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Wednesday, October 18, 2006


The Johns Hopkins study and the confusion surrounding it

I've been making the point below, and in comments in posts here and on Lenin's Tomb, that one of the reasons the Johns Hopkins study has run into "trouble" in the media is because the authors have not sufficiently (or not at all in some cases) emphasized that their study includes all Iraqis, rather than other studies which count only "civilians" and hence are guaranteed to be significantly lower. The result of this is that the public is suddenly confronted with a number which is much higher than those previously discussed, and, quite naturally, rebels at believing the result, whatever the scientific credibility of the methodology employed (which, also quite naturally, few people really understand).

Just to document the confusion on this point, I've been having a look at various media treatments of the study. First we have a Democracy Now! interview with one of the study's authors, Les Roberts. Amy Goodman concluded the interview with this: "Les Roberts, thanks very much for joining us, co-author of the study on civilian mortality in Iraq since the invasion." Her error was not corrected by Roberts. Indeed, Roberts had actually committed a similar error himself just moments before, when he said, "No one asked George Bush about how many civilians had died or about our study for 14 months after the study came out. And then, when he was asked, it was just by a member of the public in a forum in Philadelphia." But that is not what George Bush was asked! As I noted at the time, the question was this: "Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators." To which Bush responded with the number of civilians killed taken (unattributed) from the IBC figures. Nowhere in the Democracy Now! interview does Roberts attempt to make his audience understand that his study includes entire classes of people not included in such studies as IBC.

Here's today's Granma: "The civilian death toll in Iraq since the beginning of the March 2003 US-led invasion could reach close 800,000." Wrong.

Is it just the Cubans who got it wrong? Here's an article from the Washington Post: "Even if you assume that the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the war began is at the very low end of the study's range, that's still a quantum leap from earlier estimates." Again, wrong.

The left press is better, right? Wrong. Here's something from the Socialist Worker: "Other organisations put the number of dead much lower. The Iraq Body Count and the US department of defence only note a death if it has been reported by the media. They put the number of civilians killed at 48,783." The second sentence is false. IBC only notes a death if it has been reported by the (English-language) media, and if the person is a "civilian." And the wording of the last sentence carries the clear implication (even if it is refuted by a careful reading of the rest of the article which refers to "excess deaths") that the Johns Hopkins study is also measuring civilians only; otherwise the comparison is meaningless.

And what of the authors of the study themselves? Here, in an article from the Johns Hopkins Gazette, is how Gilbert Burnham, one of the authors, explains their high result: "Our total estimate is much higher than other mortality estimates because we used a population-based, active method for collecting mortality information rather than passive methods that depend on counting bodies or tabulated media reports of violent deaths." Not a word about the fact that other studies are counting apples, and that their study is counting apples and oranges (and pears).

I have speculated (in comment's on Lenin's Tomb) that the authors are deliberately obscuring this point because it is politically unpalatable to admit that one cares about or measures the deaths of members of Saddam's army, or members of the resistance forces, and not just civilians. That is, I emphasize, pure speculation on my part. But I have no other explanation as to why the authors would not attempt to achieve greater credibility for their study by helping the public to understand why their result could have such a larger number than others that the public has been accustomed (such as it is) to seeing. I welcome alternative explanations, since I have nothing but admiration for those who are willing and able to carry out such a study, given not just the paltry rewards but as well the widespread criticism and even condemnation which accompanied its publication.

Update: The second line of the lead story on CounterPunch today: "Despite the fact that over 2770 US soldiers and 600,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in Iraq..." Wrong. And still one more indication of the widespread confusion caused by the Johns Hopkins study and the failure of its authors to properly emphasize what it was measuring.

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