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Posted on Fri, Jan 8, 2010 : 4:09 p.m.

University of Michigan Professor Emeritus J. David Singer's goal was to quantify war in order to stop it

By Suzy Sherman

University of Michigan Professor Emeritus J. David Singer aimed to quantify the causes of war scientifically in the hopes of eliminating war altogether.

“As kids growing up, that was all we talked about - how awful war was,” daughter Annie Singer said. “And how that was why he was devoting his work to getting rid of it.”


Singer, 84, a globally recognized scholar of international politics, died Dec. 28 in Ann Arbor. He was involved in an auto accident on Sept. 22 and had been hospitalized since. 

At the time of his death, Singer was a professor emeritus at U-M, where he’d been on the faculty from 1958 until retiring in 2002.

“He was involved in many peace efforts personally,” Annie Singer said, “but his academic success was his applied methodology.”

Singer is best known as founder of the Correlates of War (COW) Project, dedicated to the systematic accumulation of scientific knowledge about interstate and civil military conflict. It had its genesis in a 1963 grant from the Carnegie Corporation to U-M’s Center for Research on Conflict Resolution, a portion of which went to Singer and for the study of war.

Singer and his associate, historian Melvin Small, generated the project’s first database, which described the frequency, participants, duration and battle deaths of all wars since 1816. Subsequent data sets included diplomatic ties, geographic proximity, territorial changes, intergovernmental organizations, civil wars and the military, economic and demographic dimensions of power. 

Singer’s goal was to produce generalizations about the conditions associated with the onset and seriousness of war coded by specific variables. An influential book came out of the COW Project in 1972, The Wages of War, which established a standard definition of war that has guided the research of hundreds of scholars.

“That project wrote the book on how to do more rigorous research on conflicts. The project still exists to this day, and everyone is looking at it now,” Annie Singer said.

Singer’s larger and more visionary goal, however, was to generate explanatory knowledge about the causes of war that could, in practice, be applied to the purpose of eliminating it. Over the years, Singer repeatedly expressed his hope that scientifically derived knowledge on war would be used by government leaders to produce better policy and minimize human suffering.

The data his research produced is still used today by the U.S. Department of Defense and other military organizations, his daughter said.

Daniel Geller, professor and chair of the political science at Wayne State University, said Singer's passing is a loss to the academic world and the greater community. Geller co-authored a book with Singer in 1998 titled "Nations at War."

"He not only provided a basic understanding of international conflict," Geller said. "He also created a means of sophisticated quantitative analysis that has been used by government analysts in the design of foreign policy for the last several decades."  

Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 7, 1925, his 16th birthday saw the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Singer enlisted in the U.S. Navy two years later. He served as a deck officer on the USS Missouri at the end of World War II and on the USS Newport News during the Korean War. 

He received his undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1946, and his PhD from New York University in 1956. Singer also served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, and most recently, to the U.S. Strategic Command 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.  

During his years at U-M, he received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the World Society Foundation, and the US Institute for Peace.

“His students for almost 50 years just adored him,” Annie Singer said. “He was one of the finest advisors and mentors ever.”

Singer is survived by his wife, Diane Macaulay of Ann Arbor, his daughters Annie Singer of Washington, D.C. and Katie Singer of Montclair, N.J., and his two grandchildren, Kayla and Jake Ephros of Montclair, N.J.

A public memorial service is being planned for the spring in Ann Arbor.



Mon, Jan 11, 2010 : 1:50 p.m.

Over the years, I remember seeing Professor Singer at almost every anti-war educational rally or workshop I attended. I never took a course from him, but I always admired him from afar. He was a gentle, honorable man. I wish there were more like him.


Sat, Jan 9, 2010 : 7:49 p.m.

J. David Singer was an influential teacher who was the kind of man who paused on the street to speak warmly to me, a former student whom he could hardly have remembered after decades had passed.

David Mallia

Sat, Jan 9, 2010 : 5:10 p.m.

I had Professor Singer many years ago and he made a lasting impression. He was wisdom and dignity personified. God Bless and Rest in Peace

Jeff Irwin

Sat, Jan 9, 2010 : 1:28 p.m.

I enjoyed Professor Singer and his classes immensely. He was knowledgable, personable and very interesting. He involved graduate and undergraduate students in his research, guiding probably thousands of political science students over his long career. I was extremely priviledged to learn about American foriegn policy from a man who was not just smart - but who was THERE. I still remember his stories about Morgenthau and Marshall and the personal time he took to help me as a young undergraduate. I am saddened by the news, but grateful he could spend so much time teaching others.


Sat, Jan 9, 2010 : 10:37 a.m.

I never took a class with Prof Singer. However, one semester, I had a class in a classroom near his Office. I would get there early, and would spend time reading all the stuff he had posted on his office door and the notice board adjacent. Just reading all the material was like being in a class and I learnt a lot. Later on durin gteh semester, I met Prof Singer,and we spent many a hour discussing various topics. We disagreed on soem issues, but he always treated me fairly. He was a good man. RIP, Prof Singer.


Sat, Jan 9, 2010 : 10 a.m.

Hail to one of our conquering heroes - Professor David Singer - one of the University of Michigan's most outstanding faculty members. If you ever wonder why the UofM is so well regarded as an institution of higher learning, or why you should be proud to hold a UM degree, he is a shining example of the type of faculty member the University recruits and awards tenure to. Someone who takes research in a direction that has never been considered before, someone who educates students with enthusiasm and love, someone who shared their brilliant intelligence with the rest of us. You cannot be replaced Dr. Singer - but we will remember all that you taught us. Go Blue!

abu hamane

Sat, Jan 9, 2010 : 4:11 a.m.

War is the condition of the human race. Only the weak work for peace and they will submit easily to the superior faith who will conquer their land and bring true justice to the people.

Cendra Lynn

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 : 10:27 p.m.

David Singer was exciting to know. I met him when I began helping edit material for the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and later working at the Center. The idea that war could be studied and eliminated was a rare bright spot in the mid-Sixties. His enthusiasm, his high standards of scholarship, and his vision of a different way to look at the world inspired and energized so many others who went on to do their small parts in the struggle to create peace. His mind and his personality will be greatly missed. Ave atque vale, David.

Michigan Reader

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 : 7:46 p.m.

"War--simply defined--is a conflict of self-interest, unresolved."--Michigan Reader


Fri, Jan 8, 2010 : 6:07 p.m.

Professor Singer wasn't just adored by his students. I was a custodian at the U many years ago and had the honor of cleaning his office. He was always interested in how I was and what I was thinking and was generous with reading materials. The first copy of The Nation I ever read came from him, as well as several books that helped spur my interests in the world. I still have several of them. A great man has been lost to us this day.

Tom Joad

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 : 5:51 p.m.

"War--the drunkenness of nations" ~Nathaniel Hawthorne