This morning on KUOW’s Weekday the topic of discussion was “Who Won in Iraq?” Steve Scher’s first guest was Neocon posterchild David Frum. While Frum was discussing Iraqi deaths, he rather casually threw out the statement (at 8:14) that “the Lancet study [of Iraqi mortality] has been pretty thoroughly discredited.”
No, Mr. Frum, it hasn’t.
The Lancet study has been widely misunderstood, but not discredited. There are many batshit crazy neocons like Mr. Frum who wish, in their heart of hearts, that the grim reality uncovered by the Lancet study wasn’t so. But, if wishes were horses, neocons could ride…in a new crusade to world dominance….
The Lancet study [Burnham et al. (2006) Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq:a cross-sectional cluster sample survey, Lancet 368(9545):1421-8.] found that there were 654,965 excess Iraqi deaths (with 95% confidence that the true number falls between 392,979 to 942,636) in the post-invasion period. The study used a standard epidemiological method of cluster sampling—methods that have been used in thousands of studies without controversy.
What is largely misunderstood about the Lancet study is that the estimates reflect a change in all forms of mortality between the pre-invasion period to the post-invasion (July, 2006) period. The excess deaths are mostly violent, but they also include non-violent excess deaths, like those resulting from increases in disease or resulting from destroyed health care infrastructure, etc. Other estimates, like counting media reports of deaths (i.e. the Iraq Body Count project) are not only attempting to measuring a subset of the mortality of the Lancet paper, but the IBC project method vastly underestimates all war-related mortality, just because every fatality is not reported in the Iraqi press. (In other words, because the estimates are substantially biased downward, the IBC body count would never be considered valid scientific estimates of total mortality in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.)
Frum’s statement is just another wingnut talking point that was directly disseminated by George W. Bush the morning the Lancet article was covered by the media. Bush came out swinging: (hear it here) “Six hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is just, it’s not credible.” And then he defined the administration-approved wingnut talking point that the study was “pretty well discredited.”
Uh-huh. A newly published paper in one of the top scientific and medical journals in the world, “pretty well discredited” within hours of publication? Not!
You see, the opinions of politicians and pundits are irrelevant—they have no bearing on the validity of a scientific study. It is scientific review by the people who are qualified to evaluate the work (you know, people with PhDs in statistics, demography, or epidemiology) that determine whether or not the science is valid.
So far, there has been little scientific controversy over the findings. Because science is a constant game of oneupsmanship, a number of skeptical scientists have probed the methods for potential flaws and biases. Scientists consider this kind of skepticism extremely healthy—no paper is above scrutiny and there are large rewards in the community of science for uncovering fundamental flaws in a published paper. As a result, every now and then flaws are found that lead to the retraction of a paper.
Not so in this case. Despite a number of spirited attempts by qualified scientists to uncover scientific flaws in the paper, nothing of substance has been demonstrated that substantially challenges the scientific findings. If and when flaws in the paper can be demonstrated, the paper will be retracted. But for now, the scientific community considers that the paper’s findings are valid.
I just thought I would help clear up Mr. Frum’s misunderstanding…even if it means kicking the legs out from under his warrior horse.