A statistician who’s spent his life lifting the fog of war

Tina Rosenberg writes: The choreography of a typical human rights investigation goes like this: Researchers interview victims and witnesses and write their report. The local media cover it — if they can. Then those accused dismiss it; you have nothing more than stories, it’s one word against another, the sources are biased, the evidence faked. And it goes away.

On March 13, 2002, in a courtroom in The Hague, something different happened. In the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Patrick Ball, an American statistician, presented numbers to support the case that Milosevic had pursued a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. “We find evidence consistent with the hypothesis that Yugoslav forces forced people from their homes, forced Albanian Kosovars from their homes, and killed people,” Ball said.

Ball made this statement under cross-examination by Milosevic’s lawyer, who was, in fact, Milosevic himself. Over two days, the former president of Yugoslavia used his time to rage at Ball: The evidence was fabricated. The organizations that gathered the data were anti-Serb, trying to “galvanize public opinion and raise hostility against the Serbs and the desire to punish them,” Milosevic insisted. War is chaos, he said — how can you be so simplistic as to think that outcomes have a single cause? Why didn’t you examine Serb refugee flows? How can you, a self-described supporter of international law, be considered objective?

These were the usual arguments. They seldom persuade, but their mere existence creates a counterweight to the accusations made by human rights groups: Someone who wants to claim it’s their word against ours now has something to grasp. But Ball offered far more as evidence than interviews with Albanians who had fled their villages. He had obtained records from Kosovo’s borders of who left and when. He had exhumation data and a wealth of information about the displaced. In short, he had numbers.

Traditionally, human rights work has been more akin to investigative reporting, but Ball is the most influential of a handful of people around the world who see that world not in terms of words, but of figures. His specialty is applying quantitative analysis to mountains of anecdotes, finding the correlations that coax out a story that cannot easily be dismissed.

Could the movements of refugees have been random? No, Ball said. He had also plotted killings of Kosovars and found that both phenomena occurred at the same times and in the same places — flight and death, hand in hand. “I remember well the moment of astonishment that I felt when I saw the killing graph for the first time,” Ball replied to Milosevic. “I assumed I had made an error, because the correlation was so close.”

Something had caused both phenomena, and Ball examined three possibilities. First, the surges in killings and flight did not happen during or shortly after NATO bombings. Nor were they consistent with the pattern of attacks by Albanian guerrilla groups. They were consistent, however, with the third hypothesis, that Serb forces conducted a systematic campaign of killing and expulsions.

In testifying, Ball was doing something other human rights workers can only fantasize about: He confronted the accused, presented him with evidence, and watched him being held to account. At that point, Milosevic in his four wars had killed some 125,000 people, more than anyone in Europe since Stalin. But now the Butcher of the Balkans sat in a courtroom that looked rather like a community college classroom, with two Dutch police officers behind him and his cell waiting for him at the end of each day’s session, rhetorical bluster his only available weapon against Ball’s evidence.

Milosevic died before the trial ended. Ball returned to Washington and then went on to Lima to work for Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — one of dozens of truth commissions, tribunals, and investigatory bodies where his methods have changed our understanding of war. [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “A statistician who’s spent his life lifting the fog of war

  1. DE Teodoru

    Old saying: FIGURES DON’T LIE BUT LIARS FIGURE….a lot of Pentagon statisticians have been rolling us and selling us the Brooklyn Bridge for decades with STATISTICS….So has PHARMA and the AMA!

    So I kind of feel shy about stats for passive judges.

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