'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Lancet's Secret Admirer 

As I have frequently remarked, there is no subject more vexing than the number of Iraqi deaths that have occurred since the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, and subsequently subjected the country to a violent miitary occupation that persists to this day. The subject becomes an object lesson in mainstream media manipulation as a consequence of their consistent effort to ignore or discredit the survey work of a John Hopkins University team published in the British medical journal, the Lancet.

After all, the John Hopkins effort initially determined in October 2004 that the war and occupation has resulted in between 8,000 and 194,000 deaths, with the most probable number being approximately 98,000. More recently, in October 2006, the John Hopkins group published the results of a more recent survey in the Lancet, concluding, after the most extensive survey work performed within Iraq, that an estimated 655,000 deaths had now occured, with over 601,000 of them violent ones. The statistically probable range of violent deaths was between 426,369 and 793,663.

Predictably, the Labour government of Tony Blair disputed the findings of the survey (note: the PMOS is the Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson):

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about a survey published today suggesting that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the war in Iraq, the PMOS said that it was important to treat the figures with caution because there were a number of concerns and doubts about the methodology that had been used. Firstly, the survey appeared to be based on an extrapolation technique rather than a detailed body count. Our worries centred on the fact that the technique in question appeared to treat Iraq as if every area was one and the same. In terms of the level of conflict, that was definitely not the case. Secondly, the survey appeared to assume that bombing had taken place throughout Iraq. Again, that was not true. It had been focussed primarily on areas such as Fallujah. Consequently, we did not believe that extrapolation was an appropriate technique to use.

Turns out, however, that the Ministry of Defense's top scientific advisor, as recently reported by the BBC, believed the findings to be all too credible:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

But, of course, no mainstream article on the work of the John Hopkins survey teams and statisticians would be complete without a self-serving criticism from someone associated with Iraq Body Count:

Dr Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway London University says that most of those questioned lived on streets more likely than average to witness attacks: "It would appear they were only able to sample a small sliver of the country," he said.

Dr Spagat has previously conducted research with Iraq Body Count, an NGO that counts deaths on the basis of media reports and which has produced estimates far lower than those published in the Lancet.

And, pray tell, what kind of research would that be? Unless Iraq Body Count has abandoned its dubious practice of giving credibility to mortality information developed from articles published by media outlets, it is hard to imagine.

But, let's play along. Spagat says that it would appear that they were only able to sample a small sliver of the country. Yes, that's what survey teams and statisticians do, and the scientific advisor for Ministry of Defense found that the approach to be robust, and he wasn't the only one.

Spagat then proceeds to state, without any factual foundation, that most of those questioned lived on streets more likely than average to witness attacks. Who determined this, and how? Even if we accept such a statement as true, what does it actually mean, for example, is it a little more than average or a lot more? For more about the obssessive compulsion of the participants of Iraq Body Count to discredit the John Hopkins efforts, click on the Iraq Body Count label.

Hat tip to lenin over at Lenin's Tomb.

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