19 February 2008

'the intersection of mathematics and murder'

a couple of profiles of patrick ball, my colleague/mentor/boss/thing at HRDAG, in the news recently...

this christian science monitor piece comes with a picture of patrick's glowery evil twin attached, and has a nice summary of patrick's trek from the peace brigades to the ICTY. more importantly, there are several good paragraphs on micro vs. macro, observation vs. reality, ruling-out vs. ruling-in:

...In layman's terms, the data suggested ethnic cleansing. In fact, the migration patterns matched killing patterns "so unbelievably perfectly" that he concluded that the two situations might be explained by the same external influence.

But this is where statistics, a science of elimination, cedes to lawyers, human rights practitioners, and historians. Observing a "consistent hypothesis" isn't the same as naming a cause. "When we're looking at data, it's what we're able to observe. That's not the same as what is true."

In the end, Ball can't say what did happen; he can only estimate what probably didn't. But even this reveals something bigger about the nature of truth: At a micro level, it seems to change, from town to town or person to person.


That's [referencing findings from Peru] why Ball finds all the painstaking work he puts into the macro picture of things worth it. In country after country, he has watched people "try to ... make their suffering have meaning in some bigger story," Ball says. He tries to ground that exercise in what he believes divides painful history from potentially destructive mythologies of violence: "Some kind of empirical truth."

But even so devoted a numbers guy knows graphs don't tell the whole story. "Statistics define the limits of what's plausible and what's not plausible," he says. "Statistics do not tell us how it felt to be there."

it's possible that the nytmag idea lab bit from this week is more compelling journalism: there's a FIGHT! indeed a CLASH! a BITTER RIVALRY! meh. as these things so often are, i think it's overplayed. that's not to say that violence data in colombia aren't contentious, just that there's so much more that we do. indeed, the weirdly disconnected snake-counting anecdote in the second paragraph is more relevant to what we do at HRDAG on a daily basis.

anyway, neato! publicity!