More on Corpse-Counting

>> Monday, February 15, 2010

The HSR study I mentioned before on the declining toll of war has attracted a number of criticisms. Les Roberts at Making Sense of Sudan argues that their result is an artifact of the way in which the authors have defined the term "war." HRDAG argues that if HSR applied the standards to their own data that they apply to the Congo death data, they couldn't argue that they know anything about whether deaths are declining or not. The IRC has been quick to defend its Congo death toll estimate, which the HSR report says is inflated.

Some threads of these arguments dovetail with an ongoing academic debate about how to most accurately measure war deaths. (For example, is it better to estimate war deaths by counting the reported deaths in media accounts, or by doing surveys of war-affected populations?) But parts of the criticisms instead seem based on a belief that challenging conventional statistical wisdom is bad for human rights. Georgianne Neinaber of the Huffington Post claims:

It is far beyond unfortunate that this academic debate stands to produce a possible humanitarian aid backlash for the Congolese people. This debate should not be conducted in the press, and it is highly unfortunate that the headlined 900,000 number may become the new "fact," because of an academic paper whose authors readily admit that they "do not know" the real numbers.
Similarly, Les Roberts, who contributed to the "debunked" IRC Congo report, called the HRS' study "A Major Blow to Humanitarian Accountability."

I have my own scholarly issues with the HSR report - in particular that the authors don't really back up their assertions about why national mortality rates have declined, though their hypotheses are certainly plausible. But as a scientist, I'm leery of this narrative that somehow, even if the findings were accurate, it would be unethical to publish them on humanitarian grounds.

Would it be? Is it really the job of social scientists to publish counter-intuitive data only if they can be absolutely certain it won't be misinterpreted? Or is it merely their job to do their best to lay out the evidence as accurately as they see it, in language as likely as possible to be understood, and to correct misinterpretations when they inevitably arise? (Andrew Mack has taken pains to correct the alleged perception that his report is arguing "only" 900,000 have died, which it certainly does not - though nor have I found evidence of this "headlined 900,000 number" beyond Nienaber's Huffington Post essay.)

And is the international community really so fickle as to withdraw aid from the DRC on the basis that "too few" millions have died? I don't see evidence of that either, but if they are, should a single research team be blamed for this outcome? Or should we be blaming the international community itself for its complacency?


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