Monday, April 02, 2007


I was surprised when I googled (or checked Wikipedia) "survivorship bias"; it simply refers to business firms. The bias being the exclusion of failed firms from most studies and analyses.

Why not people? The ones that survive to participate in the grand discussions of big themes are the ones who are alive to talk about them -- usually having been spared a quick or a slow demise. In fact, the survivors that do bear witness are the articulate ones. Do we then get a biased view of life on earth?

All of this comes to mind just having read Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, the Great War to the War on Terror. How did anyone survive?

Save a cataclysmic encounter with a sizable meteor, there are likely to always be survivors.

The book is a bleak catalog of blunder and evil. Nazism, fascism and communism were led by groups that sought to make them the articles of state-identified faith and religiosity. There are a few heroes. Some elements of the Catholic church stood up to the fanatics, and Burleigh works hard to make the point -- to the exasperation of a recent review by Tony Judt.

Judt writes that the book is mean-spirited and one-sided. Burleigh does have his point of view and he is a fine writer. There are eye-catching phrases everywhere. The man can write.

And I nearly had whiplash when I came to his last sentence. (The last chapter is about Islamic terrorists and make-nice Westerners.) "On the whole, I conclude this book as an optimist, although certainly not of the Panglossian variety, since the increasingly sharp definition of what is at stake is itself part of the solution."

Spoken like a survivor.