Iraq the Model and the Lancet Study

It's rare for me to criticize Iraq the Model, and downright weird to find myself on the same side with anti-American bloggers like Riverbend. So let me be clear upfront that I am very skeptical of the the Lancet study; but I believe it needed a better response from ITM than Omar's rant - eloquent though it is - and I'm afraid the ITM brothers have hurt themselves more than the Lancet. I'll try to explain why.

When I first read Responding to the Lancet Lies, I cheered - but I also winced because I was afraid it would generate a backlash in the Iraqi blogosphre. It looks like I was right.

The first problem with Omar's post is that it begins:
Pajamas invited us to respond to a study full of lies made by Burnham, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that claimed 665,000 Iraqis were killed since 2003. The disgraceful study is expected to be published on the website of The Lancet, a medical journal today.

This makes it sound like Omar and Mohammed were being set up by Charles and Roger. Now I know that's not what happened and I know nobody put any words in Omar's mouth, and as partners at Pajamas Media they have every right to accept assignments from PJM. But I think this was a bad way to begin the article and it's an invitation to other Iraqis to criticize the brothers for being "tools" of an American-controlled media group.

More important, the ITM post lacks a serious attempt to refute the article. Here is what Omar wrote about the article's accuracy:
When the statistics announced by hospitals and military here, or even by the UN, did not satisfy their lust for more deaths, they resorted to mathematics to get a fake number that satisfies their sadistic urges.

When I read the report I can only feel apathy and inhumanity from those who did the count towards the victims and towards our suffering as a whole. I can tell they were so pleased when the equations their twisted minds designed led to those numbers and nothing can convince me that they did their so called research out of compassion or care.

And he's probably right. But he needs to go the extra step and show why the numbers are wrong. He doesn't do that.

By contrast, Zeyad at Healing Iraq gives a fairly dispassionate - and not overwhelmingly partisan - analysis of The Human Cost of War in Iraq. Zeyad begins:
I urge you to carefully read the study first. Very few people seem to have actually done so.

In comparison, the much-criticised Iraq Body Count relies only on media reports (mostly Western and often by conflating 2 different sources) for their maximum body count of 48,639 civilians. I have said and will say again that the media reports only a tiny fraction of deaths in the country, usually the victims of car bombings or other significant violent events.

The collaborative study by the John Hopkins University, The School of Medicine at the Mustansiriya University, and the MIT Center for International Studies, pubished in The Lancet, is not the same. It is not an actual body count. This is an estimate of the total number of excess deaths over the last 3 years.

It uses cluster samples (uniform groups of samples in a specific geographical areas) as opposed to simple random samples. This is usually much more cost-effective and easier and in this case it’s, unfortunately, the only available method to get an estimate.

Simply put, the methods used by the study are valid, but in Iraq’s case, where the level of violence is not consistent throughout the country, I feel that the study should have been done differently. 654,965 excess civilian deaths is an absurd number. My personal guesstimate would be half that number, but the total count is not the point now.

Zeyad goes on to say:
One problem is that the people dismissing – or in some cases, rabidly attacking – the results of this study, including governmental officials who, arguably, have an interest in doing so, have offered no other alternative or not even a counter estimate. This is called denial. When you have no hard facts to discredit a scientific study, or worse, if you are forced to resort to absurd arguments, such as “the Iraqis are lying,” or “they interviewed insurgents,” or “the timing to publish this study was to affect American elections,” or "I don't like the results and they don't fit into my world view, therefore they have to be false," it is better for you to just shut up. From the short time I have been here, I am realising that some Americans have a hard time accepting facts that fly against their political persuasions.

Now I am aware that the study is being used here by both sides of the argument in the context of domestic American politics, and that pains me. As if it is different for Iraqis whether 50,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the war or 600,000. The bottom line is that there is a steady increase in civilian deaths, that the health system is rapidly deteriorating, and that things are clearly not going in the right direction. The people who conducted the survey should be commended for attempting to find out, with the limited methods they had available. On the other hand, the people who are attacking them come across as indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis, especially when they have made no obvious effort to provide a more accurate body count. In fact, it looks like they are reluctant to do this.

The whole post is well worth reading. I am not in a position to assess the accuracy of Zeyad's claims, but his writing is clear, well-reasoned, and supported with solid information. If I were forming my opinion on the basis of these two posts alone, I would find Zeyad's analysis more credible than Omar's.

I have consciously kept the focus of this post narrow, and confined to my thoughts on the two Iraqi bloggers' reactions to the Lancet study. I'll add other rebuttals, critiques, and rejoinders to the study as my schedule permits. Also, there are a couple of other recent posts on the Iraqi blogs that I want to talk about, but I'll have to save that for another time.