalism
I intend to write further about integrity in Journalism.  Truthful information is the lifeblood of every society.  Propaganda is a cancer which will destroy the society.  There should be a Hippocratic Oath of Integrity for journalists, binding them to truthful, complete and accurate reporting.  But in the current, real world, such a thing does not exist.  And it becomes the duty of the citizen to become informed, and to make reasoned judgments about truth while being bombarded by propaganda.  It will not be easy.

We live in an age of misinformation.  Misinformation and political propaganda are found on state-sponsored media, commercial media, and social media.  Our laws restrict untruthful claims about simple products, but allow truth to be trampled in political discourse under the protection of free speech.  (But I will defend free speech unto death.)

 Author Nate Silver (The Signal and the Noise, compared the early age of the Internet to the early years following the invention of the Gutenberg printing press.  The new media removed the barriers to publication, and enabled both good and bad material to be published (including this blog).  What followed Gutenberg was a period of chaos in publishing, until society developed standards which ensured the quality of books.  A similar process may be unfolding now.  But the power of state and commercial interests will be difficult to overturn.

In an environment of misinformation, people will believe the damndest things.  I don’t know why.  People realize that the news is unreliable, and grasp at straws to make sense of the world.  Some people accept propaganda as truth.  Some people recognize that media cannot be trusted, and fall back on crackpot conspiracy theories as an alternative set of beliefs.  In part, irrational beliefs represent confirmation bias, running wild.  People believe crazy things because they want to believe crazy things.  People reject uncomfortable truths because they don’t like the consequences of those truths. 

People have a responsibility to think rationally and truthfully.  To live in a world of propaganda, of half-truths, of irrationality is chaos and madness.  For a society, the prevalence of such beliefs can only bring about chaos and destruction.  People need to think critically about the news presented in the media, and choose rationality instead of willful ignorance.
Apollo moon landing conspiracy theories:

Dan Ariely, 2008, Predictably Irrational, 349 p.,

Daniel Kahneman, 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 499 p.,

Nate Silver, 2012, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don’t, 534 p.

About FOX News
Gabriel Sherman, 2014, The Loudest Voice in the Room, 560 p.
David Brock, 2012, How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine, 336 p.
Joe Muto, 2014, An Atheist in the FOXhole; A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of Right-Wing Media, 336 p.

Russian State-Sponsored Propaganda

News website seemingly representing Russian state media:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ro and the History of the Ebola Epidemic in West Africa

A chart of the Basic Reproduction Number (Ro) shows the history of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.   Ro measures the rate of transmission of disease, and can be calculated from the history of daily new cases.  Ro can be considered analogous to acceleration in physics – cumulative cases represent position; daily new cases represent velocity; and Ro is the rate of change in daily new cases.

Ro rose rapidly in May and June of 2014, then fell steadily thanks to the implementation of public health measures.   Ro fell below the critical level of 1.0 at the end of October, reaching a minimum of 0.9 by January, 2015.  Since then, progress against the epidemic has slowed.   Ro has climbed back towards 1.0, indicating the epidemic may reach a steady state or resume growth in the rate of disease transmission. 
The current disease transmission rate of about 40 new cases per day is still very dangerous, and tragic for every victim.  More stringent efforts are necessary to contain the disease.
The Basic Reproduction Number, Ro
The basic reproduction ratio (Ro) is the measure of how quickly a disease spreads.  Ro is simply the number of new infections caused by each case of the disease.   Highly contagious diseases such as measles can have Ro values up to 15.  Many common diseases, including seasonal flu, have Ro values of approximately 1.3.  This means that on average, each patient with the flu will give the bug to 1.3 additional people.  As long as Ro is greater than 1, an epidemic is growing.   When Ro is less than 1, the disease is shrinking and the outbreak will eventually end.

Case numbers from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa allow calculation of Ro for the history of the outbreak. 

I have tracked the cumulative case numbers for the West Africa Ebola outbreak since early August, 2014.   The cumulative case number includes all suspected, probable and confirmed cases reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).  Considering the known issue of under-reporting of cases, I believe that this number is the most accurate representation of the epidemic from the available data, as illnesses misdiagnosed as Ebola may be offset by unreported cases of the actual disease.

The first case of Ebola in the current outbreak is believed to be a two-year old boy, who contracted the disease after playing under a tree frequented by bats.  The boy died December 6, 2013.    Doctors Without Borders began international efforts to combat the disease, in March, 2014, followed soon afterward by the World Health Organization.   By early May, transmission of the disease declined to nearly zero.  However, the disease was not successfully contained, and transmission rates increased. By late May, the cumulative case count was growing exponentially.  Exponential continued until about October, 2014, leading to considerable anxiety about the future course of the epidemic.  It appears that the most effective procedure in fighting the epidemic was simple public education about patient isolation, sanitation, safe care, and safe burials.  It is my belief that public health education was the essential factor in combatting the epidemic.  The rate of transmission declined below the critical level of Ro = 1 before the arrival of most international aid and the construction of new Ebola treatment centers.    If the disease had continued to grow exponentially, the new international treatment facilities would have been completely inadequate. 

The cumulative case chart follows an S-shaped pattern on a linear scale.   This chart represents the total number of confirmed, probable and suspected cases reported periodically by the World Health Organization (WHO).  I interpolated the figures to arrive at common reporting dates for all of the countries involved in the epidemic.  This S-shaped pattern has been described as the characteristic pattern for cumulative cases in previous, smaller Ebola outbreaks. 
On a logarithmic chart, cumulative cases form a straight line from late May until October, 2014.  This pattern of exponential growth was broken in mid-October, and shows a progressive flattening of the cumulative case chart until January, 2015. 
The chart of daily new cases is derived from the history of cumulative cases.  I interpolated the cumulative case numbers to a daily count, and then took a 9-day rolling average to smooth the variations due to irregular reporting periods.  Daily new cases rose sharply from 20 cases per day in late July, 2014 to approach 140 cases per day in September.   The exact peak of the epidemic is hard to determine, due to chaotic reporting and significant data revisions during October, 2014.  Daily new cases began to decline in early December, 2014.  The rate of decline flattened significantly in mid-January, 2015, and progress since that date has been slow.
In order to see the history of Ro for the epidemic, I used a 6th order polynomial regression to smooth the daily new cases data further.  The function has “edge effects” with unnecessary high-frequency waves at the tails of the function.  
I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to remove these artifacts, and finally chose a simple eye-ball fit to the data, using an arbitrary smoothing function on the end-tail of the polynomial expression.   The following chart shows the modified fit to the data.
To calculate Ro, I assumed an eight-day average interval between an initial case and subsequent infections resulting from contact with the infected patient.  The chart of Ro using the original polynomial fit shows a sharp rise in June 2014 and reaches a peak in July.  Although the number of cumulative cases continued to rise sharply, Ro began falling in late summer of last year.  Ro can be considered analogous to acceleration in physics – cumulative cases represent position; daily new cases represent velocity; and Ro is the rate of change in daily new cases.  Ro crossed the critical value of 1 in late October, 2014.   At that point (according to the smoothed function), the number of daily new cases began to fall. 
The number of daily new cases fell rapidly after Ro dropped below 1.0.   The rate of decline changed in mid-January, seen by flattening of the curve on the daily new cases chart.  At that point, Ro reached a minimum of about 0.9. 

Since mid-January , progress in the epidemic has been slow.  Although the number of daily new cases continues to fall, the rate has been progressively slower.  Ro has climbed back toward 1.0. 

The next few weeks will be critical in determining whether the Ebola epidemic in West Africa will be contained, reach a steady-state, or resume growing.  The current level of disease transmission, at about 40 cases per day, is still very dangerous.   And tragic for every victim.

World Health Organization Ebola Situation Reports

Colin Freeman, November 6, 2014, Magic Formula That Will Determine if Ebola is Beaten, The Telegraph, UK.