Awakening Blank Memory

Michael Spagat argues that John Tirman undermines his own cause with faulty statistics.
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December 16, 2011
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The world we live in is a much safer place than it once was. Canada’s own Human Security Report Project has documented a strong (albeit uneven) decline in armed conflict violence since the Second World War. Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s new book goes further, marshalling a plethora of evidence suggesting that violence has declined substantially over the many centuries of human history. Pinker goes on to argue in some detail that much of this decline is attributable to long-term shifts in human psychology, as “the better angels of our nature” have gained an upper hand over our “inner demons.” 

An important part of this psychological progress has been the spread of empathy, with millions of people now able to feel some of the pain of their fellow human beings, even those of very different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Yet there are limits to empathy. However safer the world may be, it is still a very violent place. This is where John Tirman enters the picture. In a recent article for the CIC, Tirman takes the West to task for too quickly forgetting this reality. His objective appears to be the laudable one of reducing violence by raising the awareness of the general public to the hard realities of modern war.



Yet Tirman’s strategy for pursuing his goal seems oddly misguided. He devotes much of his article to estimating the total number dead, strenuously insisting that we must never say there have been “tens of thousands” of deaths in Iraq because doing so fosters an illusion “that the civilians harmed by the wars are relatively few.”  Suddenly, Tirman has saddled his own project with two self-inflicted wounds. First, he uses numbing statistics to try to awaken his fellow human beings to the human cost of war.  Second, he pushes his audience towards jadedness by presenting tens of thousands of violent deaths of Iraqis as “relatively few.” Tirman tries to touch our souls with the sheer force of huge numbers: “at least 600,000, and possibly as much as one million.”

It seems intuitive that if people feel some sympathy for 10,000 people violently killed then they will feel more sympathy for 20,000 people killed, and even more sympathy for 600,000 people killed. Yet it is not clear that people actually behave this way. For example, research by psychologist Paul Slovic and others on psychic numbing suggests that the very opposite may be true, that “the more who die the less we care”. People can be reached by stirring stories of particular individuals, but not so much by massive numbers. 

The Every Casualty campaign launched by Oxford Research Group would seem to be much better suited for awakening people to the human costs of war than Tirman’s numbers-oriented approach. Every Casualty calls for “resolute action by states to ensure that every direct casualty of armed violence is: promptly recorded, correctly identified [and] publicly acknowledged.” That is, Every Casualty is precisely about building up human stories of war, one by one, case by case.

The monumental Kosovo Memory Book is a landmark of this approach (started long before there was an Every Casualty campaign). The Book shares information about who each victim was and how he or she was killed. The power of this method can only be appreciated by reading the printed version, volume one of which has just been released.  Shortly after the war in Kosovo some useful estimates of the total number of people killed were published, but those numbers cannot carry the emotional resonance of the Kosovo Memory Book.

There are many organizations around the world that have adopted this "case by case" approach in a wide range of conflict and post-conflict situations, and over 30 of their casualty recording projects are now documented by Every Casualty.

Having converted the discussion of individual Iraqis killed into a debate about abstract statistics, Tirman further undermines his cause through his lack of clarity and command over the statistics he champions. Tirman slides tendentiously between ill-defined categories of direct violent deaths, civilian violent deaths, excess deaths, and war-related deaths, impairing readers’ ability to make informed comparisons between numbers. More importantly, he does not explain how he guesses the total number of deaths “using data on widows, displaced persons (up to 5 million), and the household surveys.”  As someone who has studied these very questions in some depth, I can attest that it is highly unlikely that Tirman’s figures could be made consistent with all the facts. 

Finally, I have had the honour of working closely with Iraq Body Count (IBC) on a series of academic journal articles in recent years and feel I must object to Tirman’s dismissive and disparaging remarks regarding IBC. Several of Tirman’s claims about IBC are simply false. For example, Tirman claims that IBC “acknowledge[s] an undercount by at least a factor of two.” It does not. I ask readers to disregard Tirman’s portrayal of IBC’s “crude” work until they have at least read The Weapons that Kill Civilians, Violent Deaths of Civilians, 2003-2008, and Casualties in Civilians and Coalition Soldiers from Suicide Bombings in Iraq, 2003–10, published respectively in the New England Journal of Medicine, PLoS Medicine, and the Lancet.  People wanting to educate themselves more deeply on the subject of Iraqi casualties might benefit from some of the extensive further material on the IBC website. 

Michael Spagat is Professor of Macroeconomics, Development and Finance at Royal Holloway, University of London's Department of Economics.

This essay is part of OpenCanada’s How We Fight series.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.