Can New Number Crunchers Predict Upcoming Genocides?

Pulling a Nate Silver May Prevent 'Next Auschwitz'

Danger Levels: In recent months, a pool of experts gave these percentages to express the probability of these countries having a ‘mass killing event’ before January 2015. By May 2014, events in South Sudan had already qualified as a mass killing.
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Danger Levels: In recent months, a pool of experts gave these percentages to express the probability of these countries having a ‘mass killing event’ before January 2015. By May 2014, events in South Sudan had already qualified as a mass killing.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 09, 2014, issue of June 13, 2014.
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Where will the world’s next genocide take place?

Up until now, the idea of predicting such an event with near certainty seemed like a grim pipe dream of somber policy wonks.

But if new predictive methodologies now being developed by researchers centered at Dartmouth College bear out, policymakers should be worried right now about Burma.

The research group’s crowd-sourced survey of area experts, which has accurately predicted recent genocides in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, shows the probability for a genocide in Burma over the next year rising for the first time, to slightly more than 50%.

Part of the terrifying nature of many outbreaks of genocide is their suddenness, when years of tension peak abruptly in mass waves of slaughter. Meanwhile, in other societies, simmering tensions merely continue to simmer.

Statistician Nate Silver stunned the political world when he out-predicted all pundits and experts by employing quantitative measures to forecast precisely the results of the 2012 presidential election. And now, the research group, with support from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is developing a similar methodology to forecast outbreaks of mass atrocities and genocide before they are even seen on the horizon.

The power of endless data now available in the Internet era, and the growing field of crowd sourcing, these researchers say, can provide decision-makers with early warnings for such outbreaks. And advance knowledge of these signs, they hope, could put conflict areas on the radar screen of decision-makers before events on the ground deteriorate beyond all remedy.

According to Cameron Hudson, director of the Holocaust Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a retrospective test of the researchers’ system provides strong support for its efficacy.

Those working on the project recently ran a retroactive data analysis going back five decades and found, among other things, that the 1994 Rwanda genocide could have been predicted a year before events broke out, with 95% certainty. One of the reasons the United States did not intervene during those horrific events was the perception that by the time the full scope and genocidal nature of the atrocity was clear, it was too late to stop it.

“Looking back, we’ve seen that every case of mass violence from the 1960s was listed as being in the highest risk,” Hudson said.

But would this information, if available, stop the atrocities?

Crowd-sourcing Mass Killing: Experts in genocide have quantified predictions of mass slaughter.
Jay Ulfelder
Crowd-sourcing Mass Killing: Experts in genocide have quantified predictions of mass slaughter.

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