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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.