The Boston Globe has just run an op-ed under the headline “Ending the Stranglehold on Gaza.” The authors are Eyad al-Sarraj, identified as founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and Sara Roy, identified as senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. The bias of the op-ed speaks for itself, and I won’t even dwell on it. But I do want to call attention to this sentence:
Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent.
You don’t need to be a math genius to figure out that if Gaza has a population of 1.5 million, as the authors also note, then 680,000 tons of flour a day come out to almost half a ton of flour per Gazan, per day.
A typographical error at the Boston Globe? Hardly. The two authors used the same “statistic” in an earlier piece. They copied it from an article published in the Ahram Weekly last November, which reported that “the price of a bag of flour has risen 80 per cent, because of the 680,000 tonnes the Gaza Strip needs daily, only 90 tonnes are permitted to enter.” Sarraj and Roy added the bit about this being “a reduction of 99 percent.”
Note how an absurd and impossible “statistic” has made its way up the media food chain. It begins in an Egyptian newspaper, is cycled through a Palestinian activist, is submitted under the shared byline of a Harvard “research scholar,” and finally appears in the Boston Globe, whose editors apparently can’t do basic math. Now, in a viral contagion, this spreads across the Internet, where that “reduction of 99 percent” becomes a well-attested fact.
What’s the truth? I see from a 2007 UN document that Gaza consumes 450 tons of flour daily. The Palestinian Ministry of Economy, according to another source, puts daily consumption at 350 tons. So the figure for total consumption retailed by Sarraj and Roy is off by more than three orders of magnitude, i.e. a factor of 1,000. No doubt, there’s less flour shipped from Israel into Gaza—maybe it’s those rocket barrages from Gaza into Israel?—but even if it’s only the 90 tons claimed by Sarraj and Roy, it isn’t anything near a “reduction of 99 percent.” Unfortunately, if readers are going to remember one dramatic “statistic” from this op-ed, this one is it—and it’s a lie.
Sarraj is a psychiatrist, but his co-author, Sara Roy, bills herself in her bio as a “political economist.” Her research, the bio reports, is “primarily on the economic, social and political development of the Gaza Strip.” You would think someone with this claim to expertise would know better than to copy some impossible pseudo-statistic on the consumption of the most basic foodstuff in Gaza. Indeed, in a piece she wrote a decade ago, she herself put Gaza’s daily consumption of flour at 275 tons. Did she even read her own op-ed before she sent it off to Boston’s leading paper? If she did, what we have here is a textbook example of the difference between a “political economist” and an economist.
Update: The Boston Globe, presumably after consulting Sarraj and Roy, has added this correction:
A column on Saturday by Eyad al-Sarraj and Sara Roy incorrectly said that Gaza requires 680,000 tons of flour daily to feed its population. It is 680,000 pounds, which means a reduction of 73 percent, not 99 percent, of flour allowed into Gaza.
What originated as a half-malicious, half-unthinking repetition of a fantastic charge against Israel, is now presented by Sarraj and Roy as somebody’s typo, compounded by a little bad math.
In fact, the “correction” is nearly as pathetic as the “error” it is meant to fix. Measuring the flour needs of Gaza in pounds is like measuring the distance from Boston to New York in yards. The UN, Palestinian ministries, and aid agencies all use tons. The pounds-for-tons “correction” is an attempt to cover up the authors’ original sin: they just copied the figure straight from the Ahram Weekly (which anyway doesn’t use pounds—it uses metric measurements). The Boston Globe should go back to the authors and ask for the precise source of their figures. It’s called fact-checking.