Posted by: sean | March 29, 2007

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey “robust”

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University’s stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study’s methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair’s official spokesperson said the Lancet’s figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: “I don’t consider it a credible report.”

But a memo by the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to “best practice” in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq.”

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study’s results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn’t seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his family had been murdered in Baghdad because they were Shi’a living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it’s common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let’s say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.


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