Accuracy in Media

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 Post 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 for.

The 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 Ronald 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. 

It 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 front.

As 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.

He 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 million.

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 hospitals.

But there’s another important question: of the deaths in Iraq, how many were 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 fighting.




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