The "Dirty War Index" Shrinks Human Atrocities Into Useful Data

By Melissa Lafsky | December 17, 2008 7:21 pm

What’s worse, the genocide in Darfur or the horrors of North Korean prison camps? While the question may seem a bit like comparing global warming and the financial crisis, it can be useful to evaluate and compare all the awful things humans are doing to each other around the globe.

And in order to create an effective comparison, you need a set of objective data that can be analyzed to evaluate wars and even give direction for intervention and deterrence. While throwing around numbers like “45,000 Iraqi civilians killed” can be useful for nabbing attention, it typically does little for inspiring solutions.

With this idea in mind, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks of King’s College in London and Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway College in Egham, UK, have created a “Dirty War Index” that quantifies all of the various atrocities we commit—such as rape, civilian murder, or torture—and labels them as a proportion of the total number of incidents reported. For example, the DWI of civilian casualties would be “the number of civilian deaths divided by the overall number of mortalities in the conflict, both civilian and combatant, multiplied by 100.”

While turning carnage, beatings, and other horrors into data might sound callous, it can have major benefits as far as finding solutions in war-torn areas, says University of Toronto biostatistics professor Nathan Taback:

In general, gathering data on the health effects of conflict can illuminate patterns of violence that may not be apparent from anecdotal evidence, and that have not been taken seriously until quantitative evidence was available.

Of course, the danger is that, as with all statistics, DWI ratings can vastly oversimplify, or even potentially muddle complex issues (think of the old “You can prove anything with statistics” adage). Then again, sometimes numbers can reveal pretty incredible things, like this observation from Hicks:

In our analysis on casualties from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, we found that the proportion of females killed was significantly higher when Palestinian forces targeted Israelis (40%) than when they targeted Palestinians (3%), or when Israeli forces targeted Palestinians (5%).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: data, human rights, war

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