Data Science and Story Telling
My background is in storytelling. If you indulge me for a moment, I’ll provide some context. I was born twenty-seven years after Loving v. Virginia, a landmark civil rights decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the court finally legalized interracial marriage. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed The Chinese Exclusion Act into law, effectively banning all Asians from immigrating to the US. Though congress eventually reversed the legislation in 1943, it still put a cap on how many could enter the country. It wasn’t until 1965 congress removed the limit with the Immigration Act of 1965. My white mother married my Indian father shortly after there was even an opportunity to do so, making me one of the first biracial Indian/white Americans. Two things generally happen when you find yourself in a unique position in the US. You’ll find your experience silenced, or you’ll find a way to tell your story anyways.
But what other stories weren’t being told, or at the very least, heard? I found myself working in comms, presenting a variety of those stories on local and global scales. Some days they’d be in old city basements, while others in green rooms with the President and Vice President. I’ve been around enough TV cameras and coordinated with enough press to know what can get through the filter. My job was to consider how to tell the unheard stories in ways that the listener would hear them.
Ok, but what about data science? I mean, data science tells a story. The question is, who’s shaping that narrative? For example, let’s say we’re in the weapons industry. Highly profitable given the fact that the US spent $686 billion on national defense during FY 2019. But our entire profit apparatus is built on war… which means we’d have to be at war to really rake in those profits. But war means death — lots of it. And are American’s ok with death for profit’s sake?
Enter RAND Corporation. They’re an American nonprofit think tank founded by the Douglas Aircraft Company, financed by the US government, private endowment, corporations, universities, and private individuals. Their specialty is answering these questions. I mean, that’s all they do. They offer research and analysis to the US Armed Forces. So back to our question. Are American’s ok with death for profit’s sake?
In 2005, just two years after George Bush had declared “mission accomplished” on that aircraft carrier, RAND Corporation presented a 280-page monograph series entitled, American Public Support for U.S. Military Operations from Mogadishu to Baghdad. Our question is the premise of this study. This monograph is intended to examine American public opinion about the use of military force to support the global war on terrorism. Using Data Science, by sorting out what brought Americans to support and oppose each war or military operation over the ten years prior, RAND sought to project current and future approval of the War on Terror. They broke down these factors linking support and opposition under these categories:
- Importance of the stakes. Those who believe the US has important stakes… whether in terms of vital national interests, security interests, or moral, humanitarian interests support military operation.
- Prospects for success. Those who believe the US will have a successful outcome are more likely to support the military operation.
- Expected and actual casualties and other costs. Those who expect few casualties are more likely to support the operation. (We’ll get back to this.)
- Partisan leadership and “followership.” Individuals who are members of the president’s party are more likely to support a president’s use of force than those who are not. Within each party, those most informed are more likely to take the positions of their partisan leaders than those who are less informed.
So under these circumstances, it would seem that Americans are, in fact, ok with death, and in turn, these weapons of war manufacturers make a profit. Given that this study was done in the context of the Global War on Terror, it’d make sense to take a look at public support for Iraq.
Notice the spike in February of 2003? What happened then? That was when Colin Powell admittedly lied to the United Nations about having intel claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Importance of the stakes — check.
What we see here is Partisan leadership and “followership.” But what we see here is something a little more alarming. Americans, particularly those in partisan support of their president, are ok with death for profit even when the world has moral objections. What we have here is a story. This is America’s story as it relates to war and profit. But what about the story of those on the receiving end of that war for profit? Is their story being told? This question was never asked. Not publicly, that is. When Colin Powell lied to the UN, his administration had already dealt with that question and decided those lives, and that question didn’t matter. Nor did the opinions of the UN.
So how many lives ‘didn’t matter?” According to The Lancet in 2006 (one of the oldest scientific medical journals in the world) conservatively estimates that 654,965 Iraqis were killed. 90% of those violently. Remember when we talked about one of the supporting criteria being few casualties? It would seem that sentiment would only apply to American troops. Perhaps that’s why we rely so heavily on drone strikes now.
As data scientists, we have an opportunity to be storytellers. Because as data scientists, we get the unique chance to see the scope of what’s happening. The question then is, who’s and what story are we trying to tell? And who’s, are we avoiding?