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Ronald Scheinberg

The Numbers Fallacy

I am struck by the media’s close attention to the reporting of casualty figures in the current Israel versus Hamas war. What I see on a daily basis is a report on the number of casualties suffered by Israel, on the one hand, and by Gaza Palestinians, on the other. The press, in doing so, has created a scorecard, so to speak, to show which side is suffering more, with the party with the most casualties perceived as suffering the most (and, consequently, more deserving of our sympathy) and the party with the fewer casualties viewed as the aggressor. This even-handed assessment is rather distressing since the public consumers of these tallies are most likely drawing wrong conclusions from these figures. This false equivalence is wrong-headed on a number of grounds:

First, the casualty figures for Gazans are either given without attribution or are stated as supplied by “Gazan health authorities”.[1] Who is supplying these figures and who are these authorities? They are members of the Hamas government – the very same government that unleashed the horrific massacres against Israeli men, women, children and babies on October 7th. The press is giving credence to these Hamas-directed authorities who have every reason to want to inflate reported casualty figures to engender worldwide sympathy (and opprobrium against Israel). Tellingly, these authorities have been caught in lies for their false casualty reports[2], yet the press continues to report these highly suspect figures as fact; see attached two screen grabs from October 24, 2023.[3] What is more, many facts supplied by Israel are reported as such but with the added caveat (thank you, New York Times): “It was not possible to verify Israel’s account [of the fighting].”[4] Have the Gazan casualty figures been verified?;

Second, the casualty figures supplied in respect of Gazans combine numbers for both civilians and terrorist combatants; civilians deserve our empathy – not so Hamas terrorists;

Third, the Hamas-reported casualty figures do not make any distinction between casualties caused by Israel and those casualties caused by errant Hamas/PIJ rocket fire and who knows what other Hamas-inspired catastrophes that they inflict on their own Palestinian population;

Fourth, when considering this casualty scorecard, how does one factor in the fact that Hamas hides its military infrastructure in or under schools, mosques, hospitals, housing and other civilian facilities – the purpose of which is to create human shields of their own people, such that civilian casualties are an inevitable – and, dare I say, a welcome – result of this barbaric practice; and

Fifth, the mere act of providing a comparison conflates the Hamas purposeful killing of Israeli civilians, with the unfortunate Gazan civilian casualties that are a consequence of lawful Israeli military activity.

The time has come for the press to stop this daily reporting of casualty figures. When the press supplies these side-by-side figures presented as facts, I am afraid less informed readers are not equipped to properly weigh the worthiness of these facts.  As President Joe Biden pronounced on October 25, 2023: “I have no notion that Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.” He went on to say: “I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.” [5]

It is time for the press to stop presenting the highly dubious Gazan casualty figures. To be sure, the death of Gazan civilians is terrible thing. But to present these numbers as fact is false reporting and fails to educate the reader.

Screen grab from an MSNBC broadcast on October 24th, 2023
Screen grab from an MSNBC broadcast on October 24th, 2023

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[1] See, for example this report from an Associated Press article of October 25, 2023 Israeli airstrikes surge in Gaza and killing dozens at a time: “The Health Ministry says more than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed in the war, including some 2,300 minors.”

[2] Experts world-wide have nearly universally asserted that the Hamas Health Authority’s casualty figures from the Al-Ahli Hospital bombing (caused by an errant Islamic Jihad rocket) were highly inflated; with these experts estimating casualties in the 50-100 range, not the 500+ claimed by Hamas.

[3] Some media have gone so far as to mention that the authorities reporting on casualty figures are Hamas-linked or by saying that these casualty figures have not been verified. But these observations are news-speak – with the reader only focused on the numbers reported. In other words, once the casualty figure is processed by the reader, the rest is just noise — and it is that number that sticks.

[4] Within the space of two paragraphs in a single article on October 30, 2023 , the New York Times added this caveat for Israel’s statements, but added no such caveat when casualty figures were obtained from “the Hamas-run Health Ministry”.

[5] U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby similarly stated when asked about the veracity of Gazan casualty figures: “… the numbers are not reliable. They’re just not reliable … if you’re going to report casualty figures out of Gaza, I would frankly recommend you don’t choose numbers put out by an organization that’s run by a terrorist organization.”

About the Author
Brown University, BA 1980 Harvard Law School, JD, 1983 Commercial Aircraft Finance Lawyer Author: The Commercial Aircraft Finance Handbook (2nd ed., 2019)