THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Statistics ace raises doubt, fans anger on Iran's vote

Web amplifies report on irregularities

Daniel Berman is pursuing a degree in Iranian studies. Daniel Berman is pursuing a degree in Iranian studies.
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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Just five years out of Winchester High School, Daniel W. Berman can stake a legitimate claim to at least a footnote in the Iranian people’s protest against what many believe was a stolen presidential election.

Two days after the June 12 ballot, the 23-year-old graduate student was burrowing into election-return data that had just been posted online by the Iranian government. Berman, who will soon get his master’s degree in Iranian studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland, thought he saw suspicious patterns that backed up the opposition’s claims of fraud.

Before dawn the next morning, the self-described elections junkie zipped off an e-mail containing the fresh data and outlining his suspicions to Nate Silver, an elections guru known for his incisive work during the 2008 US presidential race. Silver, who knows little about Iran but plenty about statistics, thought Berman was onto something.

Silver posted an item on his website, fivethirtyeight.com, that highlighted Berman’s data - and poured fuel onto the Internet bonfire lit by Iran’s disputed ballot.

From there, Berman leaped beyond the blogosphere and into the global headlines.

Berman’s professor is the renowned Iranian scholar Ali Ansari, who founded the Institute of Iranian Studies at St. Andrews. When he learned of the Internet commotion Berman and fellow graduate student Thomas Rintoul had ignited, Ansari summoned them to his office to take a closer look at what they were seeing in the numbers.

“Ali said to me, ‘You’re either my favorite student or you’re out of the program, depending on your accuracy,’ ’’ Berman recalled in a phone interview from Scotland. Ansari remembered it more generously: “I just wanted to be sure that since there are students involved, and it’s a university, that there was a measure of quality control. I said, if it’s going to be on the Internet, let’s be sure.’’

Soon they were plenty sure.

Within one week, Ansari, Berman, and Rintoul cowrote a report issued by the respected Chatham House research center in London. The report, published on Sunday, points out data-driven evidence of widespread election irregularities - not least that turnouts of greater than 100 percent were recorded in some provinces.

That report has won wide acclaim for providing independent information to help the world judge what happened in Iran. The Chatham House report is being cited repeatedly by governments as well as in hundreds of newspaper and broadcast reports, even as the Iranian government has criticized its methodology.

On Monday, the Iranian government acknowledged specific irregularities in the election for the first time that could have involved as many as 3 million votes. It said, however, that the problems weren’t serious enough to overturn the victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ansari, who has written half a dozen books on his native Iran and is a frequent commentator on the BBC, said of Berman: “He has an extraordinary mind for figures. He has this ability to absorb data and do these sophisticated analyses. Between him and Tom Rintoul, well, it’s just remarkable. Other people would have needed much more time to do this work.’’

Ansari said the 19-page report was a preliminary version, intended to get the facts out with some interpretive highlights while the debate rages. Although he is the lead author, Ansari said, “It’s a testament to them. I wouldn’t want to steal from their limelight.’’

Berman got his bachelor’s degree from Bates College in Maine in 2008, studying there with Iranian history scholar Eric Hooglund. It was Hooglund, a longtime friend of Ansari, who recommended Berman for the St. Andrews program.

Silver, the fivethirtyeight.com editor, recalled how Berman’s information landed in his hands.

“It’s pretty rare to be sitting around - I think it was 1 a.m. - and we got this file, which looked like a scoop,’’ he said. “He did me a big favor, and a big favor to anyone who is following the story.’’

Silver said of the Chatham House study: “The great thing about the report they did is that it combines knowledge about Iran and knowledge of statistics. In this case, you really need both. It’s a complex country, and its often easy to look at this through a Western lens and assume the same rules apply.’’

Berman, who has been a debate team member through high school and college, was in Turkey yesterday for St. Andrews’ team. He says he is now considering staying on at St. Andrews for a three-year doctoral program after he completes his master’s degree this summer.

He confessed that his electoral interest can run to extremes. He recalls his parents finding him using computers to monitor three television stations - broadcasting a regional election in western Australia.

“I’ve always been interested in semi-democracies, countries with legally tolerated oppositions that aren’t quite democratic,’’ he said, citing Zimbabwe as a prime example.

“I am still a little bit in disbelief about all this,’’ Berman said. “I think it has taught me the importance of the ways the Internet has changed access to information. . . . What this meant is that in the space of four or five minutes, information could be transferred from a graduate program to fivethirtyeight.com to basically being accessible to everyone on the planet.’’

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His blog is boston.com/worldlyboston. He can be reached at Jsmith@globe.com.