Chris Bertram, writing in “Crooked Timber” about the recent study published in The Lancet, which claims there have been nearly 100,000 additional deaths in Iraq as a result of the war, wonders if “there is some figure which, if verified, would lead the enthusiasts for this war to conclude that it was a mistake.” I suspect that there isn’t, and the reaction to the report shows why; any figure produced which casts a negative light on the invasion will simply not be believed by the supporters of the war.
Now I am not going to get into a lengthy debate about statistics; if I had a decent understanding of them then I would have a better job than I currently do. In any case, if you get hung up on any particular statistic, you are likely to come unstuck fairly soon when a conflicting statistic is produced, as almost inevitably it will. But I found some interesting reading in a number of reports critical of the study, in particular Fred Kaplan in Slate and Tim Worstall in Tech Central Station. If I have understood correctly, then one of the main concerns expressed is that the report suggests the number of deaths since the war lies between 8,000 and 194,000, and so may be well short of the headline figure of 100,000. Of course it may well also be much higher that 100,000, but those supporters of the war are unlikely to want to believe that figure, and understandably so. But what struck me was that if we take the lowest, most conservative figure of 8,000, that this is still 8,000 extra deaths compared with the number of dead in the equivalent period prior to the war, when Iraq was under the brutal and murderous dictatorship of Saddam’s regime. To put that in perspective, that is still more than the highest estimate for the number of deaths that occurred in Halabja in the terrible gas attack of 1988. It is still a considerable figure.
A number of reports, (see “Lenin’s Tomb” and Tim Lambert for examples) rebut these complaints of the study and in some quarters there has been a certain amount of rowing back. Tim Worstall has subsequently said that he “completely bollixed the statistical part of my argument”; however he still insists there is “something fishy” about the study. Natalie Solent is generous enough to include links to both Lambert’s article and Worstall’s apology, but still says it is her “gut feeling” that the Lancet study is wrong.
Well, in relation to gut feeling, none of us are experts on everything, and we often rely on our gut feelings to inform our opinions; I am no exception. I am certainly not qualified to say whether the Lancet is right or wrong, and scepticism towards any statistic is healthy I feel. But if the supporters of the war are unlikely to accept the figures in the Lancet, perhaps the study may achieve something, as is shown at the end of Kaplan’s article.
Here, in attacking the Lancet, he praises the work of Iraq Body Count, whose “count is triple fact-checked; their database is itemized and fastidiously sourced.” Their figure for deaths in Iraq is currently between 14,219 and 16,352. Perhaps the lasting result of the Lancet report is that more credibility will be given to the Iraq Body Count; after all, 14,219 additional deaths sound bad enough to me.
Briefly on the US election, and the electorate’s choice of the dunce over the dullard, I don’t think I can put it any better than in this post in “Shot By Both Sides”. As I’ve said before, the American public had an uneviable choice; I’m just glad it’s all over.