Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Saturday, October 30, 2004
 
Tim Worstall comments scornfully [ADDED 1 NOV: Tim Worstall has conceded that the statistical argument used in the article was wrong - scroll up three posts for more] on that article in the Lancet that alleged 100,000 excess deaths due to the Iraq war.

There is more unfavourable comment on the study from Fred Kaplan at Slate and "The Chef" at Ragout.

This is not the only recent example of a British medical publication allowing political warriors to launch attacks from a supposedly neutral ship. Blogger and medical man Anthony Cox recently wrote about an anti-Israel article in the British Medical Journal.

It's a clever strategy, actually. The general public doesn't ever read the original article, and wouldn't understand it if they did. All the public will remember is a one-line summary provided by the media along the lines of "'Iraq war killed 100,000', Doctors say." The authors of the study themselves were more forthright:

"I emailed it in on Sept. 30 under the condition that it came out before the election," Roberts told The Associated Press. "My motive in doing that was not to skew the election.
I do not believe you.
My motive was that if this came out during the campaign, both candidates would be forced to pledge to protect civilian lives in Iraq."
Protecting civilian lives in Iraq is a noble ideal. Personally, I think the US forces are motivated to do that anyway. But the incentives for them to do so are lessened, not increased, when they know that whatever they do they will have ever-more spectacular numbers of shrouds waved their way.

Some other thoughts:

-I expect this article to be withdrawn, corrected or in some other way apologised-for a few months down the line. Safely after the election.

-Sadly, many in the British medical profession will lap this up, revelling in the Lancet's (and, vicariously, their own) election-swaying moment of fame. Few of them will study the article that hard. This is because (a) busy professionals have trouble enough keeping up with the flood of literature on their own specialism, and (b) judging from the number of studies that have been revealed as fraudulent or wrong after decades of acceptance, an awful lot of studies are not, in fact, studied.
Spoon-benders and the like hate to perform their tricks in front of stage-magicians but are happy to do so for an audience of scientists. Expert opinion expects the world to be complex but does not expect it to be biased.

- When this strategy is used too often it stops working. No one pays attention to the political opinions expressed in teachers' or sociologists' professional journals since everyone knows what they are - a joke. It will be sad if we see the doctors go the same way.