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Haiti: Why an accurate count of civilian deaths matters

Op-Ed

Numbers can influence the political response to a natural disaster such as the country's earthquake. Social scientists must act responsibly in coming up with such life-and-death estimates.

July 12, 2011|By Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe

Establishing Haiti's post-earthquake death count is not an academic exercise. Too often, spurious numbers are invoked to justify specific ideological viewpoints. For example, in Iraq, people making the case that the war was ill-conceived cite higher rates, while those supporting the intervention point to lower ones. In Haiti, there is a risk that those wishing to justify reductions in aid may seize on the lower figures, and some Haitian officials and relief groups may have strong incentives to go with the higher ones.

It is vital that social scientists get their methods right when counting deaths and injuries after crisis. This is not just a matter of scholarly integrity. It has life-and-death implications for potential aid recipients. A vigorous discussion of estimates is to be encouraged, but these must be premised on good science and not on politics or other types of bias. While every situation is different, researchers must take care to ensure proper sampling procedures, disclose their methodology and be transparent about all of their findings, including biases. It is their duty to ensure that their estimates are sound and valid.

Robert Muggah is research director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Athena Kolbe works with the Department of Political Science and the School of Social Work, University of Michigan. Royce Hutson, an assistant professor of social work at Wayne State University, and Harry Shannon, a professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University, contributed to the study and coauthored this column.

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