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New study argues war deaths are often overestimated

A new study, the Human Security Report, argues that politics and fund-raising priorities often lead to overestimates of war deaths, touching off a controversy among the researchers who work on the issue.

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Dr. Brennan also questions the latest report’s own conclusions. “I think there are inconsistencies; there is cherry-picking of data; and they haven’t referenced other important reports that would counter what they’re saying,” he says.

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In situations such as Congo, surveys strive to determine the number of people who, if there had never been a war, would probably be alive.
There’s never a single number, but rather a scale – which is necessarily based on problematic data.

“You start with the acknowledgment that there’s just not good population data during a conflict in most places,” says Harvard’s Dr. Greenough.

Brennan points out that the IRC studies reveal not a single number, but a scale of violence, with 3 million deaths at the low end of the IRC estimate and over 7 million at the high end. The point, he says, is to understand and prepare to respond to the scale of the conflict.

Disagreements about which data to use and how to collect it have also resulted in rows about the number of dead in Iraq and in Darfur. A similar battle is now being fought about Congo.

“Our point in doing this is not to say we’re right, you’re wrong,” says Andrew Mack, project director for the research behind the latest report. “It was a way of trying to demonstrate that relatively small change in assumptions can produce a huge change in outcomes.”

But critics argue, and Mack acknowledges, that such a debate can lead to cynicism. “Were we to do it again – we didn’t phrase it quite appropriately,” says Mack. “If we were to rewrite it ... we would language it differently.”

The politics of numbers

Such professional disagreement – one that is often shaded by politics – has real-world consequences, as seen in Congo. It’s precisely because policymakers rely on such numbers to make decisions that it’s so critical to get them right, says Andrew Mack, project director for the research behind the latest report.

“The problem is – Darfur showed it, Iraq showed it – if policymakers start to get suspicious about numbers this whole issue of population surveys is going to lose credibility, and a lot of people worry about that,” he says.

That’s because the surveys are used to estimate death tolls also generate attention and funds. But there are different schools of scientific thought about how to craft these surveys; the report essentially discounts the predominate approach.

But numbers and the disputes they inspire can be motived by politics as much as science.

“The famous axiom that the truth is the first casualty of war is unfortunately also true of casualties,” says Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There’s a tendency far too often to have the casualty estimate track with the NGO’s politics ... [and] there’s a tendency, if it’s the government that’s conducting the war, to underestimate.”

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