Michael Spagat

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

Location Living near London, originally from the Chicago area


  • Hi. Yes, I think that you can still find excess death estimates, e.g, in The Economist but for sure they are getting much less play than before and you may have put your finger on at least one of the reasons for this.

  • @BobWagg Hi. Yes, you are definitely right. We will address some of the issues you raise later in the course.

  • That's all great to hear!

  • Wow

  • The problem is that it requires very strong assumptions to be satisfied in order to work well or at least so that we know for sure that it will work well.

  • Certainly true but it's worth noting that a lot of people do want to talk about this and think it's important that someone hears them.

  • Yes, these are indeed two of the biggest problems.

  • Yes, there are efforts to record, or at least estimate, rape in war although, as you can imagine, this is harder to generate information on than war.


  • @JenniferBoag You had a busy day yesterday prowling around our discussion forum!

    Yes, thanks for bringing this up and, sadly, I'm afraid we won't return to it. But, yes, re-interviews are a really good way of checking quality and making adjustment in high quality (well funded) surveys. I'm now reminded an episode from way back in the mid 1990's the...

  • @JenniferBoag Interesting! Yes, there is the theory of how a survey or census can work really well under certain conditions and then there are all sorts of unpredictable complexities that arise when you really get your hands dirty. As I've said elsewhere, I'm not advocating just throwing your hands up and saying that the everything is too complicate. But...

  • @AlysonKelman @JenniferBoag You're both making good points. I would just say that every method and every particular application of these methods has strengths and weaknesses. It's really important that these be discussed openly and honestly.

    I would say that surveys often do get more respect than they deserve because they are seen as more scientific...

  • I didn't know this but you drove me to look it up and I found this thread: https://twitter.com/TimHarford/status/1301417268308586497

    I would observe that everyone makes mistakes and it's not realistic to aspire to never making one. The really important thing is what you do when your mistake is exposed. Do you dig in and insist that you were right? Or do...

  • @IanCampbell Yes, your second paragraph points to difficulties in determining households in a way such that every person is a member of one and only one household. Your examples are not necessarily insurmountable but require careful questioning to address, e.g., asking how much time a child spends in each of multiple households.

  • @JenniferBoag Hi, yes you're right there's a whole wonderful genre there and, I can't resist saying, we get into some of this territory in my other Futurelearn course: Survival Statistics.

    Interestingly, in the latest Tim Harford book you mention he expresses some regret that More or Less has done so much debunking, fearing that he might inadvertently be...

  • @IanCampbell @JenniferBoag

    Hi. When trying to make a complete listing of the victims of a discrete event it makes total sense to interview people linked to people who might have been in the building to try to figure out, e.g., whether some people thought to have been inside might have been out of town or whether some people might have been living there...

  • Hi. There is another statistical method, capture-recapture, that we'll be discussion soon.

  • Hi. Yes, the impulse to record casualties seems to be a natural human trait that arises constantly in a wide range of contexts, not just wars. There was, for example, a project to record names and basic information of all victims of the Grenfell Towers fires and, almost surely, there will be a similar project for the recent building that collapsed in Miami.

  • Hi. Yes, exactly, moving from counting to documentation.

  • Interesting. How to the criteria differ?

  • https://www.nps.gov/anti/planyourvisit/luminary.htm

    Here's another approach. I just discovered this one a few days ago.

  • Yes, I think it will. Welcome.

  • Hi. Yes, indeed, this fits right in with your interest!

  • This one is impressively menacing - join up or else. The message is quite clear, unlike some of other ones I glanced at that were overloaded with words.


  • Thank your large number of thoughtful comments throughout the course. It's not hard to understand why you feel exhausted. I hope that you're enjoying yourself right now in another course. Best of luck to you!

  • Thank you very much for your kind words and for your many great contributions to the course!

  • Hi. I think that the US military does on occasion do on-the-ground investigations of possible civilian harm but such investigations are rare.

  • Hi and good question.

    When applied to war, the term "excess deaths" (with no further modifier) always (so far as I'm aware) includes both violent and non-violent deaths. And, yes, the thinking is exactly along the lines that you suggest - excess deaths are excess relative to what would have been expected without war and violent deaths should, therefore,...

  • Hi. Action on Armed Violence looked at some of these issues.


    I have to assume that militaries have as well but, so far as I'm aware, none has published anything on it.

  • These are all reasonable questions. The problem is that they will be hard to answer, especially if there are a large number of similar cases, each with its own nuances.

  • This is an interesting angle. These pressures must have their effects. I suppose you could try an intermediate approach according to which you might say, in effect, "we have a number of cases like this one that we exclude just to be on the conservative side even though there is a case for including them."

  • Yes, very good point. Thank you.

  • Michael Spagat replied to [Learner left FutureLearn]

    Looking forward to having you.

  • Thank you for joining again! Hopefully I'll have a third course in the not too distant future.

  • Thanks. It's been great having you and it will be great to have you again. Right now there is just one other course, Survival Statistics, but I'm contemplating another one. At the moment there isn't a concrete plan for the next run of Survival Statistics but I'd predict that it might run this time next year. Hope to see you there!

  • Thanks! It was great having you and all your great contributions.

  • No worries. It does sound like you did learn something from what you did on this and you were, without question, one of the most active participants in the course. I learned quite a bit from you and I think you also learned something.

  • Yes, I think you're probably right that this is one of the factors.

  • Thanks for this link!

  • I agree that as a general rule the poorer the country the less reliable the statistics. That said, there are major efforts to conduct high quality surveys all around the globe so that often decent statistics are generated even in very difficult circumstances.

  • Hi. Yes, it's true that in some sense Covid saved the lives of some people (while costing the lives of many more others). Your flu example is good. Another such example is deaths in traffic accidents which went down sharply. Of course, the families of the people who would otherwise have died in traffic accidents don't know who they are.

  • Hi. I created this particular calculation for teaching purposes but calculations like this are often done on real data. For example, the excess deaths estimates you hear for Covid are basically done like this. It's true that this takes individuals out of view in favour of looking at the big picture.

  • Yes, this is possible and this is done as we shall see in upcoming steps.

  • What terrible year this has been for you. My condolences.

  • Wow you've taken so many interesting FL courses! I hope you enjoy this one.

  • So long and hope to see you again. It's been wonderful having you!

  • Yes, thanks all around to everyone who has made this so much fun and thank you in particular for your many great contributions.