Day By Day

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Collapse of Scientific Authority -- Politicizing Death Counts

There is a great deal of discussion over the recent Lancet article reporting a study by politically-motivated medical researchers at Johns Hopkins which, on the basis of cluster surveys, concluded that between 2003 and 2006 Iraq experienced about 655,000 "excess deaths", the vast majority of which were due to violence.

The same team issued a similar report in 2004, with the avowed intent of influencing the presidential election of that year, claiming 98,000 excess deaths, four times greater than the official UN statistics for that year. Here's the Reuters report on the latest Hopkins study. Here is the 2004 Hopkins study. Here is the official UN report for 2004.

It seems that the Hopkins group inflated their estimates for political effect in 2004, using a mode of analysis (cluster sampling) that lends itself to such manipulation [what counts is how you define and choose the clusters to be sampled]. This calls into question the current figures, also admittedly released in order to influence elections.

Megan McArdle over at Jane Galt's desk tries to put these statistics into some context. She cites the death rates for other, much more vicious, conflicts like the American Civil War and WWII. Read it here, and note her comments relating to the generally low quality of statistical work done in the field of public health here.

Tom Barnett provides another, perhaps more useful, comparison. The UN estimates that during the entire occupation excess deaths in Iraq total to less than 50,000. This is a terrifying figure, but it is less than the annual number of excess estimated deaths the UN claimed during the sanctions regime put in place after the first gulf war, and it pales in comparison with the number of deaths inflicted on the Iraqi and other neighboring populations by Saddam's military and police actions. [here]

In other words, horrific as they are, the current level of excess deaths is a decided improvement over what went before. This in no way excuses them, but it does serve to put things into context, especially regarding Colin Powell's "china shop" metaphor.

The point is that Iraq was broken long before Dubya's invasion, and we are now on the long hard path toward fixing it.

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