Iraq death tolls, yet again
If historical inquiry is a constant attempt to revise approximations so that they are closer to the truth, then we are now getting about as close as we can to a robust view of the number of people who died in Iraq as a result of the US-led invasion in 2003.
This is a subject about which I have written many times, but it may be worth restating the main points.
1. I have been critical of the American and British authorities for failing to engage with the issue. This shows a lack of respect for Iraqi loss of life, and it also allows the most extravagant mis-estimates to gain credibility with serious media organisations.
2. I think that far too many people have died, which is a terrible indictment not of the decision to invade but of the failure to prepare for what followed. I do not agree with opponents of invasion, but that 100,000-150,000 have died should be enough for them to make their case without having to exaggerate the toll by a factor of as much as 10.
Two new studies by Professor Michael Spagat of the Department of Economics at Royal Holloway College shed light on the failings of two of the best known surveys that have produced excessive estimates.
The first is an article in Defence and Peace Economics entitled “Ethical And Data-Integrity Problems In The Second Lancet Survey Of Mortality In Iraq”. The Lancet study suggested an “excess mortality” in the three years after the invasion of 601,000. Spagat concludes:
This paper considers the second Lancet survey of mortality in Iraq published in October 2006. It presents some evidence suggesting ethical violations to the survey’s respondents including endangerment, privacy breaches and violations in obtaining informed consent. Breaches of minimal disclosure standards examined include non-disclosure of the survey’s questionnaire, data-entry form, data matching anonymised interviewer identifications with households and sample design. The paper also presents some evidence relating to data fabrication and falsification, which falls into nine broad categories. This evidence suggests that this survey cannot be considered a reliable or valid contribution towards knowledge about the extent of mortality in Iraq since 2003.
Spagat’s second paper, a joint article with Joshua Dougherty in Survey Research Methods, looks at the even weaker basis for an Opinion Research Business survey that suggested a death toll of 1 million.
We compare three ORB polls and find important irregularities in ORB´s mortality data in four central governorates of Iraq that account for more than 80% of the estimated deaths. These internal validity checks indicate that the ORB mortality data are not credible and would suggest a much lower estimate than ORB has published. We also analyze a number of specific error sources in the poll. Systematic errors, which include non-coverage and measurement errors, mostly point toward overestimation. Variable errors are also substantial but they are difficult to quantify in part due to incomplete disclosure of methodological details by ORB. External validity checks, including comparisons with two much larger and higher quality surveys, reinforce the conclusion that ORB has overestimated the number killed in Iraq by a wide margin.
(A pdf of an exchange of views between Johnny Heald, managing director of ORB, and Spagat and Dougherty can be downloaded here.)
Fortunately, the ORB estimate has rarely been treated as credible by responsible media organisations, but it is still widely repeated by cranks and the ignorant.
Photograph: Karim Kadim/APTagged in: iraq body count
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