Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Numbers Guy and Armenian genocide

A Numbers Guy column posted yesterday, about pinpointing the number of Armenians killed by the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago.
Armenia argues that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were massacred. But Turkey says the number of dead was no more than 600,000 and possibly far fewer, and says the killings were justified as the product of armed conflicts that swept the region at the time. Scholars disagree on the number, and politics have obstructed honest statistical debate.
Why does it matter today? The killings and current relations with Armenians are still issues for Turkey today, especially in the country's bid for EU membership. And does the exact number really matter?
Dennis R. Papazian writes on the Web site of the Armenian Research Center at University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he serves as director: "Does it really make the actions of Turkey better if they succeeded in killing only 600,000 Armenians and not 1.5 million? ...In any case, it was genocide."
Up until last year, the New York Times had a long-standing practice of not referring to the killings as genocide, according to a story in the New Yorker. (Editor Bill Keller was using the dictionary definition, to eliminate all of a race of people from the face of the earth. But the 1915 killings seemed to apply mainly to the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. However, most scholars use the U.N. definition of genocide, killing or harming people "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.")


You may also find interesting this CJR interview with Carl Bialik, the Numbers Guy himself. (Thanks, Vince.)

A couple of quotes from Bialik worth repeating:
It seems sort of contradictory, maybe, for somebody who writes a column called Numbers Guy, but I'd be happier if news contained fewer numbers, rather than more. It just seems like there are more numbers being reported than there are good numbers. And if you write a trend story, and you are honest with readers and don't cite any numbers because no credible numbers exist, then readers have a better chance to decide on their own if this makes sense to them. Sometimes you need to make a qualitative argument, because there aren't any valid quantitative arguments to be made. ...

If there's no source attributed, then you should start out very skeptical, because you just have to take the reporter's word for it. If there is a source attributed, try to think about what that source's interest is in the number. If it's an industry group saying that piracy is a big problem, well, you wouldn't expect the industry group to say that piracy isn't a big problem.

Think about what the number is, what it says, and how you would go about measuring it. There are some things that are actually pretty credible, that somebody could measure well."


At 6:19 PM, May 17, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

I'd pay more attention to the Numbers Guy, but I wouldn't want John Allen Paulos to think I was cheating on him.

At 1:13 PM, May 18, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I promise I won't tell.


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