Cutting through the bullshit.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

600,000 die for oil

I was wondering when we’d get the update, and there it was in this morning’s Times. The new estimate, allegedly carried out by ‘researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’ based on a survey of ‘1,849 Iraqi families’, comes to 601,023 violent deaths since the US invasion, with a margin of error of about 30%.

I hasten to add that I haven’t seen anything about this on the Bloomberg School’s website, nor does a Google search turn up anything about this most recent survey.

There is bound to be a lot of controversy about this estimate. The lowest point in the reported range for July, 426,369, is nearly ten times the low estimate at Iraq Body Count for today, 43850. I’m not sure what IBC was claiming in July, but anyone who is interested can sum the reports on the IBC database back to then and subtract the total from the current count.

The reason for the broad confidence interval is the small size of the sample, but that doesn’t mean the estimate is wrong. What it means is that the researchers, using conventional statistical reasoning that is accepted by their critics in any other context, are very confident that the actual number of violent deaths is in the reported range. As the estimate approaches 601,023, they are less and less confident. It is worth emphasizing that they are just as confident that the actual number is at the high end of the range (793,663) as at the low end – it is not more likely to be between 426,369 and 601,023 than it is to be between 601,023 and 793,663. It is more likely to be between, say, 501,023 and 701,023 than it is to be between 600,023 and 602,023.

And there are other factors that could conspire against the accuracy of the estimate. The Times doesn’t tell us how the researchers defined an ‘Iraqi family’. Indeed, the researchers may not have even used a ’family’ as the unit they were enumerating. It is quite plausible that the Times is confusing concepts like ‘family’ and ‘household’. The media do this every day. The people interviewed may not have reported accurately. The interviewers may have falsified data. But these are issues in every survey and they seldom arouse doubt, or even comment, in any other context.

So how do we explain the discrepancy? IBC’s method is much more conservative. It is not based on accepted principles of statistical sampling and estimation. It is simply a count of deaths reported from certain causes – roughly the same set of causes as the Johns Hopkins study, as far as I can ascertain so far – in at least two independent media sources:

For a source to be considered acceptable to this project it must comply with the following standards: (1) site updated at least daily; (2) all stories separately archived on the site, with a unique url (see Note 1 below); (3) source widely cited or referenced by other sources; (4) English Language site; (5) fully public (preferably free) web-access.

The project relies on the professional rigour of the approved reporting agencies. It is assumed that any agency that has attained a respected international status operates its own rigorous checks before publishing items (including, where possible, eye-witness and confidential sources). By requiring that two independent agencies publish a report before we are willing to add it to the count, we are premising our own count on the self-correcting nature of the increasingly inter-connected international media network.

The site lists 38 sources identified as ‘some core sources’. It is not at all clear whether this list is comprehensive or indicative, and if not exhaustive, whether it comprises 97% or 1% of the core sources. Nor do we know what non core sources are being used or on what basis. Anyway, among the ‘core sources’ they mention are such beacons of truth as Fox news, the London Telegraph, the Toronto Star (but not the slightly more reputable Globe and mail), and of course the NYT.

I assume that when they write of ‘two independent agencies’, they mean that the reports come from completely independent sources. So if the NYT reports what AFP said, that’s not a second report. Ultimately, it seems to mean that at least two different reporters have to have interviewed witnesses or seen documentation of a death before it adds to their count. We know that the vast majority of reporters in Iraq are either holed up in the Emerald City far from the action and almost all the rest are embedded with the occupation forces. Then some reports may exist that are never published for editorial reasons. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that only a fraction of the total number of deaths that actually occur are reported, and an even smaller fraction independently reported by two separate agencies.

IBC is fairly upfront about what it is that they are reporting, to their credit. But they have been subject to a lot of criticism, especially by MediaLens. The nature of the critique, as I read it, revolves around two issues. For one thing, IBC relies on ‘the professional rigour of the approved reporting agencies’, which MediaLens quite understandably rejects. For another, the media, and politicians, tend to recycle the IBC figures as if they were something they are not. If the criticism is that it is not good enough to mention your methodology on your website and then allow the media to report figures however they like without making a point of correcting those misperceptions by consistently drawing attention to what the figures really represent, that seems sound to me.

Statistics of all kinds are widely misunderstood. Those who collect, analyse, and publish them tend to be fairly conscientious about providing the information required to interpret them correctly. There are definitions, classifications, explanatory notes, footnotes, glossaries, details of the collection methodology, sampling procedure, often even the text of the questions asked. It is largely because those reporting the statistics in the media do not bother familiarizing themselves with and explaining these ‘metadata’ that statistics have gained their widespread notoriety as distortions. In a sense, it is not the fault of those disseminating statistics that they are being abused like this, but in my view, they do have a responsibility to publicly repudiate abuses. And this certainly applies to IBC at least as much as to anyone else.

In their defense, one of the points IBC make is that they exclude combatant deaths. They criticize the authors of the previous Hopkins study published in the Lancet for including combatant deaths and not being sufficiently open about it. Of course IBC rely on their trusted, but decidedly untrustworthy, media sources not only for the numbers killed, but for distinguishing combatants from civilians. As if they could tell. It is notoriously difficult to make this distinction in the kind of counterinsurgency that’s going on in Iraq and I think it must be particularly difficult in a society where nearly everyone is armed. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the ‘combatants’ killed in the counterinsurgency – those who really are combatants – are only in combat because of the invasion and occupation that they are quite legitimately resisting. So excluding them from the toll of the war is deeply cynical.

It is worth remembering in this context that the people who have taken up arms against the imperialist occupation, whether they are motivated by ‘pure’ anti-imperialist sentiments, revenge for a lost loved one or cavalier humiliation, or Islamic extremist jihadism, are in the front line of the struggle against imperialism, are doing us all a favour, and deserve our gratitude and support.

The real point, of course, is that the US never had any business going into Iraq in the first place. They had no business cultivating Saddam in the 50s and 60s. They had no business supporting the Ba’ath coup in 1963, or Saddam’s takeover in 1968. They had no business arming Iraq to the teeth and provoking their attack on Iran, much less on arming both sides to maximize the devastation. They had no business giving Saddam the green light to invade Kuwait and then turning around and smashing the country to smithereens. Or imposing sanctions for over a decade that killed a million and caused awful suffering for millions more, for turning their backs on those they encouraged to rise against Saddam and even providing him with air cover as he slaughtered them. For the crime against humanity of invading and occupying Iraq for the sole purpose of gaining a strangehold on the energy sources of their economic rivals in Europe, Japan, and China, no penalty is too severe. That even one Iraqi was killed in pursuit of such an objective is unimaginably vicious and cynical.

I heard Amy Goodman’s 27 September interview with Seymour Hersh this morning. He claims to have spoken to a lot of returning soldiers and mentions two things in particular that I think are relevant. It is apparently so dangerous for those supplying the troops that they drive their trucks up the highway at night without lights at 120km per hour, even as they go through populated areas. It is very windy in the desert, and when the wind is going the wrong way, you can’t hear the trucks coming. He didn’t say how many he thought were killed this way, but again, even one would be too many. He also said that US troops travel in convoys of three. When the first in the convoy hits an IED, everyone piles out of the other two and shoots everything that moves. He mentioned an incident he’d heard about where what moved was a bunch of people playing soccer in a nearby field. The perpetrators tried to cover up their crime by planting material suggesting that the murdered were ‘combatants’.

Again, one is already way too many, particularly in pursuit of such venal objectives. But not everyone feels that way, thanks in no small measure to the professional integrity of the media. Some might think 45,000 dead and uncounted wounded, crippled, blinded, etc. is a price worth paying for freedom. And perhaps it would be, if it had anything to do with freedom. But those same people might balk at 600,000 – roughly a fortieth of the total population. And it is worth bearing in mind that, according to the Times, the study only enumerates ‘violent deaths’ – not deaths from diseases caused by the destruction of sewage and water treatment facilities, certainly not from depleted uranium radiation poisoning. So this study is very welcome and we should continue to emphasise that the highest estimates are at least as plausible as the lower ones and probably more plausible than the lowest, which come from the quisling Iraqi ‘government’ and IBC.

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