Challenges in Measuring Violent Conflict, Syria Edition

As part of a larger (but, unfortunately, gated) story on how the terrific new Global Data on Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) might help social scientists forecast violent conflicts, the New Scientist recently posted some graphics using GDELT to chart the ongoing civil war in Syria. Among those graphics was this time-series plot of violent events per day in Syria since the start of 2011:

Syrian Conflict   New Scientist

Based on that chart, the author of the story (not the producers of GDELT, mind you) wrote:

As Western leaders ponder intervention, the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months, from a peak in the third quarter of 2012.

That inference is almost certainly wrong, and why it’s wrong underscores one of the fundamental challenges in using event data—whether it’s collected and coded by software or humans or some combination thereof—to observe the dynamics of violent conflict.

I say that inference is almost certainly wrong because concurrent data on deaths and refugees suggest that violence in Syria has only intensified in past year. One of the most reputable sources on deaths from the war is the Syria Tracker. A screenshot of their chart of monthly counts of documented killings is shown below. Like GDELT, their data also identify a sharp increase in violence in late 2012. Unlike GDELT, their data indicate that the intensity of the violence has remained very high since then, and that’s true even though the process of documenting killings inevitably lags behind the actual violence.

Syria Tracker monthly death counts

We see a similar pattern in data from the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) on people fleeing the fighting in Syria. If anything, the flow of refugees has only increased in 2013, suggesting that the violence in Syria is hardly abating.

UNHCR syria refugee plot

The reason GDELT’s count of violent events has diverged from other measures of the intensity of the violence in Syria in recent months is probably something called “media fatigue.” Data sets of political events generally depend on news sources to spot events of interest, and it turns out that news coverage of large-scale political violence follows a predictable arc. As Deborah Gerner and Phil Schrodt describe in a paper from the late 1990s, press coverage of a sustained and intense conflicts is often high when hostilities first break out but then declines steadily thereafter. That decline can happen because editors and readers get bored, burned out, or distracted. It can also happen because the conflict gets so intense that it becomes, in a sense, too dangerous to cover. In the case of Syria, I suspect all of these things are at work.

My point here isn’t to knock GDELT, which is still recording scores or hundreds of events in Syria every day, automatically, using open-source code, and then distributing those data to the public for free. Instead, I’m just trying to remind would-be users of any data set of political events to infer with caution. Event counts are one useful way to track variation over time in political processes we care about, but they’re only one part of the proverbial elephant, and they are inevitably constrained by the limitations of the sources from which they draw. To get a fuller sense of the beast, we need as often as possible to cross-reference those event data with other sources of information. Each of the sources I’ve cited here has its own blind spots and selection biases, but a comparison of trends from all three—and, importantly, an awareness of the likely sources of those biases—is enough to give me confidence that the civil war in Syria is only continuing to intensify. That says something important about Syria, of course, but it also says something important about the risks of drawing conclusions from event counts alone.

PS. For a great discussion of other sources of bias in the study of political violence, see Stathis Kalyvas’ 2004 essay on “The Urban Bias in Research on Civil Wars” (PDF).

I’m Down with Complexity and All, But…

In a recent Scientific American blog post called “Big Data Needs a Big Theory“, Geoffrey West calls for a unified theory of complex systems that will advance our understanding of, and capacity to predict, stasis and change in many domains. Quoting at length:

The digital revolution is driving much of the increasing complexity and pace of life we are now seeing, but this technology also presents an opportunity… With new computational tools and techniques to digest vast, interrelated databases, researchers and practitioners in science, technology, business and government have begun to bring large-scale simulations and models to bear on questions formerly out of reach of quantitative analysis, such as how cooperation emerges in society, what conditions promote innovation, and how conflicts spread and grow.

The trouble is, we don’t have a unified, conceptual framework for addressing questions of complexity. We don’t know what kind of data we need, nor how much, or what critical questions we should be asking. “Big data” without a “big theory” to go with it loses much of its potency and usefulness, potentially generating new unintended consequences.

When the industrial age focused society’s attention on energy in its many manifestations—steam, chemical, mechanical, and so on—the universal laws of thermodynamics came as a response. We now need to ask if our age can produce universal laws of complexity that integrate energy with information. What are the underlying principles that transcend the extraordinary diversity and historical contingency and interconnectivity of financial markets, populations, ecosystems, war and conflict, pandemics and cancer? An overarching predictive, mathematical framework for complex systems would, in principle, incorporate the dynamics and organization of any complex system in a quantitative, computable framework.

We will probably never make detailed predictions of complex systems, but coarse-grained descriptions that lead to quantitative predictions for essential features are within our grasp. We won’t predict when the next financial crash will occur, but we ought to be able to assign a probability of one occurring in the next few years. The field is in the midst of a broad synthesis of scientific disciplines, helping reverse the trend toward fragmentation and specialization, and is groping toward a more unified, holistic framework for tackling society’s big questions.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think that agenda is unrealistic.

I agree with West that human social systems are best understood as complex systems in the technical sense of that term (see here). Still, on the possibility of law-like regularities in complex systems that extend to large-scale human social behavior and are usefully predictive, I’m skeptical. It’s hard for me to imagine what those laws would look like, but then I know that my incapacity to understand the universe is not a reliable indicator of the universe’s inherent regularity or intelligibility.protein_network

At the same time, I think West’s analogizing to physics and the laws of thermodynamics ignores the single most-important difference between the “natural” sciences and the social sciences, namely, the (in)ability to perform true experiments. (N.B. Humans and their social interactions are, of course, entirely “natural,” too, but these are the terms we conventionally use.) Social scientists can only observe the systems we study; we can’t repeatedly perturb them in specific ways under tightly controlled conditions and see how things play out.

The impossibility of experimentation means we’re never going to be able to see the counterfactuals we’d need to see to make clear and confident inferences about rules or laws. That doesn’t mean we can’t find some robust patterns, but those patterns will never be anywhere near as universal and specific as the laws of thermodynamics.

The fuzziness of our understanding also means that the patterns we do see will have only modest predictive power at best. Those fuzzy patterns will allow us to assess differences in propensities with some success, as they already do now, but they will not lead us to sharply accurate predictions about the timing and details of change.

More important, those patterns themselves will change over time, as the underlying system continues to evolve. As West suggests, the changes that are creating new opportunities for analysis are themselves products of exponential growth in the complexity of human society. It’s an empirical question, I suppose, but I find it hard to believe that the processes which beget conflicts between states in the middle of the twenty-first century—an age of nukes and mega-cities and deep globalization—will resemble the processes that begat World Wars I and II in all but the most banal ways. And, of course, that’s assuming that states in the conventional sense are even still around.

A Few Suggestions for Social Scientists New to Twitter

Earlier today, one scholar whose work I greatly admire asked another scholar whose work I greatly admire for advice on how to get started on Twitter. I liked Dan’s response, but I thought I’d take Christian’s query as an open invitation to share a few suggestions of my own. So:

Replace the egg with a picture of you. Seriously, don’t even start following people until you’ve done this. It’s not vain; it’s just letting people know that there’s (probably) a real human on the other end, and letting us know something about how you plan to present yourself in this context. Some people can get away with using cartoons or pictures of their pets or kids, but most of us can’t. So, unless you’re trying to make a very specific statement by doing something different, you probably shouldn’t try.

Decide why you’re using Twitter. If your main goal is to use Twitter as a news feed or to follow other peoples’ work, then it’s a really easy tool to use. Just poke around until you find people and organizations that routinely cover the issues that interest you, and follow them. If, however, your goal is to develop a professional audience, then you need to put more thought into what you tweet and retweet, and the rest of my suggestions might be useful.

Pick your niche(s). There are a lot of social scientists on Twitter, and many of them are picky about whom they follow. To make it worth peoples’ while to add you to their feed, pick one or a few of your research interests and focus almost all of your tweets and retweets on them. For example, I’ve tried to limit my tweets to the topics I blog about: democratization, coups, state collapse,  forecasting, and a bit of international relations. When I was new to Twitter, I focused especially on democratization and forecasting because those weren’t topics other people were tweeting much about at the time. I think that differentiation made it easier for people to attach an identity to my avatar, and to understand what they would get by following me that they weren’t already getting from the 500 other accounts in their feeds.

Keep the tweet volume low, at least at the start. For a long time, I tried to limit myself to two or three tweets per Twitter session, usually once or twice per day. That made me think carefully about what I tweeted, (hopefully) keeping the quality higher and preventing me from swamping peoples’ feeds, a big turnoff for many.

Don’t just share the news; augment it. If you’re tweeting a news story or journal article or something, use a short quote or comment that crystallizes the story or tells us something about why you think it’s worth reading. In other words, try to add value. I usually lead with the title, then insert the link, then hang the quote or comment at the end, like this:

But, of course, there are lots of ways to do this. You can also drop the title entirely, like this recent one from Joshua Kucera that got me laughing:

Keep it professional.  If you’re thinking of Twitter as an extension of your work, don’t tweet about personal stuff. This is especially important when you’re new to the medium. The occasional reference to your life outside the office can help people feel more connected to you, but please err on the side of reticence. I have chosen not to follow or unfollowed many people because the interesting stuff in their feed was overwhelmed by the personal and trivial (and sometimes just downright gross). At some point, all that jetsam gets in the way of the information I’m actually looking for, so I choose to cut it off.

Related to the previous suggestion, be polite. In theory, this should go without saying, but, hey, this is the Internet. If you’re using Twitter for professional purposes, I think it makes sense to use the same language and demeanor you’d use in the office or at a professional conference. That can include humor and the occasional personal tidbit you’d share in a hallway conversation, but probably not the bar talk, and definitely not the post-conference conversations with your confidantes. It most definitely does not include nastiness or pettiness.

Be generous. Don’t retweet something under your own handle just to troll for RTs. If you want to share something someone else already shared, just pass along his or her tweet. The exception to this rule is when you’re going to add your own comment. Then just be sure to acknowledge the source with a via or h/t (hat tip). If a bunch of people already shared something so you’re not sure whom to credit, the answer is, Don’t share it again.

If you modify someone’s tweet at all before passing it along, use MT. This is a Twitter pet peeve of mine. RT (retweet) should only be used when what follows is a verbatim replication of the original. If you change anything—abbreviate, drop a comma, whatever—use MT (modified tweet) instead.

Finally, know that it’s addictive. I don’t mean fun-and-time-consuming addictive; I mean addictive addictive, like nicotine and booze. Before you dive in, it’s worth considering how that addiction might negatively affect your life and how you plan to deal with it. Just because lots of people do it doesn’t mean it’s good for you. The time you spend on Twitter is time you could have spent doing something else. If that something else is more important and you’re prone to addiction, be careful.

Development as Ideology

In a blog post yesterday, Duke economist Marc Bellemare responded to a recent contrarian piece on Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab about development trends in Africa. In the FP essay, Rick Rowden argued that recent claims of “Africa rising” ring hollow because the expansions of GDP and trade on which those claims are based aren’t driven by industrialization. Bellemare’s having none of it:

Not everyone agrees as to what “development” means, but for most economists, development means increased standards of living, which are best measured via economic statistics such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which may or may not reflect growth in the manufacturing and services sector of the economy.

I think Marc’s right that it’s more useful to define (human social) development in ways that are agnostic of specific causes, and that many professional economists nowadays think in those terms. At the same time, I get a little uneasy whenever development is linked tightly to GDP growth. Being acquainted with Marc, I suspect that his aim in doing so is simply to make empirical analysis of development more tractable. Still, it’s also true that there’s a powerful strain of technocratic thinking in some quarters of economics, one that prioritizes growth over all other things, and this myopia can sometimes become pernicious. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, for example, Armin Rosen accuses Jeffrey Sachs, a leading candidate for president of the World Bank not so long ago, of turning a blind eye toward the human-rights violations of authoritarian leaders in his pursuit of improved standards of living in Africa and elsewhere. The technocratic mindset was also on full display in a now-failed plan for charter cities in Honduras pushed by economist Paul Romer, and it’s a recurring theme in the columns of Thomas Friedman, whom development professionals love to hate.

In fact, even the driest definitions of human social development will inevitably carry a strong whiff of ideology, because the standards we set and the ways we measure progress toward them shape our behavior. Any definition of development implicitly or explicitly prioritizes some vision of the good life over others, and those visions generally entail some specific ideas about how to get there. The choice to include or expunge industrialization from a definition of “development,” for example, can influence what kinds of policies governments adopt in the pursuit or distribution of aid and loans tied to those metrics, and those policies can have vast consequences.

This is not a concern that’s unique to economics. In American political science, at least, when someone talks about “development,” they often mean to invoke a cluster of economic, social, and political changes that Seymour Martin Lipset called “modernization.” That cluster includes the improvements in standards of living that Bellemare emphasizes, but it also includes the industrialization Rowden spotlights, along with other things like urbanization, education, the spread of liberal values, and, perhaps most important, the emergence of a specific form of political democracy. In short, to “develop” was to follow the specific trail of socioeconomic transformation from primitivism into modernity that was blazed by Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that emphasis on mimicry has profoundly affected the ways the U.S. and Europe have tried to promote development.

When Lipset was writing, modernization theory’s chief intellectual and political competitor was Marxism. For Marxist theorists, Europe wasn’t a model to emulate; it was a bastion of economic inequality and plutocratic “democracy” that would eventually and inevitably collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. Industrialization was a critical feature of capitalism’s late stages that enabled maximal exploitation of labor by capital. It was both bad and good—bad because of the depths of exploitation it entailed, but good because it meant the end was nigh.

Of course, it was the USSR and its European client regimes that actually collapsed, and in the two decades since, almost all of the purportedly communist states left in the world have abandoned their commitment to Marxism and adopted variations on the capitalist theme instead. That turn in international political economy has hardly killed class-conscious theory, however. Although the strict Hegelian version of Marxism is rarely seen nowadays, the concern with economic inequality and its political consequences remains a central theme in leftist politics. Flip this concern around, and we arrive at yet another definition of development. For many leftists today, development is about the spread of social justice, and the essence of social justice is not wealth but fairness. Industrialization, electoral democracy, and economic expansion are not things to be valued in themselves but means (or, in some cases, obstacles) to these deeper ends.

Economic growth, modernization, and social justice are probably the three most prominent conceptualizations of development today, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. You might not think of libertarianism as a theory of development, but in an important sense it is. For libertarians, the good life is understood as one in which individuals are free to do as they please within only the sparest of constraints. Here again, industry, democracy, and growth are all beside the point. Liberty is the goal, and social and political changes that expand freedom can be understood as developmental gains. This idea finds one of its sharpest expressions in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, which that organization deliberately presents as an alternative to conventional measures focused on specific outcomes like poverty and education rates.

All of which is a very long-winded reminder that no conceptualization of development can exist without an ideological foundation. That would be like a shadow without a light source, a hole when there is no surface. To talk about “development” is to set goals for human social improvement, and the choices we make in setting those goals are inherently normative. We can’t escape this circle, so we might as well be explicit about it.

PS. Yes, I’m aware this has all been said a thousand times before, and often better. I decided to write the post anyway because it helped me organize some of my own thinking on the subject, and because the occasional reminder still can’t hurt.

A great post to mark a somber day.

daniel solomon

Today is Yom HaShoah; for my non-Tribal readership, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For global Jewry, Yom HaShoah is a day of mourning, to reflect on the deaths of 5.7 million Jews during the Second World War. In true form, Holocaust Remembrance Day is also a day of communal resilience, inspired by the splendor of a still-vibrant Jewish culture, history, and people, sixty-seven years after its impending destruction. As Jewish life in the United States has become increasingly secularized, Yom HaShoah’s resilience theme has adopted a universal tone. Holocaust Remembrance Day has shifted towards Genocide Prevention Month, applying the moral lessons of the Holocaust to past genocides, future atrocities, and the collective challenge of confronting them.

As I’ve discussed before, the past three decades of public Holocaust memory, commemoration, and remembrance have created an unwavering morality of atrocities response, manifested in the present-day atrocities prevention movement’s ethical posture. However, the texture…

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Democratization Resources on Twitter

After lamenting the scarcity of democratization resources on Twitter in my last post, I’m realizing I might do some good by calling out some of the excellent people and organizations who are already there. What follows is woefully incomplete and US-centric, I’m sure, but it’s what I’ve got right now. If you think someone or something is missing, please let me know in the Comments or via Twitter, and I’ll take a look. Users are listed in alphabetical order by Twitter handle. (If you’re new to Twitter and looking for these users, bear in mind that capitalization doesn’t matter, but punctuation does. You can also find all of these accounts under a list I’ve created called democratization-resources.)

aceproject_org. From the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, a useful source for information about technical aspects of upcoming elections.

africanelection. A terrific feed of election-related news stories selected by the African Elections project, mostly from local media.

davidjandura. A graduate student at Georgetown University who keeps a sharp eye on elections and party systems in the Middle East at his blog, Ahwa Talk.

Dem_Journal. A feed curated by Demokratizatsiya, a journal focused on political transformation in the Soviet successor states.

demdigest. Tweets announcing new entries to the always-interesting Democracy Digest blog, which is produced by the National Endowment for Democracy.

DemocracyTweetz. An activist feed from the World Movement for Democracy, a global democracy-promotion network backed by the National Endowment for Democracy.

electionguide. A resource for tracking election dates, brought to you by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), one of the premier international bodies for election management support.

EricaChenoweth. Erica is an assistant professor at Wesleyan University who does terrific research on civil resistance movements, which often play a role in democratic transitions. She also blogs at Rational Insurgent.

IFES1987. A newsier feed from the aforementioned IFES, with election-related stories from around the world.

IRIglobal. The International Republican Institute‘s Twitter face, a nice feed of news on human rights, transitions, and consolidation.

FreedomHouseDC. A feed of stories related to civil and political rights, from Freedom House, of course.

kenroth. The executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth, tweeting his organization’s points of concern.

marquezxavier. A political science lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington who blogs deep thoughts at Abandoned Footnotes.

NDI. Democracy-related news stories from all over the world, selected by staff at the US’s National Democratic Institute.

OpenSociety. Occasional and wide-ranging feed on human rights, from the Open Society Foundations founded by George Soros.

StanfordCDDRL. Occasional items from Stanford’s Center for Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law, a kind of interdisciplinary think tank within the university.

votesafe. A bursty but rich feed of election- and democracy-related news stories from Megan Reif, a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

Why Aren’t There More Democratization Scholars on Twitter?

I’ve been active on Twitter for a few months now, and I am still struggling to connect there with others scholars who study authoritarian politics, democratization, and democratic breakdown. There are plenty of people who self-identify as students or experts on national security, counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency, economic development, aid, and international relations theory.  There is also a nice collection of non-profit organizations and individual activists who are engaged in democracy promotion, an endeavor that’s related to, but clearly distinct from, scholarship on how, when, and why processes of regime change occur.

So where is everybody? As a member of the American Political Science Association‘s Comparative Democratization section, I know those scholars are out there. They just don’t seem to be tweeting. That’s a shame, because Twitter is a great way to share and vet ideas with, and learn from, scads of people you’ll never encounter in your corporeal life. In the past few months, Twitter has helped me, among other things: follow the twists and turns of Egypt’s transition plans; learn about shady license sales linked to upcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo; gauge the resilience of pro-democracy protests in Morocco; and learn more about the roots of social unrest in China. It has also given me a nice venue to share and discuss my own ideas about things like the effectiveness of U.S. democracy promotion projects, the prospects for new democracies in the Arab world, and the nature of the democratization process.

Maybe I’m just looking under the wrong rocks, and there’s a host of democratization scholars on Twitter or in the wider world of long-form bloggers with whom I’ve simply failed to connect. If I’m not missing something, then maybe I ought to be selfishly glad; after all, scarcity helps drive interest toward those of us who are active in this medium.

Really, though, I can’t help but think there’s a big, fat missed opportunity here, both for the scholars who aren’t participating in the conversation and for the other communities of interest who might want to converse with them. This gap is especially glaring amid the flurry of regime collapses, revolutions, and, hopefully, democratic transitions we’re seeing in 2011. At times like this, the academic publishing cycle seems painfully slow, rendering work that attempts to respond to these kinds of developments inaccessible right when it’s most relevant.

So, students and scholars of democratization, consider this an open invitation: come join the conversation! And if you do, please give me a shout at @jay_ulfelder.

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