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.)

Back to main blog

RSS thingy

Jane's Blogosphere: blogtrack for Natalie Solent.


( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

The Old Comrades:

November 2001 December 2001 January 2002 February 2002 March 2002 April 2002 May 2002 June 2002 July 2002 August 2002 September 2002 October 2002 November 2002 December 2002 January 2003 February 2003 March 2003 April 2003 May 2003 June 2003 July 2003 August 2003 September 2003 October 2003 November 2003 December 2003 January 2004 February 2004 March 2004 April 2004 May 2004 June 2004 July 2004 August 2004 September 2004 October 2004 November 2004 December 2004 January 2005 February 2005 March 2005 April 2005 May 2005 June 2005 July 2005 August 2005 September 2005 October 2005 November 2005 December 2005 January 2006 February 2006 March 2006 April 2006 May 2006 June 2006 July 2006 August 2006 September 2006 October 2006 November 2006 December 2006 January 2007 February 2007 March 2007 April 2007 May 2007 June 2007 August 2007 October 2007 February 2008 April 2008 May 2008 June 2008 July 2008 September 2008 October 2008 November 2008 December 2008 January 2009 March 2009 May 2009 June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 October 2009 January 2010 March 2010 May 2010 June 2010 July 2010 August 2010 September 2010 October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 April 2011 June 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011 November 2011 January 2012 February 2012 March 2012 April 2012 May 2012 June 2012 July 2012 August 2012 September 2012 October 2012 November 2012 December 2012 January 2013 February 2013 March 2013 April 2013 May 2013 June 2013 July 2013 August 2013 September 2013 October 2013 November 2013

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Saturday, March 19, 2005
More about that Lancet study. [This post has had material gradually added to it as I thought of new things to say.]

Via this post by Squander Two I found this post by John B of Shot by Both Sides, which is followed by extensive debate in the comments.

Here's my reason for thinking the Lancet Study [out of date link now updated] over-counted. (For convenience I will talk about the oft-quoted headline figure of 100,000 excess deaths, though of course the study itself had a very wide range of possible figures.) Why the devil should a war in which the side making the running, in this case the Americans, had every motive to minimise civilian casualties, kill at a higher rate than wars where the dominant side either did not give a fig for civilian well-being or actively sought to kill civilians? A killing rate in Iraq comparable to Darfur (this article discusses the difficulties of counting deaths in that conflict), or to the Dutch Hongerwinter of 1944? It doesn't seem likely. Furthermore I am not often one to enthuse about the ability of a command economy to keep people fed and sheltered, but it seems crazy to me to suppose that the vast sums of effort and money the Americans put into rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure had so little effect.

And here's my take on what actually happened to make the study show figures as high as it did: (1) I think some of the interviewees falsely claimed to have lost relatives as a result of the war in the hope of getting compensation. (2) I think some of the interviewees exaggerated their indirect losses in order to feel important, to gain the psychological payoff of being hard done by, to restore their pride, and to pay out the Americans for defeating them in war. (This bundle of motives could be shared by those who felt that the American invasion was a good thing, as well as those who thought it was a bad thing.)

To you who are gearing up to call me overly harsh, or even racist, in these assumptions about the Iraqi interviewees, stow it. I describe human behaviour, not exclusively Iraqi behaviour. Times are hard in Iraq. All can agree on that. The atmosphere in any country at war, or just after a war, has something of Harry Lime's Vienna about it. Deals and scams abound, as people who in happier times could have let the current of orthodox renumerative activity carry them along learn new stratagems to snatch or scavenge scarce resources. (Angling for compensation and exaggeration for political purposes aren't exactly unknown in the rich, safe West either, and with far less excuse.) Iraqis have heard of, and perhaps observed, this strange Western habit of giving money to victims of war. One does not have to assume the slightest impropriety on the part of the study designers or interviewers to find it plausible that a certain proportion of respondents will say, "Ah yes, my sister's poor babe was stillborn. No, we did not report it. What would have been the point in all that chaos? We dared not leave the house at that time. We buried her in the garden." Some will say that because it is true. That should always be remembered. But some will also say it because, who knows, it might pay off ¹ - and what are these researchers going to do to check, start digging the lawn?

Moving on from the discussion of what the facts are to the discussion of who has moral authority to speculate about them ... what you have to remember is that John B likes to tease. That's why his blog has the address it has. (""; to me "" would be only slightly more offensive.) His blog is miles better, and his attitudes miles more humane, than the URL suggests, but he is out to rattle a few cages. That's why he said,

"If you don't accept that the 100,000 number from the Lancet study on Iraq war causalties represents a probable lower bound (given its exclusion of Falluja, where we appear to have killed everyone) on the number of Iraqis who died in the 18 months following the war and otherwise wouldn't have died in the 18 months following the war, and you do not have a PhD in a statistical discipline, then you are an ignorant bigot."
At first I thought this sarcasm, particularly given the bit about Fallujah, but apparently he means it, though, as I said, I am sure he also intends to provoke. OK, I'll bite. Science, particularly social science and medicine is full of the most elegant and mathematically self-consistent results subverted by human hope, fear, malice, cupidity, humour ² or general slipperiness. William Broad and Nicholas Wade's book "Betrayers of the Truth" lists some of them. It is mis-titled, being as illuminating about self-deception and gullibility as about outright fraud and deceit.

And another thing. We know the authors of the study are a long way from the ideal of scientific impartiality because of the way they rushed it out to appear before the US election. Bad form, old boy. We also know they, or at least one of them, Roberts, is deceiving us or (more likely) deceiving himself because he made the absurd claim that the rush job wasn't intended to influence the result of the election one way or another. Does anyone believe that?

ADDED LATER: Here's my earlier post on the study from back when it came out.

¹ ADDED LATER STILL: When I made up that little scenario I was thinking of this passage from the summary:

"When violent deaths were attributed to a faction in the conflict or to criminal forces, no further investigation into the death was made to respect the privacy of the family and for the safety of the interviewers. The deceased had to be living in the household at the time of death and for more than 2 months before to be considered a household death.

Within clusters, an attempt was made to confirm at least two reported non-infant deaths by asking to see the death certificate. Interviewers were initially reluctant to ask to see death certificates because this might have implied they did not believe the respondents, perhaps triggering violence. Thus, a compromise was reached for which interviewers would attempt to confirm at least two deaths per cluster. Confirmation was sought to ensure that a large fraction of the reported deaths were not fabrications. Death certificates usually did not exist for infant deaths and asking for such certificates would probably inflate the fraction of respondents who could not confirm reported deaths. The death certificates were requested at the end of the interview so that respondents did not know that confirmation would be sought as they reported deaths."

² Anyone know if it's true or myth that an anthropologist - Margaret Mead? - once claimed that some South Seas islanders did not know that sex led to babies, citing as evidence the fact that certain islanders had solemnly told her that her theory of conception must be wrong - for had not that woman there given birth last month even though her husband had been away on a sea voyage for two years?