THURSDAY’S LETTERS: Number of Deaths in Iraq Underreported?

By: E&P Staff

In today’s letters, readers respond to the recent study
on the underestimation of deaths since the start of the war in Iraq.


Counting Civilian Deaths in Iraq

I welcome the coverage you’ve given the recent paper which addresses the Lancet article that estimates civilian deaths in Iraq. I am a physician at an academic health center, and a key part of my job is to review medical literature. Unlike many sciences, medical literature is mostly based on statistics, so understanding all the various ramifications of sampling, bias, etc is a must. Medical students get many hours of lecture to start to understand this, and residents, and fellows get more hours. Despite this many fail to understand how to read and interpret papers. Bottom line: it’s a complicated and difficult subject.

When I read the Lancet article I was struck by its quality. It’s a sound, good study, and very good considering the conditions under which it was conducted. The deficiencies, honestly noted by the authors, are minor, and cannot detract from its primary conclusion. Hence I was dismayed to read story after story in the media citing critics without talking about the facts.

The Associated Press particularly dismayed me. Why are they citing President Bush, Anthony Cordesman, and DoD personnel on this study? These might be influential people, but I’m not aware that any of them have the ability to critically analyze this work, and they’re all subject to bias. Proponents of the work, when cited at all, are mentioned toward the end of articles. And then there are the endless claims of “I can’t believe that the numbers are so high” without citing any study flaw which can account for an inflated result. This is what I call argument from incredulity, and it is weak. Just because some people don’t have much imagination, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Overall, the paper strongly supports its assertions, and the critics have not advanced cogent arguments, but despite this, headlines proclaim that the study is “disputed”, or “exaggerated”, and the critics are given significant coverage.

I applaud Greg Mitchell for his insightful analysis of this reporting. He’s the only one whom I’ve read who essentially says “Who cares what Anthony Cordesman thinks.” …

David Risher

Your piece perpetuated a couple of unfortunate misunderstandings about the Hopkins/Lancet studies and the people who conducted them.

You write: “The timing of the survey’s release, just a few weeks before the U.S. congressional elections, led one expert to says it is “way too high,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He criticized the way the estimate was derived and noted that the results were released shortly before the Nov. 7 election. “This is not analysis, this is politics,” Cordesman said.

The work updates an earlier Johns Hopkins study that was released just before the November 2005 (sic) presidential election. At the time, the lead researcher, Les Roberts of Hopkins, said the timing was deliberate. Many of the same researchers were involved in the latest estimate.”

In fact, the earlier study was conducted in 2004, of course, and rushed to publication before the last Presidential election. But the “politics” involved were Iraqi, not American, according to the researchers. As they explained it to me a few weeks later.

Rushing their study into print before the U.S. election meant it would stand a better chance of making news, Roberts says, but he also admits to an ulterior political motive: protecting the life of his co-researcher, Dr. Riyadh Lafta of Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. …

Survey research is a science, but it isn’t so complicated that a little reporting can’t bring matters clear. I hope that E&P — and AP and the other major U.S. media outlets — will do a little homework next time before letting the partisan — or the ignorant — spin their story away from them.

Edward Ericson, Jr.
City Paper
Baltimore, MD

So is your story saying that the mortality rate was higher in the US than in Iraq. That seems a little ridiculous to me. I am sure that just the infant mortality alone is much higher in Iraq (before the invasion). And did you count all of the Kurds that Saddam had gassed, or the war they had with Iran? Why don’t your reporters check a few basic facts instead of regurgitating false information?

No wonder no one trusts you guys anymore.

Bob Stiles

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