Counting the Dead in Syria

"In something like 4-6 months, mortality rates in a reasonably well-provided for refugee camp will have come down to the rate prevailing during the prewar period, or actually lower than that," Mack said. NGOs frequently perform refugee surveys in order to determine the needs of the populations they're serving. But they're less useful for counting a conflict's dead.

As Lacina explains, the "fog" that pervades the entire enterprise of establishing a death toll has no quantitative or numerical value - there's no easy way to translate an observed number into an estimate, never mind a definitive, actual number. "The other thing researchers might want is some sort of sense of how much these numbers tend to change between the sort of fog of war and the revision that comes later when people are found and what happened becomes clearer. And that's a subject of intense disagreement."

Similarly, there is no set multiplier for observed deaths and actual death. "There's not even good data on the relationship between direct deaths on the one hand and indirect deaths from disease and malnutrition on the other," says Mack. "The multiplier goes between anything from 2 to 70 or 80," depending on the conflict. Mack pointed out that even if there were a standard multiplier, it wouldn't be terribly useful. "Even if it was a true average figure how would you know whether the conflict that you're investigating is average or not?." 

***

Luckily, there's "multiple systems estimation," which, in a rather macabre irony, is related to  methods used to track wildlife population sizes. As Lacina explains, researchers tag animals one year, recapture them over subsequent years, and use the observed probability of recovering an animal in a given year to a population size. Researchers essentially calculate discrepancies within their own methodology in order to reach a more accurate sense of the population they are dealing with. In the case of conflict death calculations, researchers can look at the frequency with which names appear on individual human rights monitors' lists to determine the probability of appearing on no list, with the aim of calculating a "population size" of the dead. Intuitively, a high frequency of names appearing on only one or two lists -- rather than four or five -- suggests a high probability of not being counted. In contrast, if all names appeared on all lists, it would suggest near-flawless documentation.

It isn't quite as simple as that, as Patrick Ball explained. What works in a nature preserve doesn't necessarily work in a conflict zone. Take the lists, for instance: calculating a simple probability ignores the way in which the different data sets -- in this case, lists of people killed in the conflict, provided by various human rights monitors -- relate to one another. "The logic is we want to get the best prediction of how this interaction process works between these systems," says Ball.

Ball's task is determine a population size based on detailed but nevertheless incomplete information. "What a statistician wants to do is say ok, let's divide the world into little slices of time and space, so we can make estimates over time and space," says Ball. Researchers then test various mathematical assumptions within these individual "strata" -- a "strata" being, for example, Aleppo in March of 2012. This requires math so complicated that Ball resorted to metaphor in order to explain it.

"Imagine that you have two dark rooms, and you want to know how big the rooms are," he said. "You can't go into the rooms and measure. They're dark, and you can't see inside them, but what you do have is a bunch of little rubber balls." Throw the balls in one room, and you hear frequent hollow pinging sounds as they bump into each other. Throw them into the next room, and the sound is less frequent. Even though you can't see inside of either room, you can intuit that the latter room is the larger of the two.

The dark rooms are Aleppo in March of 2012. The rubber balls are the various data sets. The act of throwing the balls into the dark rooms is akin to the complex mathematical analysis that allows Ball to "see how frequently the data set encounters itself," and the aggregate results from every "strata" will be an estimate of the number of people killed in Syria's civil war. He says his team will have this estimate in another two to three months.

***

For civilians in Syria, it's unclear how any of this matters. It's unclear how it even matters to global decision makers with the potential ability to hasten the end of Syria's civil war.

For people living under constant threat of artillery fire, the question of whether 70 or 100 or even 500 thousand of their fellow countrymen have already died must seem like an abstract matter, a number wholly divorced from the urgency of the current situation. As for the decision-makers -- the uptick in the death count hasn't been enough to convince the Russians to stop arming the Assad regime, or the NATO states to enforce a no-fly zone, or create civilian safe areas along the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The war has convinced some of the Gulf States to aid certain rebel groups, and it's convinced an Al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate to take a leading role in the resistance to the regime of Bashar al Assad. But these are actions disconnected from the actual death toll -- strategic calculations, rather than purely humanitarian decisions.

In terms of political and moral impact, the difference between 70,000 or 100,000 or 500,000 deaths is disturbingly hard to identify.

Figuring out the death toll during a hot conflict has practical utility. "You actually need to have this data if you're going to have serious needs assessments for humanitarian purposes," says Mack. In terms of political and moral impact, the aforementioned difference between 70 or 100 or 500 thousand deaths is disturbingly hard to identify. The question might itself be distracting.

Samuel Moyn, a Columbia University professor and author of an intellectual history of human rights, says that death counts can have the effect of deflecting attention from the cultural and political factors that help shape society's response to atrocity. "We could think, why is this case, whether it's 60 or 70 thousand, leading us to the brink of this debate about intervention, when this really wasn't something that concerned us in other cases?" Moyn says there's a need "to make sure we're not getting misled by our outrage and our attempt to quantify," and to "think hard about what's really driving our response."

These underlying concerns could eventually convince U.S. policymakers to intervene in Syria. Or it could convince them to sit the conflict out. Moyn doesn't mean that the death count is some abstract or irrelevant issue -- just that the degree of public attention towards it feeds into and hints at other, more fundamental questions, some of which could have a direct bearing on the U.S.'s actions in Syria. "I would prefer a more open discussion that cares about individual and mass human death, but in a context that says we've already been involved [in the Middle East]," says Moyn. "Ultimately the people who are still alive and what kind of regime they get in the long run is what matters."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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