January 14, 2008

Iraqi Civilian Deaths

Monique Chartier

In the October 11, 2006 issue of Lancet Magazine appeared a well publicized study of "excess Iraqi deaths" which occurred after the 2003 invasion. For the period March, 2003 - July, 2006, it placed that total at 654,965, of which 601,027 were attributed to violence. Scepticism was voiced by a few on the face of this figure, as nothing like five hundred deaths per day every day since the invasion had hitherto been seen or claimed.

But scepticism was not the dominant reaction. The figures were seized upon and trumpeted by both anti-invasion activists around the world and anti-American commentators in the Middle East.

Now, however, an article in this week's New England Journal of Medicine confirms the original nagging little doubts about the Lancet study. It places the number of Iraqi deaths by violence over a longer period (January, 2002 - June, 2006) at 151,000, bad in its own right but not close to the figure from the Lancet study.

It has further come to light that the Lancet study was funded in part by anti-war, anti-George Bush activist George Soros. This is actually less problematic for me than flaws pertaining to the study itself detailed in an article by National Journal Magazine ten days ago. These include:

Inadequate sampling

The design for Lancet II committed eight surveyors to visit 50 regional clusters (the number ended up being 47) with each cluster consisting of 40 households. By contrast, in a 2004 survey, the United Nations Development Program used many more questioners to visit 2,200 clusters of 10 houses each. The Lancet II sample is so small that each violent death recorded translated to 2,000 dead Iraqis overall. The question arises whether the chosen clusters were enough to be truly representative of the entire Iraqi population and therefore a valid data set for extrapolating to nationwide totals.

(The New England Journal of Medicine study surveyed 9,345 households.)

The non-release of the study's field data

Still, the authors have declined to provide the surveyors' reports and forms that might bolster confidence in their findings. Customary scientific practice holds that an experiment must be transparent -- and repeatable -- to win credence. Submitting to that scientific method, the authors would make the unvarnished data available for inspection by other researchers. Because they did not do this, citing concerns about the security of the questioners and respondents, critics have raised the most basic question about this research: Was it verifiably undertaken as described in the two Lancet articles?

Timing of publication

The publications of the 2006 article as well as a preliminary 2004 study of the subject were deliberately timed by Lancet to appear shortly before U.S. elections:

In 2004, [co-author Les] Roberts conceded that he opposed the Iraq invasion from the outset, and -- in a much more troubling admission -- said that he had e-mailed the first study to The Lancet on September 30, 2004, "under the condition that it come out before the election." [Co-author Gilbert] Burnham admitted that he set the same condition for Lancet II. "We wanted to get the survey out before the election, if at all possible," he said.

It appears that the strong anti-invasion sentiments of the authors led them to put forward an article that was a little removed from science and a little too close to politics. Shame on Lancet for publishing it.