Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Should You Keep Reading Something That Contains An Error By The Fourth Paragraph?

Life is short and wasting time is a crime against yourself so how do you decide when to cut your losses?
This serious question was triggered by a trivial example from a source to which we link from time to time, Aeon Magazine:

The Soviet InterNyet
Soviet scientists tried for decades to network their nation. What stalemated them is now fracturing the global internet
On the morning of 1 October 1970, the computer scientist Viktor Glushkov walked into the Kremlin to meet with the Politburo. He was an alert man with piercing eyes rimmed in black glasses, with the kind of mind that, given one problem, would derive a method for solving all similar problems. And at that moment the Soviet Union had a serious problem. A year earlier, the United States launched ARPANET, the first packet-switching distributed computer network that would in time seed the internet as we know it. The distributed network was originally designed to nudge the US ahead of the Soviets, allowing scientists’ and government leaders’ computers to communicate even in the event of a nuclear attack. It was the height of the tech race, and the Soviets needed to respond.

Glushkov’s idea was to inaugurate an era of electronic socialism. He named the colossally ambitious project the All-State Automated System. It sought to streamline and technologically upgrade the entire planned economy. This system would still make economic decisions by state plans, not market prices, but sped up by computer modelling to predict equilibria before they happen. Glushkov wanted smarter and faster decision-making, and maybe even electronic currency. All he needed was the Politburo’s purse.

But when Glushkov entered the cavernous room that morning, he noticed two empty chairs at the long table: his two strongest allies were missing. Instead, he faced down a table of ambitious, steely-eyed ministers – many of whom wanted the Politburo’s purse and support for themselves.
Between 1959 and 1989, leading Soviet men of science and state repeatedly ventured to construct a national computer network for broadly prosocial purposes. With the deep wounds of the Second World War far from healed (80 per cent of Russian men born in 1923 died in the war), the Soviet Union continued to specialise in massive modernisation projects that had transformed a dispersed tsarist nation of illiterate peasants into a global nuclear power in the course of a couple of generations....
That highlighted bit is impossible.

For cohorts of male Russian babies born in the 1920's almost half didn't even make it until the Nazi invasion in 1941. Childhood mortality was pretty high at that time and in that place..
And then there's the whole conflating Russia and the Soviet Union thing. Russian losses during the war, horrific as they were, were lower than those of other members of the USSR, Ukraine and the Byelorussian SSR, which bore the brunt of the fighting.

So I decided to look it up.
First I came across:
Uncounted  Costs of  World War II: The  Effect of  Changing Sex  Ratios  on Marriage and Fertility of Russian Women
T h e Soviet Union suffered devastating population losses during World War II, currently estimated at 27 million or nearly 14 percent of the prewar population. The disproportionate deaths of young men resulted in a drastic change in sex ratios among the population surviving the war. For example, the ratio of men to women in the 20-29 age group declined from .91 to .65 between 1941 and 1946.... 
On the right track. If no women born in 1923 had died after birth, and assuming the same was true of each '20's cohort, the ratio could have dropped as low as .19.
Of course that is a silly supposition but the fact the ratio didn't get much lower than .65 is telling.

So I looked around a bit more and and found:
Professor Mark Harrison at the University of Warwick:
Was the Soviet 1923 Male Birth Cohort Doomed by World War II? 

Tim Harford's BBC Radio programme "More or Less" asked me to comment on a claim that is widely repeated on the internet, for example on Buzzfeed:
Almost 80% of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.
My answer
Here's the numbers I worked from on the programme(in thousands, rounded to the nearest hundred thousand). Each of the lines is sourced below.
  • Males born in the Soviet Union in 1923: 3,400
  • Infant (0-1) mortality: 800
  • Childhood (1-18) mortality, famine, and terror: 800
  • Surviving to 1941: 1,800
  • Wartime mortality: 700
  • Surviving to 1946: 1,100
Leaving me to wonder if I had gotten a bit obsessive.
I stopped reading.