Mom gets Tear Gassed in the Occupied Territories

My mom, Bobbie Lord, is in the Occupied Territories (Jerusalem) for a bit doing some volunteer work for the The Jerusalem Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children. She has sent back a couple of missives about interactions with the Israeli Defence Forces.

Bobbie Lord in a Jerusalem market.

Bobbie Lord in a Jerusalem market.

8 April 2014

We had a wonderful dinner last night at the Jerusalem Hotel, along with music from the Lute.  Today we toured the old city, which was fabulous.  Our guide was wonderful.  On our walk back to the guest house, we stopped in a office supply store (in East Jerusalem) to purchase name tags to help me with the names of the mothers.  During the time we were there, sound bombs went off as some of the Palestinians were demonstrating in honor of “land” day – the sound bombs were fired by armed Israeli soldiers to disperse the demonstrators.  Mary and I ducked in back of the counter for safety, until is was all over.  This lasted for a few minutes – we thought it was gunfire, until the shop keeper told us it was sound bombs.  What a welcome!!  Mary said she has never seen this before.

12 April 2014

The Israeli soldiers entered the refugee camp, while we were there and set off canisters of tear gas near to where we were. We had to cover our mouths and our eyes stung and we could not see through the tears. We had to run about 200 meters to get to the community center which is being rebuilt after being destroyed. Tear gas and gun fire (rubber bullets) erupted every few minutes. The last one before we left was when we were visiting the cemetery. Our guide, Mohamed, said this is a daily occurrence in the camp. I asked him how he coped. We have no escape. He had stomach issues and the doctor wanted him to go to the hospital in Jerusalem, but the Israelis would not give him a pass.

Mom was invited to volunteer by her friend, Mary Segall, whom she met sometime during the past couple of decades when she was working for the UNHCR in Kenya or Habitat for Humanity International in Zambia (I can’t recall).[1]   Mary had been working in Libya (she is an INGO lifer whose field is health), and something ran afoul, so she needed to get out of Tripoli for a while.  Mary chose Jerusalem, learned of the volunteer opportunity, and fired her buddy an email asking her to come on over.  Here they are together.

Mom and Mary Segall

Mom and Mary Segall, Jerusalem selfie


[1] Mom also managed the Qatrom refugee camp in Albania (during the Kosovo Crisis, 1999)—you can read her diary here, worked in post-war Kosovo, and has been an election observer in Ukraine and a few other places.


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Some Autism Posts I Like

I ran across a series of posts addressing life as an autistic and thought I would share:

Squidids ActuallyAutistic Posts

h/t @JusitnEsarey


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Some Face-to-Face Networking Tips (of Unknown Value)

With the annual meetings of the International Studies Association and Midwest Political Science Association looming I thought I would share some “how to chat people up” links I ran across recently.  I hasten to add, I offer these with a healthy caveat emptor as I “chat people up” miserably, and am pretty content with that state of affairs.  So this is not “I tried these things and they worked.” but instead, “I have no clue how to chat people up, but I happened upon some posts that claim to have useful advice, so I am passing it along.”

More specifically, Barking up the Wrong Tree has three posts that contain advice culled from a variety of sources.[1]

Six Conversational Hacks

Tips for Mastering Conversation Skills

Networking Tips for Shy People

In addition, you might find this post on conference do’s and dont’s, helpful.  And those who are on the organizing side of things might find value in this post on how to enhance networking opportunities.[2]


[1]  I am not a fan of the “N Tips for Becoming Awesome!” presentation style, but that’s beside the point.

[2] Relatedly, Masayuki Kudamatsu, an economist at Stockholm University, has a slew of links to papers / posts containing academic career advice on a host of topics

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Is Crimea’s Ethnic Conflict Banal?

Fourteen years ago John Mueller published a provocative, and in my view, valuable article titled “The Banality of “Ethnic War”” (ungated pre-publication PDF here). In brief, Mueller’s thesis is that the conventional wisdom about “ethnic conflict” (especially as held by pundits and reporters) is all wet, and the truth is rather banal: small bands of violent specialists (i.e., ordinary criminals) are “let loose” on society by opportunistic politicians while police and military largely stand by, aloof or directing the “hoodlums” from afar. Mueller writes:

“ethnic war” is substantially a condition in which a mass of essentially mild, ordinary people can unwillingly and in considerable bewilderment come under the vicious and arbitrary control of small groups of armed thugs… the [1990s] violent conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. These were spawned not so much by the convulsive surging of ancient hatreds or by frenzies whipped up by demagogic politicians and the media as by the ministrations of small—sometimes very small—bands of opportunistic marauders recruited by political leaders and operating under their general guidance. Many of these participants were drawn from street gangs or from bands of soccer hooligans. Others were criminals specifically released from prison for the purpose.

A group of well-armed thugs and bullies encouraged by,and working under rough constraints set out by, official security services would arrive or band together in a community. Sometimes operating with local authorities, they would then take control and persecute members of other ethnic groups, who would usually flee to areas protected by their own ethnic ruffians, sometimes to join them in seeking revenge. Carnivals of often-drunken looting, destruction, and violence would take place, and others-guiltily or not so guiltily-might join in. Gradually, however, many of the people under the thugs’ arbitrary and chaotic “protection,” especially the more moderate ones and young men unwilling to be pressed into military service, would emigrate to safer places. In all this, nationalism was not so much the impelling force as simply the characteristic around which the marauders happened to have arrayed themselves.

The mechanism of violence in the former Yugoslavia[1] and Rwanda, then, is remarkably banal. Rather than reflecting deep, historic passions and hatreds, the violence seems to have been the result of a situation in which common, opportunistic, sadistic, and often distinctly nonideological marauders were recruited and permitted free rein by political authorities.

Because these people are found in all societies, the events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are not peculiar to those locales, but could happen almost anywhere under the appropriate conditions. (pp. 42-3).

That is why the BBC’s article, “Ukraine crisis: Order breaks down ahead of Crimea vote,” captured my attention. Mark Lowen (@marklowen) writes:

They sprung up quickly and quietly across this rugged peninsula: impromptu roadblocks, well-manned and at times aggressive… The checkpoint was under mixed command – Ukrainian police who had defected from Kiev to Crimea’s pro-Russian autonomous government, heavily-armed soldiers wielding AK-47 rifles and a group of Cossacks – one of whom was ready to talk. “I’ve come from Russia,” he said. “We have the right to be here because the local people asked for our help, to protect them from the fascists of western Ukraine.” Beside him stands a man with the Serbian national emblem on his uniform: four Cyrillic “s” letters – the Serbian abbreviation for “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”. Having been based in Belgrade, I strike up conversation in Serbian. “Yes, I’m from southern Serbia,” he tells me. “I’ve come to help my Russian Orthodox brothers – we are the same and it’s normal that I’m here.” He denies being a paramilitary – but it’s clear he’s a Chetnik, the nationalist Serbs who fought in the Yugoslav wars and now sporadically appear elsewhere as mercenaries.


Lowen continues:

Those controlling the checkpoints argue they are needed to protect the local community – but many believe they are a serious threat to security and need to be reined in. They seem to epitomise the breakdown of law and order that is now gripping Crimea – one such group preventing a delegation from the OSCE security organisation from entering the peninsula, firing warning shots to make their point. It’s a situation that Roman Borodin and his wife Tanya want to leave behind. I visit their apartment in Sevastopol, now full of boxes. They’re preparing to move from Crimea to Kiev, worried for the future of their four-year-old daughter, Masha. They are ethnic Russians – but are a far cry from those here pushing Crimea into the arms of Moscow. “We’re leaving because the situation is so unpredictable”, Mr Borodin says… In reality Ukraine has already lost Crimea, now under the control of a rebel government, Russian troops, militias and mercenaries.

It is a news report that Mueller might have ordered from a script mill and central casting. Yet, few if any news reporters or pundits are aware of the mundane mobilization processes that produce these events, and my sense is that the number of scholars who study these conflict processes have embraced Mueller’s argument is not terribly large. Due to this you will find few reports like Lowen’s, and even fewer discussions of the import of monitoring prisons, criminal gangs, and other groups of young males who are experienced in street-level coercion.

Is anything to be done? Mueller believes there is considerable opportunity to stop the killing, preferably before it begins, but importantly, the opportunity does not especially diminish once killing is well underway.

 [T]here was nothing particularly inevitable about the violence: with different people in charge and with different policing and accommodation procedures, the savagery could have been avoided. Because the violence in Yugoslavia and Rwanda was carried out chiefly by small, ill-disciplined, and essentially cowardly bands of thugs and bullies, policing the situation would probably have been fairly easy for almost any organized,disciplined,and sizable army. An extreme aversion to casualties and a misguided assumption that the conflicts stemmed from immutable ethnic hatreds, however, made international military intervention essentially impossible until the violence appeared to have run its course (pp. 43-4).

To be sure, Russia’s apparent troop presence in Crimea,[2] and definite presence right next door, puts a different light on the situation there than the ones that Mueller discusses in his article. But regardless of other states’ beliefs about Putin’s willingness to order the Russian military to engage in battle with an international force of police and peace keepers put in Crimea, Mueller’s argument is one that is not easily dismissed, and one that I believe all of us do well to consider carefully when events such as we have seen recently unfold in Ukraine take place.


Correction (12 March 2014): I mangled bits of two sentences quoting Mueller, and have repaired the damage.

[1] If you are up to watching a gut wrenching, heart rending, slow motion train wreck that substantiates Mueller’s thesis about the banality of ethnic conflict as only a documentary case study can, set aside some time and watch We are all Neighbours (1993; low quality version here). Mueller’s description of bewildered ordinary people being unwillingly swept up in the violence of small bands of marauders will haunt you.

[2] I say “apparent” only because I have not seen media reports which establish the the Russian troops in Crimea are not irregulars, paramilitaries, etc. wearing surplus Russian uniforms and gear. That said, it is very plausible that credible reports exist and I have simply paid inadequate attention.

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The NFL’s Point After Touchdown: Get the Crowd Involved

The NFL is apparently considering a proposal to revise the point after touchdown (PAT), also known as the extra point, when a team can snap the ball from the opponent’s three yard line and either kick the ball through the uprights for one point or attempt to get the ball across the goal line for two points.  The leading proposal for a change, it seems, is to move the ball from the 3 yard line back to the 26 yard line, for kicks only, which would change the kick from a 19 yard “gimme” to a less makeable 43 yard kick.  Mike Pesca, writing at Slate, explains why: there is no drama as almost no kickers miss.

A total of 1,267 extra points were attempted in the NFL last year, and 1,262 of those were made. The year before that: 1,235 attempted, 1,229 made. Last year, 27 [out of 32] full-time kickers did not miss one extra point.

How might that change the game?  A quick check of 2013 statistics on PATs and field goals suggests that we would see a shift away from teams almost always going for the one point kick to instead usually trying to earn two points from scrimmage.  Why?

As undergraduate economics majors should be able to explain, coaches can maximize the number of points their team will score in a season[1] by calculating the expected value of the one point kick versus the two point play from scrimmage and select the option that is higher.  If we use the 2013 NFL season’s statistics as a basis for calculating a typical NFL team’s expected value for each option in 2014 we obtain the following.

1 point kick:[2]                                1 * 0.996 = 0.996 points per kick

2 point play from scrimmage: [3]  2 * 0.478 = 0.956 points per

A team that scored 100 touchdowns in 2014 and kicked 100 PATs could expect to score 700 points (600 + 99.7 for the PATs) while that same team could expect to score 696 points if it went for the two point play from scrimmage every time (600 + 95.6 points).

What is the expected value of a 2014 PAT kick if the proposed rule were adopted?  I was unable to easily locate data on 43 yard kicks in 2013, but data on kicks from 40-49 yards are available here.  It turns out that 240 of the 290 NFL field goals attempted between 40 and 49 yards were successful (83%).

1 point 43 yard PAT kick:                1 * 0.828 = 0.828 points per kick

That is, the proposed rule would make the expected value of the one point kick lower than the expected value of the two point play from scrimmage.  Over the course of a season in which 100 TDs were scored a team that kicked all of its PATs could expect to score 683 points (600 + 82.8).  Thus, we can anticipate a shift toward plays from scrimmage if the NFL adopts the proposed rule change.

Two Alternative Proposals

Apparently the NFL is considering the new policy because it wants to make the PAT more exciting.  A shift away from kicks toward plays from scrimmage should have that effect.  From that perspective, the proposed policy looks like a winner.  But why not consider two alternatives: one that introduces chance (a coin toss option) and a second that engages the home crowd (a 12th man option).

The Coin Toss Option

This isn’t a real proposal, but instead a teaser that helps me setup my real proposal.  So bear with me, because you need to follow this to really understand the 12th Man Option.  The Coin Toss Option relies upon the fact that we can identify the yard line upon which to place the ball for kicking a PAT that sets the expected value for a 1 point PAT equal to the expected value of a 2 point play from scrimmage.  All we need to do is determine the yard line from which NFL kickers make 95.6% of their kicks.  While I do not have that data, the folks in NFL’s New York offices sure do.

If the league adopted a new rule that placed the ball at the yard line from which kickers averaged a 95.6% field goal success rate then a coach could not choose the best option for scoring the most points during the season: it would literally be a coin toss.  So, to add some excitement to the game, after each touchdown the referee could pull that coin out of his pocket, toss it in the air, and if it lands Heads then the team has to kick a one point PAT from the yard line that yielded 95.6% success, but if lands Tails the team would need to run a two point PAT from the three yard line.  Sure, the coin toss is arbitrary, but the outcome would be more interesting than the current situation.

However, there is an event better option for taking advantage of the fact that we can set the expected value of the options equal.  It would get the crowd involved in the game, which is important given leagues’ desire to provide a unique game day experience in response to the increasing number of fans who choose to watch games at home or in bars on big screen TVs rather than at the ballpark (e.g., see here and here).  I call it the 12th Man Option.  How might this work?

The 12th Man Option

Last season the 12th man (aka, the crowd in the stadium) in Seattle drew attention for setting crowd noise records (measured in decibels).  The NFL could require all teams to install the same decibel measuring device in all 32 stadiums and then let the crowd decide whether each team that scores gets to try a one point kick from the yard line that yields a 95.6% success rate or a two point play from the three yard line for its PAT.  After a touchdown the stadium scoreboards would prompt the crowd to prepare to cheer loudly in support of the Kick or the Play from Scrimmage.  Then the two options would be displayed, in sequence, on the scoreboard, for say 10 seconds, and the team that had just scored would have to pursue the option that drew the loudest noise.


The 12th Man Option would stir incredible debate among NFL fans as those in attendance could actually claim credit for victories, and following losses those who did not attend could cast blame on their friends who did.  The facts of the matter would be that the choice between the two options is a genuine toss-up, thus granting favor to neither side, but as anyone who has listened to a few minutes of fans discussing their favorites sports teams can attest, facts have little to do with the debate that fans enjoy.  And given a chance to believe that she can have an impact on the game, what superfan would elect to watch on a big TV?


[1] The reader might reasonably object that the coach ought to be maximizing the number of games won, not the number of points scored, and that is definitely true.  Regrettably, such an analysis quickly becomes fabulously complex, and further would require data well beyond what I can readily put my hands on.  For these reasons I ignore that complexity.

[2] The value 0.996 is the proportion of made kicks in 2013 (1,229 / 1,235 = 0.996), and the value 1 is the number of points scored for a kicked PAT.

[3]  The value 0.478 is the proportion of successful PAT plays from scrimmage during 2013 ( 33 / 69 = 0.478; data obtained here), and the value 2 is the number of points scored for a successful PAT from scrimmage.

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No More Fountains of Youth/Pots o’ Gold: Conceptualization and Events Data (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post I identified an implicit conceptual assumption that mars the vast majority of work using events data to study contentious politics, and pointed out that one way forward is the use of latent measurement models.[1]  Today I offer a different salvation: a set of assumptions that not only delivers us from the morass implied by abandoning the assumption that burdens contemporary analysis, but also ties very nicely to most any theory of contentious politics that explicitly works with actors making choices.[2]

The Conceptual Move to Information Sets

Given that counting the number of [fill in your favorite event here] is not possible, latent measurement models are one option.  However, a reasonably simple, and powerful, conceptual move is also readily available to us.  I have been aware of the problem I described yesterday since the late 1980s, and through the late 1990s just lived with it, publishing several studies that pretended the problem did not exist.  Why?  I could not think of any solutions.  Indeed, I have only become aware of latent measurement models in the last 4-5 years.  But in the early 2000s what I call the “information set conceptual move” occurred to me, and I put it to use in Poe, Davenport & Moore (2003), Moore & Shellman (2004, 2006, 2007) and several working papers since.  The move should have occurred to me during my work on Moore (1995), which builds explicitly upon work by Mike McGinnis and John Williams (1988, 1989) on the US-Soviet superpower rivalry, but did not.[3]

In brief, the move consists of invoking the following assumptions (or some similar set):

1. Actors select levels (or types, etc.) of cooperation and conflict to direct toward a target.

2. The actors select that level (or type, etc.) from a finite set of options.

3. To make the choice in assumption 1 from assumption 2 they rely upon an information set which they use to form beliefs about the (past or expected) behavior of other actors, as well as their own past behavior.

4. That information set can be partitioned into private and public subsets [the former containing information available only to some subset of actors, and the latter available to all actors].

5.  The public information set is contained in media reports.

6. The private information available to each actor is normally distributed over any dimension of interest [and can thus be modeled as a portion of the error term in any multiple regression].

The most important of these assumptions, for our purposes, is number 5.  Indeed, others may be able to think of ways to invoke little more than number 5 and make the “absence of ground truth” problem disappear.  But I have found it useful to invoke the full set of six.[4]

Why is this move powerful?  There are two reasons.  First, once it is invoked the questions about validity change markedly.  If we are trying to assess the validity of a count of event X based on specific sources and a particular coding scheme and our concept is the “ground truth” value of that count, we are stuck in latent (unobservable) land.  However, if we are interested in the choices that dissidents and states make about, say, tactics in their competition with one another, then we can turn our attention to conceptualizing the information set upon which they will draw to make those choices.  Media reports are a publicly available source of information.  We can readily embrace them as containing the information we need to create unbiased, valid measures of the public portions of information sets available to different actors.  That’s a big deal! 

Second, this move links your conceptualization of events directly to any theoretical framework that has actors making decision based on information sets.  I will assume that the reader is familiar with a plethora of such frameworks, from rationalist theories of utility maximization through psychological theories of decision making.[5]

Naturally, no conceptual move, no matter how cool, solves all problems.  Assumption 6 is what one would call, ahem, a strong assumption.  But I contend that it not as strong an assumption as the one we have implicitly been invoking as we cast about for the combination of sources that will produce “ground truth” event counts.  Further, explicit strong assumptions point us rather directly at opportunities for theory development.  And just because I have yet to think of helpful ways in which to relax assumption 6 does not mean you cannot.

To summarize, from where I sit we have two very viable options for moving forward as we think about events data and the study of contentious politics.  One embraces the challenge of latent (unobservable) data.  The other is a theory driven solution that makes the problem irrelevant.  Here’s to hoping that lots of folks embrace both options, for we have much to learn.


[1] I have since learned of two working papers that are directly relevant: Lowe (2013) “Measurement Models for Event Data” and Fariss (2014) “Uncertain Events: A Dynamic Latent Variable Model of Human Rights Respect and Government Killing with Binary, Ordered, and Count Outcomes.”

[2] It turns out that this is a set of assumptions that I have been making throughout my career (e.g., see ), but have yet to catch on.

[3] See, also, their 2001 book.  One can re-read my pre-2003 work that uses events data as if I had invoked these assumptions.  That is, the solution was there for the taking, I just failed to appreciate it.  Invoking the assumptions would not change my hypotheses.  Doing so would only put those studies on a more solid foundation.

[4] Naturally, one can add any number of additional assumptions to build one’s specific theory.  For example, any given source of reports (e.g., The New York Times or Amnesty International publications) is available to an audience that will consume the information contained therein with some probability.  I recommend assuming that the probability of consumption of a randomly selected news item is normally distributed across the potential readership of the source, but you are free to make any assumption you find appropriate.

[5] You will presumably also want to make an assumption about goals pursued (whether utility maximization, minimizing psychological stress, or what have you), but I leave that to you.

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No More Fountains of Youth/Pots o’ Gold: Conceptualization and Events Data (Part 1)

Recent days have provided us two posts eyeballing the GDELT data, one of which , at Political Violence @ a Glance, is problematic (see my two part response here and here), and another of which, by Alex Hanna (@alexhanna) at Bad Hessian, is useful, but nevertheless suffers from a considerable weakness that is very widely shared among academics interested in the study of contentious politics, sub-national analysis of violent political conflict, dissent–repression, and events data more generally.  As I have much to say, this is part 1 of two parts, the second of which I will post tomorrow.  Here I explain the unrecognized but fanciful assumption that underpins virtually every study of the type that Hanna reports.  Recognizing, and then abandoning, that assumption unfortunately turns out to be a bit scary.  But there are two solutions, the first of which I discuss below.  In Part 2 I will offer another solution to the scariness that is especially appealing. So stay tuned.

Fountains of Youth and Pots o’ Gold

One of the things that most scholars who become interested in events data seem to implicitly assume is that it is possible to observe (count) the events of interest.  Put differently, they appear to be unaware of the fact that for the vast majorities of events researchers have an interest,[1] a census is not possible.  The values that these concepts take are literally unobservable.  It follows that searching for ways to count the values of these variables is akin to searching for a pot o’ gold at the end of a rainbow or the Fountain of Youth.


To appreciate why this is so, consider the following thought experiment.[2]  Imagine that you wanted to describe the central tendency and dispersion (e.g., mean and variance) of civil disobedience (aka non-violent protest activity) across countries, at an annual level of temporal aggregation, during the period from 1950-2010.[3] Researchers who study such phenomena rely on media accounts and/or government reports and/or testimony collected by (international) non-governmental organizations, and it should be apparent that these records are incomplete.  Indeed, how might one generate a census of civil disobedience?

Here is a fanciful proposal: one could post a network of human research assistants throughout the territory of interest such that each assistant was within visual sight of at least one other assistant, and have a sufficient number of such assistants to cover not only the space involved, but three eight hour shifts. As long as one is willing to assume the existence of a valid and reliable set of coding rules, and further that the assistants would be diligent, then during the period of time they observed the research team could be confident that it was collecting a census of the civil disobedience activity that occurred during that time and space.


I hope that this rather fantastic thought experiment provides the reader sufficient
stimulation to suggest to her that all contentious politics data collected by social scientists
are incomplete. To generalize beyond contentious politics, we argue that when we collect
data about the behavior of human beings we ought to carefully consider whether (1) the
people taking the action usually have an incentive to either hide or exaggerate their behavior, and/or (2) other people have an incentive to make it difficult for those not present to learn of the behavior.[4]

Virtually everything written about the creation of events data fails to engage this issue, and the literature suffers for it.  That is, the authors who have done this work appear to implicitly assume that the goal is to produce a census, or as close to one as they can possible get.

Imagine, for a moment, that economists had taken such an approach to measuring the concept Gross National Product (GNP).  This incredibly widely known concept suffers from the same problem: it is not possible to construct an actual count for the GNP over any interesting spatial — temporal domain.  As such, economists are left to estimate GNP.  Unlike those of us who work with contentious politics events data, however, to the best of my knowledge all of the economists who work on estimates of GNP recognize that they are working on estimates: they are explicitly aware that there is a non-trivial measurement problem that cannot be boiled down to two (multi-dimensional) issues: sources and coding protocols.  Unfortunately the literature on events data has yet to make that realization, and we remain mired in flawed discussions of the (important!) source and coding protocol issues that, though they warrant investigation and debate, cannot be fully discussed well until we fix the problem.

What’s the Implication for Studies that Compare Sources? 

That said, there is a considerable literature out there that does what Hanna did in his post: compare two different data sets that code some contentious politics concept.  And we have learned much of value from it!  See, for example, Snyder & Kelly (1977), Franzosi (1987), Martin (1988), Olzak (1989), McCarthy, McPahil & Smith (1996), Oliver & Myers (1999), Sommer & Scarritt (1999)Oliver & Maney (2000), Maney & Oliver (2001)Poe, Carey & Vazquez (2001), Davenport & Ball (2002), Koopmans & Rucht (2002)Almeida & Lichbach (2003), and Earl, Martin, McCarthy & Soule (2004), among many others.  Summarizing what we have learned is a bit daunting, and at minimum justifies a distinct post.  So you are stuck with my assertion (or lots of reading).

Unfortunately, as I have noted, aside from  Davenport (2010) virtually none of this literature recognizes that a census is not possible; that they are producing an estimate of an unobservable, or latent, concept.  Hanna’s study was done with Pam Oliver and Chaeyoon Lim, the former of whom is a co-author of two of the above studies.  And while there are many specific things we have learned from them, this type of study is fundamentally flawed because it implicitly assumes that there is an observable, non-latent, count of event Z that we can code.  That simply isn’t so.  As such, the correlation, or partial correlation, or whatever measure of association, between the count of event Z in event dataset A v that in event dataset B is of rather limited interest and value.  Indeed, barring the same coding scheme and sources, going into such an analysis with the expectation that they would be strongly associated only makes sense if one invokes the implicit assumption that there is an observable count we code code.  Once we abandon this fiction the raison d’etre of such studies is severely diminished.  The reason is that we already know, from the above, a fair amount that will prove useful should we want to model the dual processes that produce the reports of such events, a topic to which I now turn.

OK, so what now?

There are a variety of ways forward from here.  For example, if one is interested in a count of event Z that is independent of any particular theorizing or hypothesis testing, then we must recognize that we need to estimate a latent, unobservable variable.  Full stop.  Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200.  No defensible alternative exists.

How might that be done?  We must embrace the latent variable challenge we are stuck with, and measurement models are an excellent option by which we can do so.  There are lots of ways to develop measurement models, and I will describe two I know of.  In tomorrow’s post I will discuss a theory driven (theoretically laden?) alternative to these theoretically bereft ones.

Multiple systems estimation is the first and, for the present, the leading, alternative.  The Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) leads the field.[5]   In addition, Cullen Hendrix and Idean Salehyan presented a paper at the 2013 Peace Science Society that takes a multiple systems approach to develop an estimate of the events they code in their  Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD) project.

The second approach is to create theory-driven measurement models, which have the downside that they will suffer from specification error and, more precisely, the estimates from these models can be unstable to different specifications.  Nevertheless, what might such a model look like?  The starting point is recognition (the assumption?) that two distinct processes produce the events that show up in (news, INGO, government, etc.) reports.  First is the process that interests us: the processes that lead human beings to gather in groups and challenge states (and other groups), and that govern state’s (anticipatory and reactionary) responses to such challenges.  Second is the process by which a biased subset of such activities (by both dissidents and states) find their way into various natural language sources we might subject to content analysis.

A reader is well within reason to express concern that this is complicated.  You bet.  Now get over it.  Pretending that we can code the ground truth about event type Z is dead on arrival.  It is time for us to accept that and take on the challenge of doing the difficult theoretical and statistical modeling needed.  And the sooner we get to it, collectively(!), the better off we are.


Keep in mind that the preceding section is a discussion only about creating an estimate of the true count.  There is an easier, more theoretically interesting, approach available to those of us who wish to use events data to test hypotheses drawn from our theories.  Since I am almost always in that world in my own work, I favor this approach, which is an explicitly theoretically driven solution.  That is, when we are testing the hypotheses implied by our theories we are not interested in a count of event Z independent of any theoretical perspective.  Our conceptualization of event Z is part of our theory, which is to say it is not theory independent.  More specifically, the vast majority of us who use events data to study contentious politics are interested in the choices that actors make in conflict.  Tomorrow I will describe a straight forward, widely applicable set of assumptions that anyone working with such theory can make.  Doing so eliminates the latent/unobservable problem described above.  It is really pretty cool.  And more of us need to start adopting it.


[1] Some concepts, such as social revolutions, genocides, and wars as defined by the COW project, are sufficiently rare that a census of these events over finite temporal and spatial domains is feasible.  But there are few such events.

[2] I developed this thought experiment following my first year of graduate school, in the summer of 1987, as I was struggling to make sense of why it was that academia did not have a census of violent political conflict data, despite such projects as .  That governments have a strong disincentive to collect such data occurred to me pretty quickly, but that only explained why governments did not collect and disseminate such data.  It did not explain why academic projects had the rather obvious sample selection problems that they suffer from.  The thought experiment produced the “Aha!” moment that explained the outcome and allowed me to abandon the Quixotic search for the Fountain of Youth.

[3] The choice of civil disobedience is, of course, arbitrary. The thought experiment works equally well should you substitute any of the following: terror attacks, riots, armed guerilla attacks, government (sponsored) disappearances, people tortured, extra-judicial killings, people raped, evidence of genocide, and so on ad infinitum.

[4] Please note that I have yet to mention source bias, one of the two issues that most dominates discussions about the reliability and validity of contentious politics events data.

[5]  For example:

Kristian Lum , Megan Emily Price and David Banks (2013). Applications of Multiple Systems Estimation in Human Rights Research. The American Statistician, 67:4, 191-200. © 2013 The American Statistician. [online abstract] [free eprint may be available] DOI: 10.1080/00031305.2013.821093

Jule Krüger, Patrick Ball, Megan Price, and Amelia Hoover Green (2013). “It Doesn’t Add Up: Methodological and Policy Implications of Conflicting Casualty Data.” in Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflict, ed. by Taylor B. Seybolt, Jay D. Aronson, and Baruch Fischhoff. Oxford University Press.

Daniel Manrique-Vallier, Megan E. Price, and Anita Gohdes (2013). “Multiple-Systems Estimation Techniques for Estimating Casualties in Armed Conflict.”  in Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflict, ed. by Taylor B. Seybolt, Jay D. Aronson, and Baruch Fischhoff. Oxford University Press.

Anita Gohdes and Megan Price (2013). “First Things First: Assessing Data Quality Before Model Quality.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 57 Issue 6 December 2013.

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