October 17, 2006
Slaughter in Iraq-2
(See part 1)
Let us take one by one the "criticisms" that are being made against the Johns Hopkins study about the levels of deaths in Iraq. I put the word in ironic quotes because these are more accurately labeled as attacks, since the word criticism implies a certain level of considered and thoughtful response, which has been totally lacking so far. (The actual paper can be read here (.pdf).)
Bush said in his press conference that the study is "pretty well discredited." Really? By whom? Alas, he does not say. And he cannot say because the study follows pretty standard protocols.
What Bush did was to invoke a standard media manipulation deceptive method by vaguely appealing to people's perceptions of a situation rather than to actual evidence or arguments. People tend to think that when there are public arguments about something, then the issue in question must be in doubt. This was the technique used by the tobacco industry when they were fighting the charge that smoking causes cancer, by the greenhouse emissions producing industries concerning global warming, and by the intelligent deign creationists about the teaching of evolution. They know that if they can create noise around the issue, the public will think that there is genuine doubt and uncertainty and not notice that it is only sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This is what is being done with the current study about deaths in Iraq. When the same Johns Hopkins team did a similar earlier study also published in the Lancet in 2004, they estimated "that at least 98,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous 18 months as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of their country. They also found that violence had become the leading cause of death in Iraq during that period. Their most significant finding was that the vast majority (79 percent) of violent deaths were caused by “coalition” forces using “helicopter gunships, rockets or other forms of aerial weaponry,” and that almost half (48 percent) of these were children, with a median age of 8."
This earlier study was also very damaging to the case for war and Bush and Bush-worshippers everywhere immediately attacked that study the same way they are doing to the new study now, without arguing on the merits of the work but by simply dismissing the results out of hand and saying that since they did not believe it, the study must be flawed. They are now hoping that people will only remember the storm over that 2004 study and interpret that tumult as implying doubts about the quality of the new study. The reality is that they could not discredit it then and have not done so now either.
The fact is that the earlier study was based on sound methodology and that the present study is even better since it has a larger sample size. The methods used are not only not "pretty well discredited," it is standard methodology. A study done by the same team using the same methodology had been accepted by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush-worshipper and subservient ally Tony Blair when it was used to estimate casualties in the Congo. But there the results did not reflect adversely on Bush and Blair and so they were quite pleased to accept the results unquestioningly.
(Vinod Gundapaneni reminded me in a comment on yesterday's post that the radio program This American Life had a program on the earlier study, looked at how they did it, and made the case that it was credible. It is a highly moving account of the extraordinary efforts the researchers took in order to try and get an accurate count of the casualties, in spite of the dangers they faced. You have to listen to the story to get the full impact. It is galling to listen to know-nothing armchair critics now cavalierly dismissing these studies.)
And Bush's claim that the authors were "guessing" at the numbers is to say something he knows is untrue. If statistical analysis is "guessing", then so is almost every number produced by the federal government. So is every opinion poll.
655,000 is a horrendous number of deaths. It amounts to 2.5% of the total population of that country. It means that 1 in 40 of the people have died violently as a result of the war. To get some perspective on this figure, think of your own circle of family and friends and acquaintances and estimate the impact of the sudden death of 1 in 40 of them. The size of this number is on a scale that puts Iraq well into the category of one of the worst carnages in recent history, raising serious questions of war crimes. And that does not even take into account the number of injured, which would multiply the casualties. I cannot even begin to think of the effects this must be having on the people of Iraq.
It is clear that the Bush regime and its supporters are well aware of the political dangers to themselves if this number is allowed to stand, so we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on the credibility of the study. But if the early indications hold up, this assault will be based on pure sophistry and distortion, rather than engaging in any scientific way with the study itself. In fact, public health experts have gone on the record as praising the study for its care in the face of very difficult conditions.
Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, has called the survey method "tried and true," and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have."
Others have echoed those words:
However, several biostatisticians and survey experts were supportive of the work.
"Given the conditions (in Iraq), it's actually quite a remarkable effort," said Steve Heeringa, director of the statistical design group at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
"I can't imagine them doing much more in a much more rigorous fashion."
He said the study made "minor departures" from the standards generally used in national surveys for choosing what households to interview. Whether those departures, brought on by wartime conditions in Iraq, introduced a bias in the results is impossible to measure from the data alone, he said.
Frank Harrell Jr., chair of the biostatistics department at Vanderbilt University, called the study design solid and said it included "rigorous, well-justified analysis of the data."
And Richard Brennan, head of health programs at the New York-Based International Rescue Committee, said the study's survey approach was typical.
"This is the most practical and appropriate methodology for sampling that we have in humanitarian conflict zones," said Brennan, whose group has conducted similar projects in Kosovo, Uganda and Congo.
"While the results of this survey may startle people, it's hard to argue with the methodology at this point."
In the next few posts, I will look at the actual study and explain why I think it is credible and how the authors should be commended for having taken pains to present as accurate a picture as is possible of a war-ravaged nation.
POST SCRIPT: Giving alcoholism a bad name
We are currently witnessing a string of public figures (Mark Foley, Mel Gibson, Bob Ney) announce that they were going into alcoholism rehab centers immediately after their acts were exposed to public scrutiny. They seem to be trying to make the case that it was the alcohol that caused them to behave the way they did and that they themselves are not really like that.
I was under the impression that what the alcohol did was to remove inhibitions and allow people to act the way they really wanted to act and say what was truly on their minds. It did not seem to be the case that alcohol changed people, it simply revealed them more clearly.
The current crop of celebrity alcohol blamers are giving alcoholism a bad name, ascribing powers to it that it does not have.