Friday, October 13, 2006

They Haven't Seen the Bodies on Their TV, So They Don't Exist

I'm not at all surprised by the Johns Hopkins study concluding that 655,000 Iraqis have died since March 2003 as a result of the war and occupation. Horrified, obviously, but not surprised. The first study by the same team of researchers, which came out this same month two years ago, estimated that at least 100,000 Iraqis had died from war-related causes, and since 2004, the violence in Iraq has been going steadily up. In July, the deadliest month of the entire war, 3,500 Iraqis were killed; and in August, about 3,100. Last month, over 2,660 died. Since the start of 2006 alone, 17,000 have died.

So how could any thinking person believe that only 30,000 Iraqi civilians have died since March 2003, as Pres. Bush claimed in a December speech? Answer: Look up 'oxymoron' in the dictionary.

The survey team's findings, which were published two days ago in Lancet (as was the initial study), have, in Maha's words, "... caused rightie knees to jerk so fast I'll bet a bunch of 'em are on crutches today."

All of the war worshippers' objections to the study boil down to this: 'This number can't possibly be right because it just feels too high.' They don't want to believe it. I mean, who does? But to slightly revise Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous comment, spoken through his fictional character Sherlock Holmes: "When you eliminate the improbable, what remains, no matter how impossible it seems, is the truth."

And the improbable -- along with the illogical, the foolish, the dishonest, and the just plain incorrect -- is all the right has to offer to back up their contention that 655,000 isn't 'reasonable.'

Here's a run-down of the major nonsense points: the nonsense in italics; facts and common sense in roman:

If 600,000 people have been killed, where are all the bodies?

Juan Cole has the best answer to this one:

First of all, Iraqi Muslims don't believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address.

Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers. A fisherman on the Tigris looking for lunch recently caught the corpse of a woman. The only remarkable thing about it is that he let it be known to the newspapers. I'm sure the Tigris fishermen throw back unwanted corpses every day.

Not to mention that for substantial periods of time since 2003 it has been dangerous in about half the country just to move around, much less to move around with dead bodies.

The study is invalid because it's politically motivated.

Even if the choice of release date were politically motivated, what does that have to do with the contents of the study? Would the righties who are screaming that this is all about partisan politics have believed that 655,000 Iraqis have died in war-related violence if the study had been released after the elections?

Then there is the distinction between the people who decide when an article will be published (the editors of the publication in which it appears -- in this case, Lancet's editorial staff) and the people who actually design and conduct and write up the study (hint: they don't work for Lancet). It's only an esoteric distinction if you are a right-wing nutcase. The rest of us don't have any trouble understanding why the possible political motivations of the Lancet and the validity of the study are completely unrelated.

The 2004 study done by these same people was completely discredited.

Actually, it was the mass media's reporting of the earlier study's findings that was discredited (h/t Maha). Many news outlets at the time ignored or buried the researchers' conclusions that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the war began; or they wrote about the study without having read it and without bothering to educate themselves about statistical sampling methods.

Daniel Davies wrote the definitive response to critics of the 2004 Johns Hopkins/Lancet study shortly after that study came out (via a reader at Informed Comment).

These numbers are out of whack with every other estimate of civilian deaths in Iraq.

The above statement is usually accompanied by a reference to Iraq Body Count, the website that updates Iraqi civilian war deaths based on newspaper reports. IBC was transformed on the rightie side of the blogosphere from an ideologically suspect source of casualty figures because of its antiwar stance to a "well-respected" organization, right around the time the first Lancet-published study reported that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in Iraq since the war began:

There are other sources for counting Iraqi dead. The well respected Iraq Body Count, run by academics opposed to the war, lists nearly 49,000 civilian dead since the invasion. Their methodology is sound and their numbers are based on actual reports from morgues, the media, and the military. Their number of confirmed dead is still less than half the number estimated in the 2004 Lancet study.

When Confederate Yankee's Bob Owens uses this argument on Matthew Yglesias's blog, several readers demolish it:

Bob Owens: "A simple, cursory look at the well-respected anti-war site Iraq Body Count will reflect that the maximum number of civilian deaths is less than 50,000."

Dr. Anatole Gavage-Huskanoy: "Bob, this is flat wrong. IBC is not a scientific study. It is an ongoing tally of only the deaths that get reported in international papers. Therefore, it is is by definition, the lower end of civilian deaths, not a 'maximum,' as you so confidently yet erroneously assert. Come back with facts, please."

And Chew2: "The Iraq Body Count project relies on English language media reports only, so their sources of death reporting is further limited. Most of the western reporters are holed up in Baghdad, and rely on official summaries. Reporting deaths is a miniscule part of their job in any case, so no one would claim their reporting is even remotely complete.

Even in the crime sensational US only a limited amount of violent deaths are reported in the media.

So to get an accurate estimate of deaths you have to go beyond media reports. The Lancet survey is one legitimate way to do this."

Then there is the "If this many Iraqi civilians had died, it would have been on tv and in the newspapers ages ago" bit of wisdom:

Let's use common sense for just a second: if this study was even third of what they claim (which would be almost 217,000 civilian deaths), don't you think that such a catastrophic loss of live would have been noticed by someone? al Jazeera, or al Manar, or maybe slightly larger and well-funded news organizations, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, or United Press International? Of course it would have. It is a mathematical impossibility to have hidden even this number of civilian combat deaths from a war zone so thoroughly saturated with media.

Well, that might be a valid point -- if reporters were trained in statistical sampling methods, and if they had fanned out across the vastness of Iraq, asking Iraqis how many members of their families had died since 2003, and how; and obtaining death certificates for most of those who had died as a result of the war.

Common sense would also tell you (if you possessed it) that traveling to remote and distant and dangerous parts of Iraq to get a scientifically valid sample calls for enormous personal courage, plus the willingness and the ability to overcome security issues. Rare is the reporter who is up for that. Most would much rather hole up in their comfortably air-conditioned hotels, doing interviews by satellite phone and e-mail.

The indefatigable Confederate Yankee is not discouraged. Surely, he says, Iraqis themselves would have noticed and said something if 655,000 of their friends, neighbors, and relatives had died:

So, you really think Iraqis might not notice that several hundred thousand of their nieghbors are missing and not say anything?

You honestly think that an additional 15,500 people dying each month--400-500 per day--wouldn't have been noticed by someone in the past three years ad widely reported?

Yglesias reader David Tomlin: "Where the hell do you get 'not say anything'? Iraqi blogs, for example, are full of accounts of friends and neighbors being killed."

Phoenician in a time of Romans: "Hey, Bob? They ARE saying something. Each and every time a US soldier gets blown up by an IED..."

Yeah, but they didn't tell Bob, so they don't count.

1 comment:

Biomed Tim said...

There certainly are bad politically-motivated critiques of the study, like the ones you listed. These are so unsubstantiated that I feel dirty just writing about them.

But I think there are also legitimate critiques of the study, based on statistical arguments.