Don't Take This Drone Study At Face Value

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 25 2013 6:15 PM

Don't Take This Drone Study At Face Value

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A Pakistani demonstrator holds a burning US flag during a protest in Multan on January 8, 2013, against the drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Photo by S.S MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images

This data project, which details U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, has garnered a lot of interest today. The project was done by Pitch Interactive, a California-based data visualization company whose clientele includes publications like Scientific American and Esquire. As National Journal's Brian Fung notes, the lion's share of the 3,105 estimated drone attack victims are neither civilians nor high-profile Taliban targets, but fall somewhere in "a legal gray zone created by the uncertainties of war."

But this study should be taken with a grain of salt, as this Reddit thread points out. The Pitch Interactive project estimates that 22.9 percent of those who've been killed in Pakistan by drone strikes were civilians. To put that in perspective, the Iraq Body Count project estimates that more than 60 percent of those killed in Iraq since 2003 were civilians.

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It's also good to keep in mind that the visualization is a bit misleading—the number of attacks and victims aren't exact, which speaks to the clandestine nature of drone warfare. From Pitch Interactive's website: "This project helps to bring light on the topic of drones. Not to speak for or against, but to inform and to allow you to see for yourself whether you can support drone usage or not," but goes on to say they wanted to "give an emphasis on the victims." The data are murky, but they're presented in a way that fits nicely into the "against" column.

I'm of the opinion that more information is usually a good thing, so it would be nice to see a full spreadsheet of the data and the methodology Pitch Interactive used. In both drone warfare and data reporting, a lack of transparency runs the risk of misleading the people supposedly being served by it.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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