Creating Villains: How Bias Undercuts Anti-War Research


Last Monday, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University published a report on refugees from American military operations entitled “Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars.” The Watson Institute used various sources to determine how many of the refugees involved in conflicts in eight subject countries are the victims of American military activity. Those statistics are meant to spark a conversation about providing aid for these refugees. While the Institute has the right intentions, bias has compromised this study, with important lessons for everyone involved in the antiwar movement.

This study is one of the most biased examples of motivated reasoning I’ve seen from an academic writer. By using unprofessional language, manipulating key terms and definitions, and misrepresenting much of its own data, the report damages the antiwar movement’s credibility. Frustratingly, the authors recognize the potential for their own bias to contaminate the study. Because they do not want studies like this to undermine public trust in antiwar efforts, the authors explain, and because they do not want to publish data or conclusions that can easily be brushed aside, they will be “conservative” with their interpretation of the data. Unfortunately, the authors failed to keep this promise.

Imprecise language is a recurring problem. The authors try to suggest, for example, that because there has been debate around the exact definition of a terrorist, all wars conducted to combat terrorism are actually unjustified wars against legitimate political dissidents. “America uses the term terrorism for any of its political enemies,” they write. But ISIS is not practicing legitimate political dissent when they chop people’s heads off and burn them alive. Al Qaeda attacked our homeland and killed thousands. The Taliban are closer to warlords than terrorists when compared to these groups, but to pretend that America uses the term “terrorism” with no reason other than “to justify wars and attacks on almost any group defined as an enemy,” as the report writes, is not true. The implication that it is unfair to refer to these acts as terrorism is unconscionable.

I am aware that the authors have absorbed critique about this issue from broader leftist movements. I’m actually sympathetic to many of them. But those critiques only serve as a red herring when the authors suggest that America is wrong to call terrorists in these eight countries what they are.

Similar to this loose definition of terrorist, the authors also define a refugee as “anyone in ‘refugee-like’ situations.” It’s obvious how this kind of manipulation of language will contaminate the results of the study. Loose definitions like this unfairly charge America with the restitution of people who may instead be owed restitution by paramilitaries, foreign powers, or their own governments.

The study is also imprecise with its numbers. Among many other incorrect and misleading statistics, the authors suggest that more people have been displaced in the eight countries they focus on than in any war since World War II. However, that figure takes neither the proportion of total residents of those countries nor the post-WWII population boom into account. This miscalculation serves to present the current refugee crisis as larger than those in the past – an error in favor of their thesis. This is not the kind of error which results from scientists being too conservative with their data and interpretations. This is the kind of error which results from motivated reasoning.

I also take issue with the claim that the United States “set off” ethnic cleansing in areas like Afghanistan, where intertribal warfare was the norm before American intervention arrived. I’m sure there are more smartphones in the country now than there were in 2001; does that mean that the invasion “set off” a wave of smartphone buying? Proper social science would quantify how much ethnic cleansing was taking place before the invasion, not just after, and proper statistical analysis is necessary before it’s possible to determine causation. Shamefully, the authors later revealed that they knew the results of such an analysis would be unfavorable to their thesis. Rather than admit that Afghanistan did have pre-existing intertribal violence, the authors simply omitted that information from their study, concluding that America was at fault for the problem.

Despite claiming they want “to avoid any perception that we have exaggerated the scale of displacement,” the study’s authors do in fact exaggerate the scale, the cause, and other details of that displacement. The authors boast that they “only” included every civilian displaced in Syrian territories where American troops were stationed in their final count. Other militaries’ presence in the area does not seem to matter. Neither does the fact that American troops were probably not even present at all when most of these homes were destroyed. Not only are the authors seemingly unaware of how assumptions like theirs inflate the numbers, they gallingly go on to suggest that “a less conservative, and arguably more accurate approach, would include every displaced person from every Syrian province since the outbreak of fighting in 2014 or 2013.”

To suggest that the United States is responsible for every displaced person in a war where the primary combatants are Ba’athist, Wahhabi, and Zionist, or to even suggest such a position is arguable, is totally dishonest. Making these kinds of unsubstantiated accusations is unprofessional. There are usually real costs to credibility when the public sees work like this, so why do the authors feel safe in publishing this shoddy research?

I know that certain political atmospheres would treat the suggestion that the United States was unfair to designate ISIS a terrorist organization as bold, radical, or “woke.” The presumption that America is the great evil of the world may be fashionable in those circles, but it isn’t going to help the antiwar movement resolve issues in a world that is simply much more complicated than that. Friends and peers may admire such mental gymnastics when going to bat for “our” team, but outsiders are always repulsed by obvious manipulation. The average person is infuriated by such blatant partiality – even if America’s public image has rightfully suffered in recent years. Thus, we should resist this type of partisan virtue-signaling. If we want the anti-war movement to gain traction and support, it is crucial for it to be able to appeal to a broad coalition.

Besides the damage to the movement’s public image, we cannot accept such faulty reasoning into our canon and discourse. As individuals, we have a responsibility to reject comfortable and sanitary habits of thought, to never shy from the truth, because reality will shatter every delusion. We have a responsibility to demand the same from our intellectual class. We must hold our studies to account, must demand clean, nonpartisan academic research. Doing so will increase the credibility and political power of the antiwar movement, while also producing more salient and compelling results.

Imagine what could have been accomplished if this study sought to actually determine which actors were doing the most damage to civilian infrastructure. We may have found that America was hardly responsible at all for this damage and that our efforts should be spent lobbying against Wahhabi and Zionist interests instead. Or maybe we’d have found that a particular military tactic was causing a disproportionate amount of damage and lobbied to ban it for all parties. We could have crafted policies that respond quickly or even intervene when a particularly damaging campaign is being drafted or implemented. Instead, the Watson Institute has wasted intellectual resources on bias. We can be thankful that this study presents an opportunity for us to learn this without great harm.

The impulse to oversimplify moral issues is an old human tendency, especially in charged environments where that behavior promises social reward. Nonetheless, it is something we have the capacity to overcome, and a duty to resist. Perhaps the most pertinent words on that subject are those of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but through every human heart.

Julian Rizk

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