Professor’s study on China’s nuclear arsenal draws heated reaction

For the last three years, Georgetown professor Phillip Karber, with his undergraduate students, assembled a lengthy study concerning China’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

After a Washington Post story published two weeks ago suggested that Karber and his team would conclude that China may have as many as 3,000 nuclear warheads, fierce criticism of the study emerged from the nuclear arms-control community.

Although the study reveals much information about China’s secretive development of what it calls their “Underground Great Wall” to protect its nuclear arsenal, Karber’s claim that China may have 3,000 nuclear warheads has been the statement that has brought widespread national and international attention to the study.

In a presentation at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs Wednesday, Karber defended the study from its detractors. Karber asserted that when the study is released, it will be clear that they make no claim about the size of China’s actual nuclear stockpile. “People are going to be terribly disappointed because it does not reference how many nuclear weapons China has. I found no conclusion on that,” Karber said at GW.

However, Karber did admit that he was the source for the high number: “Lately, me shooting off my mouth and saying ‘Well, they could have 3,000’ has created a lot of controversy. My purpose on this report had nothing to do with estimating the Chinese nuclear stockpile.”

During the lecture, he emphasized that the undergraduates’ research was “good, old-fashioned, empirical academic work.” However, one of the principle frustrations of several nuclear arms experts is how Karber and the Georgetown students used primary sources. At the GW presentation, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College, criticized a slide, pictured here, that depicts the increase in the number of Chinese nuclear warheads over the past forty years as well as a prediction of its current stockpiles.

Lewis and his colleague Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and the China Project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, set out to trace the footnotes on the slide back to the original primary sources. After Kulacki traveled to Hong Kong to research Karber’s own sources, both Lewis and Kulacki came to the conclusion that the sources were unreliable blog posts.

In a blog post written the day after the Post article was published, Kulacki harshly criticized Karber and his students for not verifying their sources:

My son is a student at our local public high school. As a rule, his teachers do not allow him to use Wikipedia as a source in his research papers because the information it contains can be unreliable. Students are instead expected to find and evaluate the original source material on which the statements contained in Wikipedia entries are based. They are taught that evaluating sources is the essence of competent scholarship. Unfortunately, the standards for academic integrity appear not to be as high at Georgetown University.

Lewis was similarly outraged in a letter to the Washington Post, which the paper did not publish: “If I take any solace out of this pathetic episode, it is that Dr. Karber’s students will have learned first-hand how not to do research.”

During the question and answer session at GW, Karber’s response to Lewis’ accusations about their “internet chat” was similarly resolute: “Categorically, we did not use blogs for any evidence. We used them as cueing,” he said. “We were experimenting…I don’t have any apology for it, and if people don’t like it, tough. We were just having some fun.”

Karber also defended his students vociferously in a comment on Lewis’ blog:

How can they call themselves scientists, when they have not seen our report, when they have not looked at or read the mound of Chinese data the students collected, when they take a single briefing slide from a lecture they were not at and attack it for making statements that were not made. This is politically inspired McCarthyism in which a message they don’t like made by me is smeared by an attack on the method of my students. If the organization is going to send out this kind of ad hominem personal attack, they should be called the Union of Concerned Demagogues.

Because of the widespread media coverage of the number of nuclear warheads Karber suggests China may have, Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, believes that the study “does the public debate a disservice by disseminating exaggerated and poorly analyzed information…Many people may not remember the details, but they tend to remember the headlines. A misperception will stick in the public consciousness that China has 3,000 nuclear weapons hidden in tunnels,” he said on the FAS Strategic Security blog.

“The key take away from us is that, look the Georgetown students, god bless ‘em, but somebody should’ve put one of them on a plane to Hong Kong to get the original source,” Lewis told Vox.

Although the heated debate about the accuracy of his study will likely continue, Karber stressed the big picture in his presentation at GW: “This week, I’ve been the bad guy. But if [China’s] build up continues, and you have that number of tunnels, you can rest assured, I’m going to be one of the more moderate people yelling that there’s a lot more in these tunnels…there’s going to be a lot more people arguing that there are a lot more.”

7 Comments on “Professor’s study on China’s nuclear arsenal draws heated reaction

  1. It’s interesting how none of the study’s critics have ever worked in government or as arms control negotiators, yet they’re the experts.

  2. Lewis’s academic discourse includes addressing Prof Karber as “you idiot”. At least Prof Karber was spared Lewis’s frequent use of the term “f’ing”. Others, such as James Acton, use snide references to Foxnews as implications that both Prof Karber and Foxnews are neither fair nor balanced.

    In short, the critics of Prof Karber and his students claim the “China tunnel” study to be unreliable and not representative of academic work, yet the critics resort to gutter talk to make their case. Academic rigor requires academic tone. “Peer review” results from considered study of data, not from name calling.

  3. Wasn’t this the study that used Chinese action dramas as part of its body of evidence?

  4. Joe is right. Professor Karber would never, ever use derisive terms to refer to Jeffrey Lewis.

  5. It’s true, Jeffrey Lewis did use some intemperate language. But considering he’s been publicly and repeatedly debunking one of the key sources used in Karber’s study since 2004–something that Karber and his students either ignored or were unaware of (which makes them look incredibly sloppy)–that’s somewhat understandable.

    And Karber doesn’t get off the hook in the language department either. Accusing his critics of “politically inspired McCarthyism” is much less excusable, and less professional, than swearing or personal insults. It’s not a question of “not liking” the message in Karber’s study. That has nothing to do with this dispute. It’s the use of careless, less-than-rigorous research to make some highly dubious assertions. Worse, Karber and his students accept with little questioning all the Chinese propaganda they could find to paint a more menacing picture of the Chinese nuclear arsenal than the known facts–including some long declassified by the US government–support.

    The late Carl Sagan, in another context, once said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Karber’s study fails that test miserably. Or, as recent story about the controversy in Asia Times Online ( says: ‎”The story as [the Washington Post’s William] Wan presented it contained several irresistible elements, to whit: 1) A team of renegade students displays 2) ingenuity and elbow grease to 3) expose the errors of pointy-headed so-called experts while 4) revealing Chinese perfidy and 5) alerting the people of America to terrible threat. This wonderful story had just two flaws: the parts of it that were true weren’t new, and the parts that were new appear not be true.”

  6. Pingback: Japan's concern over China's military build up

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>