Fuzzy Academic Math

, Roger Aronoff, Leave a comment

In October a report
was released in Lancet magazine to much fanfare that some 655,000 violent
“excess deaths” in Iraq had occurred since the start of,
and because of the war. The report, produced by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg
School of Public Health, is so far off of other estimates that it appears badly
flawed on its face. But its timing made it even more suspect, as it came out
just weeks before an important midterm election in the U.S., and could
have had the impact of undermining the war effort. The same group had previously
issued another report, this one just before the 2004 presidential election,
which also had figures that were suspect.  

The new report, which claimed to have used standard and accepted sampling
techniques, stated that the estimate could be off by a quarter of a million
people, meaning a low of 400,000 and a high of 900,000.

But many questions were immediately raised by the release of this report,
including the timing, the political affiliations of the main people behind the
report, and the credibility of the numbers. Not surprisingly, it took very
little time for it to be reviewed and trumpeted by Al-Jazeera,
which accepted its validity and claimed that “the propaganda machine”¯meaning
the U.S. Government¯ “started to work full time to discredit it as it did with
the other Lancet study published in 2004.”

While it is not surprising that
Al-Jazeera’s anti-American bias would lead it to embrace the report, the Washington
was also taken in, quoting only people who happen to believe the report
was reliable, while failing to note the political donations and activities of
some of its named sources. Once again, fortunately, the blogosphere weighed in
with review and analysis that the major media apparently didn’t have time

Political Pit Bull
, acting as truth detector, turned up the fact that the
lead author of the Johns Hopkins report, Gilbert Burnham, as well as
Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who had vouched for its
methodology, had been donors to Democratic politicians, including John Kerry for
president in 2004, and to Les Roberts. Who’s he? Roberts was the author of the
2004 Lancet report.  

also links to a video
on the blog Little Green Footballs showing Richard Horton, the editor of Lancet,
speaking at a political rally in September calling for an end to the war and to
Tony Blair’s rule. In his speech, Horton said, “As this axis of Anglo-American
imperialism extends its influence through war and conflict, gathering power and
wealth as it goes so millions of people are left to die in poverty and disease.”
The politics of the people involved in this study should have been made clear up

to the study itself, several articles have done an excellent job in showing why
this report should not be trusted, besides the politics lurking behind it.
Steven E. Moore, in an article
for the Wall Street Journal, describes the “cluster sampling” used for the
study. Cluster sampling is the standard methodology that he says he and other
researchers use in developing countries.

describes “cluster sampling” as follows: “…
for a country lacking in telephone
penetration, door-to-door interviews are required: Neighborhoods are
selected at random, and then individuals are selected at random in ‘clusters’
within each neighborhood for door-to-door interviews. Without cluster sampling,
the expense and time associated with travel would make in-person interviewing
virtually impossible.”

The problem, as Moore points out, is the
number of clusters they use. In this case, it was 47, which he states is far too
few to be reliable. He cites other surveys with far more clusters, and with
radically different results, and concludes that the Johns Hopkins survey is
“highly unlikely” to be representative of the Iraqi population. Moore was also surprised
to find that the survey didn’t ask any demographic questions. “Without
demographic information to assure a representative sample,” wrote Moore, “there is no way
anyone can prove¯or disprove¯that the Johns Hopkins estimate of Iraqi civilian
deaths is accurate.”

Jim Lacey, writing in the November 6,
2006 issue of National Review, asks if it is “really credible that the most
intensely focused media gaze in the history of warfare overlooked more than
600,000 deaths.” The Hopkins report stands in stark contrast to that
of the Iraqi Body Count Project (IBCP), another anti-war group that has
generally been considered by all sides to be the most accurate. It estimates
that at the time of the latest Hopkins report, the real death toll stands at
around 48,800, one-fifteenth of what the Lancet/Hopkins report states.

Lacey also questions that even if we
can trust the directors of the study, which is questionable, “what reason do we
have to believe the same of the Iraqis they employed to conduct their surveys?
It’s far from inconceivable that some would lie to make the U.S. look bad.”

Lacey points out that the death rate
in Iraq assumed by the Lancet study,
before the war began in March of 2003, is 5.5 out of every 1,000. He says that
number is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, they only looked at the 14
months preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, a period
when Saddam Hussein was forced to be on his best behavior. And it is
considerably lower than the death rate in U.S., and such
death rates usually correlate with the wealth of a society. “If
Iraq’s GDP is used to provide a more
realistic estimate of the pre-war death rate,” writes Lacey, “600,000 of the
study’s estimated deaths are erased. The number left over is close to the number
given by IBCP, whose estimate is looking more reliable all the time.”

Furthermore, if one applies the World
Health Organization’s (WHO) pre-war child-mortality rate (130 per 1,000) and
average life expectancy in Iraq (51 years), and compares it to today’s
statistics, in which child-mortality rate is at 35 in 1,000 while the average
life expectancy has improved to 69 years, then it is very likely that the
invasion—the liberation—of Iraq, has saved lives, perhaps as many as two

Lacey challenges the authors of the
Lancet study to either prove that the WHO numbers are wrong, or “to explain how
a nation’s death rate can double while its life expectancy grows by 18 years.”
The WHO numbers are logical, considering all of the billions of dollars the
U.S. has put into
Iraq’s health system and rebuilding

But there’s another important
question: of the deaths in Iraq, how many were either killed by
the so-called insurgents, and how many of those killed were the insurgents
themselves? The study, according to Lacey, doesn’t make those distinctions.

Certainly any deaths of innocent
Iraqis are tragic, and should be avoided as much as possible. But in reality,
this war, like others before it, has to be viewed in the context of what is
being accomplished and how many lives may be saved in the long run.

If Iraq becomes a
democracy, and no longer brutalizes its own people, and becomes an ally with us
in the war on global terror and radical Islam, then this will have to be
considered a just and necessary war, a noble cause well worth

Roger Aronoff, who produced the documentary Confronting Iraq, is a media analyst for Accuracy in Media.