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Online course

Accounting for Death in War: Separating Fact from Fiction

Discover the main methods used to account for war deaths, how they've been used and practice using them yourself.

Accounting for Death in War: Separating Fact from Fiction

Understand how war deaths are counted

Calculating the number of deaths during a war is a difficult, but necessary, task - having accurate information is crucial for political and societal debates and decisions.

On this course you will explore the methods currently used to account for war deaths and then apply these methods to particular wars. Along the way you will debunk some widely circulated war-death claims. You will focus mainly on direct, violent deaths but will also cover some estimates of non-violent deaths caused indirectly by war.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsHello. I'm Mike Spagat from Royal Holloway University of London. If I walk a mere 415 steps from my house, there's a memorial to people from my village who died during World War I and World War II. It mainly just lists their names. There are similar monuments all over the UK and indeed around the world. Some of these are names carved in stone. Some of them are electronic on computers. Why are they there? Why do such memorials so often take the form of a list of names? What can we learn from these records? These are some of the questions we'll be addressing together in this course.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsWe also see some big newspaper headlines or headlines online-- 1 million people killed in Iraq, 5.4 million dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two decades ago headlines blared that 100,000 men were unaccounted for in Kosovo, probably dead. Later, this number was quietly revised downward to around 13,500. This last figure turns out to be one of the most solid war death figures we have. But where do these numbers actually come from? How are they derived? Are they reliable? What are their weaknesses? How can we separate fact from fiction? These are also the kinds of questions we'll ask in the course. We'll develop knowledge of the evidence on war deaths from a few relatively recent wars.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 secondsBut more importantly, we'll develop a basis for understanding how such numbers are generated. By the end of the course you'll be a sophisticated and critical consumer of war death information. I'm looking forward to working with you. See you soon.

What topics will you cover?

  • Memorializing people who people who have died in wars, both combatants and civilians
  • The idea of casualty recording; listing war dead name-by-name or event-by-event with details about each case
  • Using statistical methods to estimate the total number of war deaths and breakdowns by categories
  • Estimating the number of non-violent deaths caused indirectly by war
  • Applications to air strikes and explosive violence worldwide and to wars in Kosovo, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond

When would you like to start?

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you'll be able to...

  • Explain the main methods used to account for war deaths
  • Describe the state of war-death knowledge for several modern wars, including some that have been misrepresented by faulty statistics
  • Evaluate the quality of war-death numbers and debate their strengths and weaknesses
  • Calculate war-death estimates from some basic pieces of information

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone interested in war, history and politics and/or the use and abuse of numbers and statistics. You don’t need an advanced knowledge of mathematics.

Who will you learn with?

Michael Spagat

Royal Holloway University of London economics professor mainly studying war - including measurement and memory of war deaths, (possible) decline of war and fabrication in survey data from war zones

Who developed the course?

Queen Victoria presided over the grand opening of Royal Holloway in 1886. Since then the College has continued to grow in size and status to become one of the top research-led institutions in the UK.

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  • Includes any articles, videos, peer reviews and quizzes

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