Turning narrative testimonies into quantitative data about genocide
January 1, 2019 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Patrick Ball has developed statistical modeling to map likely sites of unmapped graves and to fill in the blank spots left by hidden genocides. On PacificStandard, All the Dead We Cannot See. posted by bile and syntax (7 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
As survivors had insisted for nearly 30 years, the violence wasn't random; the pattern pointed to genocide. And Ball proved it without leaving his computer.

Good on Mr. Ball, and statistical proof is very welcome, but would it have been so hard to believe 30 years of testimony? Still, work that needs doing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:24 AM on January 1 [3 favorites]

Great work. I was imagining that techniques much like this, which use the seen to discover the unseen, could be used to estimate the fraction of #metoo assaults that go unreported or which companies are harboring criminals based on the patterned of exposed predators.
posted by euphorb at 10:52 AM on January 1 [8 favorites]

It s not so much what was said in the testimony, it s the silence, the lack of testimony from particular regions or peoples.

You could call this "tech", but I remember studying this in my ecological analysis classes in 2005. The maths come from the ecology of endangered species and wildlife ecology, which has to constantly estate death and emigration rates using limited data, and with zero testimony.
posted by eustatic at 10:54 AM on January 1 [2 favorites]

It s perhaps a step too far for some (biologists, really) to imagine and assume people are being hunted like game or treated like cattle, and that other people (from history books) are hunting and enslaving them, but those are precisely the conditions that hold during genocide. People go silent in those situations, there is no testimony but skulls and long bones left for archaeologists.

I ve often thought about applying these same techniques to find the mass graves in the sugar and cotton plantations in the United States. How many americans did Isaac Franklin bury in Angola, to create the finance capital of the United States in the 1830 s, the basic groundwork of violence that emerged into the US' own civil war?

Or the trail of tears, for example. Where are people buried along the way from the Chattanooga river to the plains of Oklahoma?, the genesis of the Frontier conflicts of the west?

Biology is the study of death as much as it is the study of life.
posted by eustatic at 11:16 AM on January 1 [5 favorites]

Doing stuff like this--applying statistical techniques to study political violence--is literally an entire subdiscipline.


a political scientist.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:45 AM on January 1 [2 favorites]

I would add, and then I should stop commenting, that there are many other conditions under which you wouldn't get testimony-- these conditions are met a long time before you find yourself in a "hot" genocide.

Many oppressed people stop testifying about systemic issues long before those issues lead to open violence or forced dislocation.

I see this a lot in my work with environmental justice communities. People are asked to testify to the most existential, material, and spiritual pains of their people over and over again without any material benefits.

So I don't mean to dismiss the initial commenter, because they are exactly right. We should take what limited testimony is available more seriously, because eventually, those folks are going to be so traumatized and exhausted that they cannot continue to communicate their urgent situation.

When, say, black folks speak once about environmental racism in the United States, those of us out of the line of fire need to listen and consider the statements four times. Folks under the gun choose their words carefully, they often know they have limited chances to speak.

That the tools of mathematical statistics are not often applied to these situations is an understatement. Robert McNamara never applied his mind to the cultural problems of the Viet Cong, and the Viet Cong would not often think to look to the RAND corporation's methods for help in their cause.

Even the number of math and biology students that learn this stuff, and then get opportunities to apply their mind toward ethical problems, are severely limited. Most of them are not going to find employment in the advocacy sector. When they do, they are often employed as accountants, rather than as researcher advocates.
posted by eustatic at 12:09 PM on January 1 [7 favorites]

Subdiscipline, sure, bit it s never enough to just know things, we have to use the knowledge to effect material changes.

What is the legal mechanism for affecting change? Administrative Procedures Act in the US?

Is there academic funding for developing a cadre of expert witnesses?
posted by eustatic at 12:13 PM on January 1

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