Robin Meija writes about the Lancet studies:
In any case, such problems are common in war zones, according to nearly a dozen leading survey statisticians and epidemiologists I spoke with. “Iraq is not an ideal condition in which to conduct a survey, so to expect them to do the same things that you would do in a survey in the United States is really not reasonable,” says David Marker, a senior statistician with the research corporation Westat. Even if the outdated population data led the researchers to a 20 percent overestimate, Marker explains, the revised death toll would still be at least a couple hundred thousand. “These methodological concerns don’t change the basic message.”
The White House struck back with its own basic message: The study was bunk. Never mind that Roberts and Burnham had used methods similar to those employed for the Kosovo survey and others approvingly cited by the Bush administration. With the notable exception of This American Life producer Alex Blumberg, most reporters dutifully slapped Roberts’ research with the “controversial” label. And when asked about the study directly, President Bush declared that it had been “pretty well discredited.”
“By whom? By him and his political staff?” snaps Bradley Woodruff, who retired last year from his job as a senior cdc epidemiologist. Woodruff has conducted mortality surveys himself, and considers Roberts’ research solid. But when cbs’s 60 Minutes sought to interview Woodruff about the Lancet study in 2007, the cdc wouldn’t allow it. And when Rep. Dennis Kucinich invited Woodruff to Washington to discuss the study, his bosses nixed that, too. “I never had this kind of censorship under previous administrations,” he says.
I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Bush adminstration’s war on science extend to the Lancet studies.
More than two years later, the Iraq study remains mired in controversy. But other recent findings suggest that Roberts and Burnham were on the right track. In the summer of 2006, the World Health Organization conducted a large family health survey along with Iraq’s Ministry of Health, interviewing about five times as many people as Roberts and Burnham had, and in a more distributed fashion. In August, Mohamed Ali, a WHO statistician, reported his preliminary results to colleagues at a Denver statistics conference: Nearly 397,000 Iraqis had died because of the war as of July 2006.
That’s the IFHS study which also found 151,000 violent deaths. I used an estimate of 430,000 excess deaths via the IFHS study to make this table.
That number falls at the low end of Roberts and Burnham’s confidence interval, which ranges from roughly 393,000 to 943,000. But while epidemiologists and statisticians are still pondering questions raised by differences between the two surveys, there’s no longer much doubt among them that Iraq’s civilian casualties number in the hundreds of thousands.
This grim statistic continues to elude most Americans. According to a February 2007 AP poll, Americans’ median estimate of the number of Iraqis killed since the invasion was just 9,890. And while the Pentagon has presented limited estimates of civilian casualties, it has yet to release any numbers for the total toll since the invasion.
Roberts had set out to provide a legitimate number that might be used to inform public policy. For now, at least, that policy has been to keep the truth buried in academic journals–and beneath the sands of Iraq.