death by numbers, by andrew bolt

  1. 413 Posts.

    http://www.heraldsun.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5478,11407979%255E25717,00.html

    Death by numbers
    Andrew Bolt
    17nov04

    A recent claim that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the war in Iraq, mostly at the hands of Americans, is misleading, statistical junk.

    JUST days before Americans voted for a president, Britain's Lancet medical journal rushed out a survey with the best bad news from Iraq any activist could want.
    The invasion and "occupation" had killed at least 100,000 Iraqis, the survey's authors claimed.

    Their toll of the dead in post-Saddam Iraq was stunning – about five times higher than any credible survey or count had found.

    What's more, the survey claimed most victims had died violently – usually killed by Americans – "and most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children".

    The editor of Lancet, Richard Horton, then grabbed this excuse for a political sermon: "Democratic imperialism has led to more deaths, not fewer." Iraq's liberation was "a failure".

    The study's lead author, Les Roberts of Baltimore's John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, added: "I was opposed to the war and I still think that the war was a bad idea."

    Yes, he'd been against the war when he thought of doing this survey. He'd also insisted Lancet could only publish its results if it did so just before the US election. Even its authors, it seems, rated this survey highly for its propaganda value.

    Sure enough, its savage claim – shorthanded to "Americans killed 100,000 civilians" – became news around the world and is repeated again and again by "anti-war" activists, cartoonists and commentators who've shown no interest in checking if this astonishing figure could indeed be true.

    Age columnist Professor Robert Manne, for instance, this week quoted the survey with relish and dismissed its critics by claiming even "the right-of-centre Economist magazine has praised the study unreservedly".

    Oh, really? The Economist said the survey was "open to dispute", "not perfect", "subject to imponderables", and "extrapolates heroically from a small number of samples". I guess that's "unreservedly" – if you really, really don't want to hear the facts.

    But take a closer look at the Lancet survey and you'll find its claims are unbelievable. Junk. Preposterous.

    How could its claim of 100,000 deaths so easily have become the new gospel?

    Just ask yourself: Have more than 180 Iraqis, mainly women and children, really died every day, on average, for the past 18 months, usually at the hands of the Americans?

    If so, where are all the funerals? Where are the pictures? Where are the news reports from the Iraqi media, or pro-extremist outlets such as al-Jazeera and the BBC? And where are the American soldiers, reeling from the killing of so many children, to tell the TV cameras of their horror?

    But few of the commentators who seized on the survey bothered to ask such basic questions, or even to heed Human Rights Watch, which warned: "The numbers seem to be inflated."

    Nor did they wonder if it was wise to put their faith in a survey whose authors were so unsure of their results that they had to admit they had 95 per cent confidence that the true death toll from the invasion was only somewhere between 8000 and 194,000.

    That's right – the toll could in fact be as low as 8000. Or even lower.

    No one can be happy that any innocents have died in Iraq and each death is to be bitterly regretted.

    Yet trying to work out the real casualty figures is not just a pitiless haggling over the dead. Surely, in trying to judge whether this liberation was worth the suffering, we must know how much suffering to take into account. We need to know how many lives were lost in liberating Iraq, just as we need to guess as best we can how many we may have saved from Saddam, his successors, his terrorist dependents and his imitators.

    And that's why this survey lets us down so badly.

    Its researchers interviewed 7868 Iraqis in 988 households in 33 neighbourhoods around Iraq, allegedly chosen randomly, and asked who in the house had died in the 14 months before the invasion and who in the 18 months after.

    They then figured out the death rate before the invasion and the (allegedly higher) one after.

    They then concluded there had been 100,000 extra Iraqi deaths since the invasion – by applying the difference in the two rates to all Iraq's 24 million people.

    But this meant the researchers had to get two things right that they seem instead to have got wrong – the death rates both before and after the invasion.

    Why are these figures important? Because a low death rate before the war, and a high one after, would allow the researchers to "prove" the war was costing many thousands of lives.

    And bingo. According to the survey, Iraqis before the war were dying at the rate of just five in 1000 people each year. The death rate among infants was around the average for the region – about 29 in 1000.

    But what evidence we have tells us these pre-war death rates were actually much higher. Dated United Nations figures suggest the overall death rate was well over seven in every 1000 – or close to, if not higher than, the present rate of 7.9 in every 1000 that the Lancet survey suggests.

    But even more persuasive are 2002 figures from UNICEF, which in a much bigger survey of 24,000 households found the infant mortality rate in Iraq before the war was actually a tragic 108 deaths per 1000 infants.

    This is more than three times higher than the Lancet survey claims was the case – and double what even the survey claims is the infant mortality rate today.

    How could the anti-war activists forget? Remember, before the war, anti-American propagandists such as John Pilger denouncing this "genocide" of Iraqi children and blaming it on the United Nations sanctions demanded by those evil Americans?

    We know now, in fact, that Saddam Hussein, with the help of corrupt officials in the UN, France, Russia and China, had stolen more than $US20 billion of oil money meant to feed his people and pay for their medicines, and malnutrition in his shattered economy was rife.

    All that, thank God, has changed for the better since the liberation. The best figures – including statistics from the Iraqi Health Ministry – suggest many thousands of Iraq's children are in fact alive today who'd have died under Saddam.

    The Lancet survey seems just as shaky in calculating Iraq's present death toll.

    It interviewed some 240 people in Fallujah before the recent fighting there, and worked out that these 30 households had lost 52 dead due to violence, mostly women and children killed by the Americans.

    The researchers did not ask for proof of the children's deaths and admit they were reluctant to ask for proof of all the adults' deaths, either, "because this might have implied that they did not believe the respondents, perhaps triggering violence". Were the Iraqis likewise scared to tell the truth?

    So was that figure – of some 240 people losing 52 dead – credible as a sample of Fallujah's death rate?

    Put it this way. Fallujah is a city of about 285,000 people.

    If the Lancet survey of its residents is right and one in six people have been killed since the invasion, then nearly 50,000 residents died violently even before this month's fighting.

    If we assume that the American casualty rates of seven wounded for one dead apply to civilians, too, then more people have been killed and wounded in Fallujah than actually live there.

    So where are the mass graves? Why didn't Fallujah empty months ago, as the survivors fled the utter carnage? How is it that the Americans could kill a sixth of its people through aerial bombing, and wound the rest, yet leave most of the houses untouched?

    Truly, these statistics are unbelievable. I suspect the study's authors thought so, too, which may be why they left the Fallujah figures out – calling them unrepresentative – when they calculated Iraq's death toll since the invasion.

    But the survey techniques they used to give clearly wrong figures in Fallujah are the same ones they used in the other 32 clusters of households that they interviewed elsewhere in Iraq.

    Did they give any better information?

    In fact, the Iraqis in the remaining clusters came up with just 21 violent deaths between them – only two of women, and four of children. These deaths, if true, are the ones that the survey used to calculate a death rate that had them claiming at least 100,000 other Iraqis also died because of the war.

    Note how terribly small this sample is and how easy to manipulate, accidentally or not, to produce wildly differing results.

    Note that most of these dead are not women and children, nor necessarily civilians. The gloating headlines this survey has inspired of a massacre of the innocents in Iraq, with Americans to blame, are almost all wild guesses and almost all certainly wrong.

    But saying all this won't make much difference. Too many commentators seem too desperate to believe the worst of the Americans and to belittle the liberation of Iraqis from a tyrant.

    That desperation means even junk surveys such as this will find many eager believers, ready to hear the very worst. And to recklessly repeat it.

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