Statistics about global violence manipulate politics | The Triangle

Statistics about global violence manipulate politics

Professor Amelia Hoover Green of Drexel’s history and politics department gave a seminar Nov. 14 titled “Speaking Stats to Power,” which addressed the various flaws and strengths in measuring violence when applied to human rights violators.

The seminar portrayed how numbers and statistics are powerful in the manipulation of politics, debates and organizations. Green continually stressed that evidence of human rights violations cannot depend on statistics alone, as the data can be used to convey false points.

“What my research suggests is that most data collections on political violence are not purposefully manipulated. Instead, people are accurately reporting the violence that they know about, but they only happen to know about a few cases,” Hoover Green said.

A specific case Hoover Green discussed was the number of deaths during the Guatemalan genocide that occurred against the indigenous Mayan people during the Guatemalan Civil War. There was very little data recorded, as Guatemalan media organizations only had the manpower to survey the area immediately surrounding Guatemala City, only to be threatened later by the government because of their work. Human rights organizations tried to report what they found, but they faced the same problems as the media.

“The effect was basically that media sources did not know about, or if they did, they were too intimidated to publish, most accounts of violence. So when we look at newspaper reports, the number of episodes of violence we count is really low,” Hoover Green said.

The Historical Clarification Commission, a truth and reconciliation commission established by the Oslo Accords near the end of the civil war, was able to report more complete data than the media or human rights groups, as after the war they were able to travel to remote areas without any threat of violence.

In Kosovo, data was used to show a pattern of violence, implying there was direction to it. This patterned data was used to in the decision to prosecute Serbian political and military leaders for their violent war crimes in Kosovo.

“I think it can be very effective, but that we have to be careful not to overinterpret the data that we have. For example, in many war zones only people with extremely severe injuries make it to the hospital. If we base our conclusions on data gathered at hospitals, we’ll get the erroneous impression that most of the violence was very severe. I think it’s important to get some sort of broad view of the violence civilians suffer, and often data can be very, very useful for that,” Hoover Green said.

The Human Security Report 2012 claimed that sexual violence decreases during times of war, but Hoover Green disagrees with this. The HSR only used data from the year 2000 onward; however, if the data extended three decades prior, the HSR would have seen that sexual violence during war was actually on the rise.

“I would say [we need] complementary rather than alternate [data]. I think it’s important that we not ‘choose sides’ and say that one method is better or worse than another. … Every type of data can be useful, and every type of data has some drawbacks,” Hoover Green said.

In addition to data, the inclusion of eyewitness testimonies from victims and perpetrators, documents, surveys, satellite data showing geographical destruction, etc., is necessary when evaluating warlike situations.

Hoover Green’s latest project for April 2013 is “War is Bad for Your Brain: Understanding and Preventing Violence Against Civilians During Armed Conflict,” which will address the problem of civilians becoming involved in conflicts as collateral damage or a result of soldiers’ direct violence against them.

Hoover Green and a co-op research assistant will create the first global database of armed group institutions for training and political education, the Armed Group Institutions Database, using data from conflicts between 1980 and 2010. Information will be collected on each group’s practice for recruiting and training, as well as education, ideological indoctrination and discipline.

“I expect to see that armed groups with well-organized programs for education and training in human rights commit less violence, and different repertoires of violence, than groups without those programs. But of course, I can’t test that expectation without data on a large number of armed groups, and that is why I am putting together the AGID,” Hoover Green said.

Drexel offers a research methods course that covers a few of the topics Hoover Green discussed. In the spring she will teach a special topics course titled Armed Conflict and Human Rights.

Hoover Green received a doctorate in political science from Yale University. Currently she works as a consultant for Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group. She has also worked as a statistical consultant at the United Nations’ Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Additional reporting by Julia Casciato