Archive | Violence

Yes, Forecasting Conflict Can Help Make Better Foreign Policy Decisions: A Response to Salehyan

Over at Dart Throwing Chimp, Jay Ulfelder responds to yesterday’s Monkey Cage guest post by Idean Salehyan. He notes that:

Ultimately, we all have a professional and ethical responsibility for the consequences of our work. For statistical forecasters, I think this means, among other things, a responsibility to be honest about the limitations, and to attend to the uses, of the forecasts we produce. The fact that we use mathematical equations to generate our forecasts and we can quantify our uncertainty doesn’t always mean that our forecasts are more accurate or more precise than what pundits offer, and it’s incumbent on us to convey those limitations. It’s easy to model things. It’s hard to model them well, and sometimes hard to spot the difference. We need to try to recognize which of those worlds we’re in and to communicate our conclusions about those aspects of our work along with our forecasts. (N.B. It would be nice if more pundits tried to abide by this rule as well. Alas, as Phil Tetlock points out in Expert Political Judgment, the market for this kind of information rewards other things.)

However, he takes issue with Salehyan’s claim that forecasters somehow get more attention from policy makers:

In my experience and the experience of every policy veteran with whom I’ve ever spoken about the subject, Salehyan’s conjecture that “statistical forecasts are likely to carry greater weight in the policy community” is flat wrong. In many ways, the intellectual culture within the U.S. intelligence and policy communities mirrors the intellectual culture of the larger society from which their members are drawn. If you want to know how those communities react to statistical forecasts of the things they care about, just take a look at the public discussion around Nate Silver’s election forecasts. The fact that statistical forecasts aren’t blithely and blindly accepted doesn’t absolve statistical forecasters of responsibility for their work. Ethically speaking, though, it matters that we’re nowhere close to the world Salehyan imagines in which the layers of deliberation disappear and a single statistical forecast drives a specific foreign policy decision.

He concludes that:

Look, these decisions are going to be made whether or not we produce statistical forecasts, and when they are made, they will be informed by many things, of which forecasts—statistical or otherwise—will be only one. That doesn’t relieve the forecaster of ethical responsibility for the potential consequences of his or her work. It just means that the forecaster doesn’t have a unique obligation in this regard. In fact, if anything, I would think we have an ethical obligation to help make those forecasts as accurate as we can in order to reduce as much as we can the uncertainty about this one small piece of the decision process. It’s a policymaker’s job to confront these kinds of decisions, and their choices are going to be informed by expectations about the probability of various alternative futures. Given that fact, wouldn’t we rather those expectations be as well informed as possible? I sure think so, and I’m not the only one.

The full post is available here.

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Can forecasting conflict help to make better foreign policy decisions?

Below Idean Salehyan grapples with the question whether forecasting conflict can help to make better foreign policy decisions?


Most social scientists are concerned with explaining the behavior of individuals and groups: Why do some people commit crime? What explains the organizational decisions of firms? Why are some countries more democratic than others?  However, an increasing number of articles on violent conflict have turned their attention to predicting things like war and state collapse rather than simply explaining their occurrence (here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, and 4).  Forecasts guide many of our decisions, such as what to wear tomorrow and where to invest our money.  But can forecasting conflict and war help to make better foreign policy decisions?

The advocates of conflict forecasting are often explicit about their desire to be ‘policy relevant’ by drawing attention to potential hot spots.  Indeed, some of these efforts are funded by government agencies, such as the US Pentagon, which would like to develop better crystal balls (see here and here).  Conflict scholars have long made arguments about what may transpire in the future, even if they are not explicitly engaged in forecasting.  These assessments about troubled areas and potential violence are certainly useful and have undoubtedly played an important role in policy debates.  Yet, scholars would do well to consider some of the normative issues involved in prognostication.

For now, I will leave aside methodological concerns that arise in debates about forecasting, such as the ‘black swan’ problem (or the difficultly of predicting very rare but influential events, such as the ‘Arab Spring’).  Assuming we can devise a method by which we are reasonably confident in our ability to forecast conflict—albeit with some error—what should we do with such knowledge?  What ethical and practical issues arise when using forecasts to guide policy?  I argue that scholars cannot be aloof from the real-world implications of their work, but must think carefully about the potential uses of forecasts.

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“Stop and frisk” statistics

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen brings up one of my research topics:

In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.

Those statistics represent the justification for New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk.

I have two comments on this. First, my research with Jeff Fagan and Alex Kiss (based on data from the late 1990s, so maybe things have changed) found that the NYPD was stopping blacks and hispanics at a rate higher than their previous arrest rates:

To briefly summarize our findings, blacks and Hispanics represented 51% and 33% of the stops while representing only 26% and 24% of the New York City population. Compared with the number of arrests of each group in the previous year (used as a proxy for the rate of criminal behavior), blacks were stopped 23% more often than whites and Hispanics were stopped 39% more often than whites. Controlling for precinct actually increased these discrepancies, with minorities between 1.5 and 2.5 times as often as whites (compared with the groups’ previous arrest rates in the precincts where they were stopped) for the most common categories of stops (violent crimes and drug crimes), with smaller differences for property and drug crimes.

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I can’t fault Cohen here, he’s just a newspaper columnist, you can’t expect him to be aware of a six-year-old article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. And things may have changed since 1998-1999 (which is when our data are from). But the data we have here shows the police were disproportionately stopping minorities.

The other thing is, I don’t think Cohen is necessarily being fair to the police when he describes the stop-and-frisk program as “racial profiling.” As we wrote in our paper, “It is quite reasonable to suppose that effective policing requires stopping and questioning many people to gather information about any given crime.” It could well be that a statistical pattern of stops could arise from individual decisions that are not based on race but instead are based on characteristics that are correlated with race. I have no idea what the police are doing—-my only experience here is with the numbers.

I that Cohen is, on one hand, way too quick to dismiss the numbers with his blanket statement that “young black males are your shooters” and on the other hand may be way too quick to describe police work as racial profiling.

P.S. As a bonus, Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias connects this to one of my other research interests: Bayesian inference. I won’t comment on Yglesias’s remarks except to point out that Bayes’ theorem is a two-way street. The problem here is not so much Bayesian inference as its application to decision analysis. If you have to make individual decisions by maximizing the probability of success (catching a criminal, if you are the police), then profiling can be a logical strategy. Reasons not to profile include, “equal protection of the laws” etc. and also indirect effects of what one might call the “profiling culture,” effects such as hassling innocent people, reducing trust in the police, empowerment of Bernard Goetz and George Zimmerman to go around shooting people, etc. Bayes’ theorem is relevant in all these calculations but the issues here are not trivial.

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Trayvon Martin and the Burden of Being a Black Male

We welcome another guest post from Corrine McConnaughy, a political scientist at The Ohio State University.


Could race could have played any role in the confrontation that resulted in Treyvon Martin’s death and in the jury’s interpretation of the evidence  that led them to acquit George Zimmerman?  Answering those questions is very hard, in part because we do not have direct, objective evidence on exactly what occurred between Martin and Zimmerman, nor statements from the jury about their thought processes. What social scientists know about race, however, questions whether even that evidence would give us the answer. “Race” can work in ways that are exceedingly difficult to detect. White opinion of blacks contains important implicit biases as well as stubbornly persistent explicit prejudice.  Although no firm conclusions are possible about Zimmerman and Martin, I will note two features of their altercation and Zimmerman’s trial that could have exacerbated implicit bias.  And I will describe new research showing how explicit prejudice toward blacks singles out black males like Trayvon Martin in particular.

Many studies have demonstrated a decline in overt racism over the last several decades.  White Americans have become less likely to say that they believe that African Americans are inherently inferior to whites, such as that they are less intelligent or hardworking than whites, and more likely to support contact with blacks, such as by living in neighborhoods with a significant number of black residents and by inter-racial marriage. Negative sentiments about blacks still exist, of course. The percentage of whites who express overt racism hovers around 20 to 30 percent. Yet, clearly many white Americans have moved past racism, making it plausible that the individuals involved in the Zimmerman trial—Zimmerman himself, the lawyers, the jurors—had no racial bias motivating their thoughts and actions.

Stopping at overt racism, however, is stopping far too short. Research on aversive racism uses implicit measurement strategies to show that even those white Americans that express racially egalitarian views are not immune from holding—and acting upon—racial prejudice. Negative implicit views are most likely to produce discriminatory or harmful behavior toward blacks when there is no social monitoring of the behavior—that is, no one is “watching”—and the behavior can be justified or rationalized based on a factor other than race. Those who are racially egalitarian on both explicit and implicit measures, however, do not engage in such behavior.

This points to a first feature of Zimmerman’s altercation: it was an interaction that was observed clearly by no one.  Witnesses could only sketch bits of what transpired that night.  None of them was visible to Zimmerman.  Other things equal, this makes it more likely that race played a role in that interaction, even if Zimmerman holds no overtly racist beliefs about blacks. Negative racial attitudes or affect of which Zimmerman may not even be aware remain untested but plausible motivations for his actions.

This brings us to the second feature: the Zimmerman trial judge’s decision to sharply limit the explicit reference to race—including denying the prosecution the ability to argue that Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling.  Studies of the legal system and aversive racism show that the less explicitly race is engaged in the discourse in the courtroom, the more likely aversive racism is to influence the decisionmaking process of the jurors. Thus, the judge’s decision also makes it more likely that race played a role in the outcome of the case.

Finally, there is the question of whether it mattered that Martin was a black male. Here we do not have to ferret out unconscious forms of racial bias.  This bias is readily evident in media coverage of crime, which disproportionately emphasizes violent crime perpetrated by non-white males and helps to increase support among white Americans for more punitive crime policies.  Such bias is also evident in public opinion.  Ismail White and I have been conducting a number of studies on the uniqueness of attitudes toward black men. In a nationally representative sample of white Americans, we find that black men are indeed considered uniquely violent. While a traditional question about racial and gender stereotyping finds that whites perceive “blacks” as more violent than “whites” and “men” as more violent than “women,” a question that asks about combinations of these identities—black men, white women, etc.—shows how black men are uniquely stigmatized.  More than 40 percent said that many or almost all black men were violent, but less than 20 percent said that of black women and white men. The figure below displays these results (with the bands indicating 95 percent confidence intervals). mcconnaughy1

We also extend one of the implicit measures of racial attitudes, the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP), to measure how white Americans view not simply blacks and whites, but men and women of each race.  As displayed in the figure below, we find that black males elicit the most negative sentiments. Indeed, those who responded the fastest to the measurement task—thus the most clearly expressed implicit bias—registered not only extremely sharp divides between black men and whites of both genders, but also made a clear distinction between black men and black women.

mcconnaughy2In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, some commentators have reflected on the social burden of black men and even asked who is afraid of (young) black men.  Our research demonstrates that black men do in fact face unique burdens—one of explicit racial blame and also the deeper scar of implicit bias. Trayvon Martin was a part of a social group that many white Americans distinctly malign. While we cannot say with certainty exactly how his race and gender mattered that fateful night in Sanford or in the subsequent trial of Zimmerman, his case offers an important opportunity to understand and perhaps start to undo this unique burden for black men.

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Violence as a Source of Trust in Mafia-type Organizations

Criminals have great difficulty in trusting each other – they often have conflicting interests (and may sometimes have incentives to inform on each other) but have no very good equivalent of the state to enforce contracts. One traditional solution is to rely on family members, who are presumably more trustworthy.

But there are others – scholars such as Thomas Schelling and Diego Gambetta have speculated that shared information about violent acts might help to cement cooperation. If I know that you have committed a violent act, and you know that I have committed a violent act, we each have information on each other that we might threaten to use if relations go sour (Schelling notes that one of the most valuable rights in business relations is the right to be sued – this is a functional equivalent). Of course, it’s difficult to establish this empirically – as Gambetta notes in his classic book on the Sicilian mafia, active mafiosi make poor interview subjects – at the very best they are likely to be reticent about their activities.

Paolo Campana and Federico Varese have a very nice new article in Rationality and Society which tests how both traditional sources of trust such as family ties, and less conventional sources such as shared information about violence, might work among real criminals.

This article relies on two unique datasets we have collected on two Mafialike organizations: a Neapolitan Camorra clan based some 50 kilometres north of Naples, and a Russian Mafia group operating in Rome. … Both groups had been under extensive police surveillance, during which investigators were able to monitor all the telephone lines used by the key players, and listen to their conversations. … In both instances we had access to the files prepared by the police for the Prosecutor Office to be used as evidence in court; they include the transcripts of the wiretapped phone conversations. … The network of contacts between the core members of the Neapolitan Camorra clan amounts to 1370 while the core members of the Russian group have exchanged a total of 295 contacts among them.
Kinship does indeed have a statistically significant effect in the Camorra clan: the frequency of contacts between two associates increases when both are near-relatives of the boss. This finding confirms the importance of kinship within this particular Mafia. Extended kinship appears to play a role in the case of the Russian–Italian group. Rather more surprisingly, in both models violence does have an impact on tie formation between two actors. Having shared information about violent acts increases the frequency of contacts occurring among two actors. The ‘violence effect’ is fairly strong, and greater than that recorded for kinship in both cases, including the Camorra. This would suggest that even in clans made of relatives, having discussed violence is a better predictor of cooperation than kinship itself. This further suggests that there is nothing ontological in the role of kinship in organized crime. When better and more reliable mechanisms to increase commitment are available, criminals will use them, just as organizations in advanced societies tend to rely on merit rather than kinship when recruiting employees.
There is additional, non-statistical evidence of the use of violence as a form of credible commitment. The boss of the Camorra clan discussed here would instruct all his men to shoot together at the same time when committing a murder. Everybody in the firing squad had to fire at least one shot. … Each perpetrator is made ‘a hostage’ to all the others, in order to reduce his incentives to defect and/or inform on his fellow associates.
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How Computers Can Help Us Track Violent Conflicts — Including Right Now in Syria

This is a guest post by David Masad of Caerus Analytics.  An elaborated version of this analysis is here.


One of the important challenges in studying conflict is simply identifying where it happens.  For more than 40 years, researchers have sought to build systematic data about episodes of conflict. Monitoring events on the ground in hundreds of countries is quite difficult, but now, thanks to the tremendous work of political scientist Philip Schrodt and Patrick Brandt and information scientist Kalev Leetaru, there is a new dataset—the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT)—that facilitates this task:

The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) is an initiative to construct a catalog of human societal-scale behavior and beliefs across all countries of the world over the last two centuries down to the city level globally, to make all of this data freely available for open research, and to provide daily updates to create the first “realtime social sciences earth observatory.” Nearly a quarter-billion georeferenced events capture global behavior in more than 300 categories covering 1979 to present with daily updates.

But does it work?  Can we remotely observe violence conflicts around the world through computer-coded media reports?  Building on previous analyses by New Scientist magazine and Jay Ulfelder, I will show that the GDELT data can indeed help us do that by examining GDELT data about the ongoing Syrian civil war.  In particular, I will show that the violent events identified in GDELT correlate with death tolls at the national level. I will also show that GDELT events are correlated with the future registration of refugees. This preliminary analysis suggests that GDELT does capture underlying dynamics in the Syrian civil war, although the analysis also suggests where the GDELT data may fall short.

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What Can Research on Coups Tell Us About Egypt?

This is a guest post by University of Kentucky political scientists Clayton Thyne.


Political scientists and other scholars have amassed a substantial body of work about coups.  Below I discuss what this work has found and how it is linked to the events in Egypt.  The important lesson that emerges is that the coup in Egypt likely to be bad for Egypt’s fledgling democracy, but a strong response by international actors could help keep Egypt on a democratic trajectory in the long run.

What happened in Egypt was certainly a coup.  Jonathan Powell best explains why the military take-over was definitely a coup by summarizing definitions used by fifteen previous scholars who have previously defined “coups,” and Jay Ulfelder comes to a similar conclusion.  Both Jon and Jay are right—the coup was overt, perpetrated by people from the state apparatus, and it was illegal.  Of this we should have little debate.

Furthermore, systematic data on coups show that what happened in Egypt is relatively uncommon.  Below I plot total and successful coups over time using the data that Powell and I compiled.  The number of coups has fallen significantly over time, although they are certainly not non-existent.  There have been 40 coup attempts since 2000 (17 successful) and 5 coup attempts in 2012 (3 successful).



The Egyptian coup might seem unusual because it was preceded by a popular protest, but in fact these protests regularly precede coups, as Jeremy Pressman rightly noted.  Work by me and Aaron Belkin and Evan Schofer shows that popular protests are one of the most consistent predictors of coups.

What does the coup mean for the future of democracy in Egypt?  Powell and I show that coups can increase the likelihood of democratization when they overthrow authoritarian regimes, something that seems to be especially true in the post-Cold War era, when elections come sooner after coups according to the findings of Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans.  But when there is a coup against a democratically elected government, like Morsi’s in Egypt, the scholarly literature is less optimistic: coups that take place against democracies are bad for democracy.

So, what happens now?  Most of what I have seen focuses on the internal political dynamics in Egypt (see, for example, analyses from Doug Mataconis).  Internal dynamics will undoubtedly be important, but we shouldn’t lose focus on the international community.  Although there isn’t a large literature on how the response of the international community matters—though see this forthcoming paper from Megan Shannon and co-authors —support from international actors appear to increase the tenure of leaders who come to power via coups.  Using data from Archigos, Powell and myself, and Shannon et al., I examined 205 leaders who came to power from a coup between 1951 and 2004.  When these leaders drew positive support from other states and/or from international organizations (IOs) in the six months following the coup, they stayed in power longer than when they drew mainly negative support.  Leaders who came to power via a coup that was supported by the international community lasted over 2 years longer than those who came to power and were condemned by the international community.  Leaders who enjoyed state support after seizing power lasted over 3 years longer on average than those who faced a hostile response.



Thus, it may matter a great deal how the international community responds to events in Egypt.  The African Union has already followed its rules by suspending Egypt, but there haven’t seen a similarly decisive response from many others.  As should be expected from Daniel Morey and co-authors’ study of international responses to the Arab Spring uprisings, the Obama administration is all over the place (or see Joel Pollak’s rather scathing critique).  Without strong international pressure in support of democracy, the military in Egypt essentially has a blank check to do whatever they want with the state.  We’re quickly seeing this play out with the crackdown of supporters of the previous government and the waning hope of seeing someone like ElBaradei gain a strong position of power.  A spade is not a shovel, and condemning a coup is not the same stating that “the future path of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people.”  Coups are bad for democracy, international responses to coups matter, and Egypt’s path towards (or away from) democracy will likely hinge upon strong international pressure to return to elections and respect the electoral outcome as soon as possible.

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Jihadi foreign fighters: How dangerous?

In our continuing collaboration with political science journals, the following guest post is written by Thomas Hegghammer (@hegghammer), a political scientist and historian at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). He is currently the Zuckerman fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (@CISAC).  His article in the February 2013 issue of the American Political Science Review to which the post refers is available ungated here through June 15, 2013.


Last week, radical Islamists stabbed a British soldier to death in Woolwich, South London. Meanwhile other Western jihadists were busy fighting Bashar al-Assad’s army in Syria. Although these activities seem unrelated, they raise an interesting question: Why do some Western jihadists attack at home while others fight abroad? Moreover, if jihadists are so keen to attack the West, why do some of them leave, given that they are already “behind enemy lines”? And how worried should we be about the prospect of foreign fighters returning to perpetrate terrorist attacks?

My article in the February 2013 issue of the American Political Science Review tries to answer these questions by looking at where Western jihadists have chosen to fight over the years and why. I rely on open-source data, including a new dataset on jihadi plots in the West (1990-2010) and a set of numerical observations of foreign fighter flows. My five main findings are as follows:

  1. Foreign fighting is by far the most common activity. Foreign fighters outnumber domestic attackers by at least 3 to 1 (over 900 vs. 300 individuals over 20 years).

  2. Western jihadists seem to prefer foreign fighting for normative reasons. They heed religious authorities who consider fighting in warzones more legitimate than killing civilians in Western cities.

  3. Most foreign fighters appear not to leave with the intention to train for a domestic operation.  However, a minority do acquire this motivation after their departure.

  4. Most foreign fighters never return for domestic plots. In my data, at most 1 in 9 foreign fighters came home to roost.

  5. Those foreign fighters who do return are significantly more effective operatives than non-veterans. They act as entrepreneurs and concoct plots that are twice as likely to kill.

For policymakers, the main takeaway from the article is that foreign fighters as a group pose somewhat less of a terrorist threat to the West than is often assumed. The widespread view of foreign fighters as very dangerous stems from their documented role in several serious terrorist plots in the past decade. However, this reasoning selects on the dependent variable, because it considers only the small subset of foreign fighters who returned to attack, disregarding the majority who were never heard from again. A related, but equally flawed assumption is that all foreign fighters leave for training, as part of a cunning strategy to “come back and hit us harder”. The fact that some foreign fighters trained and returned does not mean that all foreign fighters departed with that intention. As it turns out, not even those who did train and return say they planned it from the start. It follows from this that a government approach which treats all foreign fighters as domestic-terrorists-in-the-making risks wasting resources, because so few foreign fighters, statistically speaking, will go on to attack in the West.

A first step toward a more efficient counterterrorism strategy is to differentiate between outgoing and homecoming foreign fighters and focus resources on the latter. Some countries might consider going a little lighter on outgoing foreign fighters. The US government today spends considerable resources investigating, prosecuting, and incarcerating Muslims who merely attempt to join conflict zones like Somalia. While there should clearly be sanctions in place to deter foreign fighting, the deterrence effort could be better calibrated to the documented threat. By contrast, Islamists returning from conflict zones or neighbouring countries should be watched very carefully. This is hardly news to Western intelligence services, but the fact that the last two major attacks in the West, the Boston bombings and the Woolwich murder, involved unsupervised returnees – from Dagestan and Kenya/Somalia respectively – suggests an even greater effort is needed.

A second step is to distinguish between subsets of foreign fighters according to the rate by which they “produce” domestic attackers. This issue is not addressed in my article and will require new research and analysis. We do not yet know why some foreign fighters and not others move on to domestic operations. Nor do we know why some destinations produce more domestic attackers than others. The AfPak region, for example, has produced tens of foreign-turned-domestic fighters, while Somalia has hardly produced any.

Understanding these “determinants of differential returnee production” will be key to managing the future threat from the foreign fighters in Syria, a challenge that is not to be taken lightly. Just two years into the war, there may be over 500 Western Muslims fighting in Syria, more than in any previous Islamist foreign fighter destination, including the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Most of these individuals are unlikely to pose a threat, but some will, so we should start thinking soon about who they are and when we might expect them. The most important indicator to watch is probably the declared strategic intent of jihadi organizations in Syria. If a group such as Jabhat al-Nusra should decide to systematically target the West, then the foreign fighter threat from Syria would increase substantially, as did the threat from Afghanistan when al-Qaida “went global” in the 1990s. In the meantime, we can take comfort in the finding that most jihadis choose foreign fighting because they do not want to be terrorists.

Now through June 15, 2013, my research from the APSR will be freely available to the public.


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