Just a few days before Dark Tuesday, the British medical journal Lancet
published a study of Iraqi civilian deaths from the war. Since then, at newspapers like The Guardian
, on-line pubs like Slate
, television hate-talk shows like O'Reilly's and throughout Blogworld, it seems half the people in the media have had something to say about the study, much of which has been negative.
Not just negative, as Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber points out, but frequently downright stupid. Davies's lengthy summary posted yesterday is a devastating wrap-up of the critiques.
Lots of heavy lifting here has been done by Tim Lambert
and Chris Lightfoot
; I thoroughly recommend both posts, and while I'm recommending things, I also recommend a short statistics course as a useful way to spend one's evenings (sorry); it really is satisfying to be able to take part in these debates as a participant and I would imagine, pretty embarrassing and frustrating not to be able to. As Tim Lambert commented, this study has been "like flypaper for innumerates"; people have been lining up to take a pop at it despite being manifestly not in possession of the baseline level of knowledge needed to understand what they're talking about. (Being slightly more cynical, I suggested to Tim that it was more like "litmus paper for hacks"; it's up to each individual to decide for themselves whether they think a particular argument is an innocent mistake or not).
Having in the past been assigned to cover the nuclear and the transportation industries, I had to learn some basic statistics, but mostly, like any reporter who wants to give readers a fair understanding of the topic under discussion, I depended on experts who could guide me through the numbers and interpretation of numbers that befuddled me.
As Davies makes clear, a lot of critics who challenged the Lancet study not only have a lousy understanding of what they're reading, but also don't have the good sense to double-check their findings with somebody who does know what s/he's looking at.
The bottom line is that the Lancet study was a good piece of science, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Its results (and in particular, its central 98,000 estimate) are not the last word on the subject, but then nothing is in statistics. There is a very real issue here, and any pro-war person who thinks that we went to war to save the Iraqis ought to be thinking very hard about whether we made things worse rather than better. It is notable how very few people who have rubbished the Lancet study have shown the slightest interest in getting any more accurate estimates; often you learn a lot about people from observing the way that they protect themselves from news they suspect will disconcert them.