In the fog of war, it's not easy to figure out how many people die. Even in the cleanest combat, accurate records are not really a common military priority. Worse, there are often incentives for one side or the other to play up the death counts (or play them down), alter the picture of who is doing the killing and who is dying, and provide evidence that a conflict is getting better (or worse).
All of that creates a mess for outside observers who want to see accurate patterns in the chaos — patterns that can help us understand whether an evenly matched war has turned into a bloodbath, or a genocide. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group is an organization that takes the messy, often conflicting, information about deaths in a warzone and tries to make sense of it. Today, they released an updated version of a January report on documented killings in the Syrian civil war.
They say that there were 92,901 documented deaths between March 2011 and April 2013. That number is extremely high, and tragic. But the number alone is maybe not the most important thing the data is telling us.
For one thing, 92,901 is not the number of people who have died in Syria during this war. It includes documented deaths only — deaths that come with a full name, a date, and a location. The actual death toll is likely to be significantly higher. The best way to think of that 92,901 is as the minimum number of people who have died.
Another key point: Syria is in an extremely violent phase of this war. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group has been looking at different databases of deaths and updating information over time. Back in January, for instance, the documented death toll was counted at 59,648, and only included deaths through November of 2012. Now that we have the data all the way through to April, we can see that the last year — July 2012 through April 2013 — has been consistently and substantially deadlier than the period that came before, with more than 5000 killings every month.
Finally, this death count still doesn't tell us much about who is killing who. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group says that the vast majority of reported deaths have been male, but there isn't good data about whether these were men of fighting age, old men, teenagers, or what. We still don't have enough information to say, with any kind of certainty, what the patterns are. And it's the patterns that matter the most. Those are the things that tell you — more than a simple body count — how a conflict is playing out and whether one side, or another, is engaging in behavior that can be documented as criminal.
As The Human Rights Data Analysis Group's Patrick Ball told me a couple months ago, "People get really excited about the numbers. Those are the things that make headlines. But it's not actually the story, in my opinion. What's it mean? That's what's important."
And for that, we'll have to wait.
Quick Note: I'll be coming back to Ball next week in a story that looks more in-depth at how statistics and data analysis can help document human rights abuses and prosecute war criminals.
Image: Bombed-out vehicles in Aleppo. Photo taken in October 2012 by Scott Bob of Voice of America News.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.