Fumento Update

I wrote earlier how it seems that you must fail a qualifying exam before you can write on a topic at Tech Central Station. Now the errors in Fumento's critique of the Lancet study.aren't errors in epidemiology---they seem to result from not having read the study. Indeed, in comments at TCS, Fumento seems to be asking for help to find out what it said:

You imply rather strongly that you've read the report. If so, please inform us of what the extrapolation was that DID NOT rely on the Falluja cluster. I'm waiting.

and then:

I asked the wrong question. I meant to say how many were in the extrapolation that DID include the Falluja cluster?

and also:

We also know there is absolutely no way to randomly select 33 clusters.

Again, if he had read the study, he would have known that they did randomly select 33 clusters, and that they explained the randomization procedure in great detail.

But now, in a comment on my blog, Fumento has proved that he meets the TCS requirement to write about epidemiology---he demonstrates ignorance of a basic epidemiological principle:

The alleged 100,000 deaths were those above the pre-war baseline. That baseline was predicated on a figure of 5.0 deaths per 1,000. BUT the figure for the US at the time was 8.3 deaths per 1,000. Obviously Iraq was one of the safest countries on the face of earth prior to the Yankee imperialist invasion. In fairness, the CIA Worldbook uses a 5.6 per 1,000 figure for Iraq but what was it's source? Saddam's ultra-trustworthy government, of course. Thus The Lancet is using figures even lower than the Land of Baghdad Bob was putting out.

OK, some basic epidemiology:

Comparing Mortality in Different Populations: an important use of the rates---recall that the populations may differ in regard to many factors which affect mortality, of which age distribution is the most important---so to compare, we hold the factor (age) constant.


Death Rates by Age and Race, Baltimore City, 1965
  All <1yr 1-4yr 5-17yr 18-44yr 45-64yr >65yr
White 14.3 23.9 0.7 0.4 2.5 15.2 69.3
Black 10.2 31.3 1.6 0.6 4.8 22.6 75.9

Overall [this is called CRUDE or UNADJUSTED mortality], the death rate for blacks is LOWER than it is for whites. This is unexpected given the conditions at the time for blacks with respect to health care access and living situations. Why would this happen? Well, if we look at the stratified rates by age, we see that the rate for blacks is HIGHER at every age level. This seeming conundrum is explained by the fact that, while the rates increase markedly for both races in the over 65 bracket, there are more whites left in that age group. So many, in fact, that the overall mortality for whites overwhelmingly occurs in the over 65 age group, while the same is NOT the case for blacks.

Hmmm, so do you think Iraq and the US have the same age distribution? From the CIA Factbook---the very source that Fumento cited---we find that the US has a very different age structure with a much larger proportion of old people. And notice that neighbouring Syria has a similar age structure to Iraq and a death rate of 4.96, consistent with the Lancet study.

Country US Iraq Syria
Death Rate 8.34 5.66 4.96
Median Age 36 years 19.2 years 20 years
Age Structure 0--14 years: 20.8%
15--64 years: 66.9%
65 years and over: 12.4%
0-14 years: 40.3%
15-64 years: 56.7%
65 years and over: 3%
0-14 years: 38%
15-64 years: 58.7%
65 years and over: 3.3%

Fumento's argument that the 5.66 number for Iraq was falsified by Saddam's regime makes no sense. If Saddam was cooking the numbers he would have made them higher and claimed that the sanctions were killing vast numbers of people.

And his claim that the Lancet number of 5.0 is inconsistent with the CIA Factbook number of 5.66 is also wrong, since he ignores the fact that the 95% confidence interval for the Lancet study was 3.7--6.3, and 5.66 lies in that interval.

Also of interest might be this Chris Mooney post on Fumento's book on biotechnology.

Update: Fumento replies:

Much of what you write is simply idiotic, as in saying the clusters were "randomly sampled." How is that even possible, aside from throwing darts at a dartboard? It also implies you can read the researchers' minds. Ah, The Amazing Lambert. But at least I've found one person who really does believe we've been violently killing civilians at a rate of over 180 per day. I was afraid the Lancet propagandists weren't going to get away with that. You can blog all you want, but my next column is also on this. It goes out to over 350 newspapers and lots of websites that each have more traffic than yours. You occupy the pitiful place of the harmless blogger who blogs because nobody in his right mind would punish him. Rant, rant, rant. The world careth not.

Looks like Fumento flunks statistics as well as epidemiology. Random sampling is a fundamental concept in statistics and despite Fumento's incredulity it is actually possible to carry it out. I didn't have to read the researchers' minds to find out how they randomized the clusters; I just had to read their paper, something that Fumento still has not done. And no, I don't believe that we are killing civilians at over 180 a day---that isn't what the paper found. I do believe that Fumento's critiques of it are worthless, if that is any help.

Update 2: Fumento replies again:

You cannot randomly choose physical households in a place like Iraq. Those data are not in a computer. Do you think it's like campaign polling in the States?

Here is the methodology that is beyond Fumento's comprehension:

We assigned clusters to individual communities within the Governorates by creating cumulative population lists for the Governorate and picking a random number between one and the Governorate population. Once a town, village, or urban neighbourhood was selected, the team drove to the edges of the area and stored the site coordinates in a global positioning system (GPS) unit. We assumed the population was living within a rectangle, with the dimensions corresponding to the distances spanned between the site coordinates stored in the GPS unit. The area was drawn as a map subdivided by increments of 100 m. A pair of random numbers was selected between zero and the number of 100 m increments on each axis, corresponding to some point in the village. The GPS unit was used to guide interviewers to the selected point. Once at that point, the nearest 30 households were visited.

And if you are interested in more of the Fumento follies, look here and here.

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Fumento has been a hack for as long as I can remember, which goes back to his days at UI writing his half-baked rightwing screeds for the student paper, _The Daily Illini_. A person who has apparently never had Stats 101 shouldn't be allowed to comment on the nature of exit polls, much less pretend to attack a paper in the _Lancet_, but such is the nature of the culture wars, where in the minds of the true believer, faith trumps science, education is a sin, and -- as Fumento hilariously points out -- the truth-content of one's words is measured by the market-share one commands.

If Fumento is actually interested in acquiring some credibility in these matters, he should try for once publishing in a peer-review journal. He would certainly learn something.

By Brian Ritzel (not verified) on 04 Nov 2004 #permalink

Fumento arguments are better because more people read them???

I guess that puts him right into the propaganda-ist territory.

By Ken Miles (not verified) on 04 Nov 2004 #permalink

Ken, Tim, Fumento has the clear mandate of the party in power to spread his crap far and wide. Fumento doesn't need credibility, he has the corporations on his side. Listen to his tone - victorious and smug, his voice resounding authoritatively in the corporate media.

Don't think we won't be seeing a ramp-up of this kind of thing, either. Get used to it. And step up your game to answer back, and hard.


Good God this man is a national treasure. It's like a one-legged man who repeatedly enters arse-kicking contests, and demands a rematch against the US Arse-Kicking Champion.


I assume you have read the Lancet paper?

By Louis Hissink (not verified) on 04 Nov 2004 #permalink

Louis, why don't you just read what Tim wrote? He states that he read the Lancet paper-- "I didn't have to read the researchers' minds to find out how they randomized the clusters; I just had to read their paper"

By Carl Jarrett (not verified) on 04 Nov 2004 #permalink

Fumento asks, "How is that even possible, aside from throwing darts at a dartboard?"

The Lancet study provides the answer: "A pair of random numbers was selected between zero and the number of 100 m increments on each axis, corresponding to some point in the village."

In other words, they basically threw darts at a dartboard.

Louis must ask his 5 standard 'sowing doubt' questions to make whatever point it is he tries to make, but can't, here.

Make your point like everyone else does, Louis.


I guess Fumento thinks that being arrogant and nasty is a substitute for having a valid argument.

For completeness, note that the GPS procedure wasn't carried out in the Fallujah or Sadr City clusters for the decent reason that GPS systems are often used to target bombs, so walking around with one was an invitation to get shot. Instead they used a fairly similar but less sophisticated dartboard/map-type arrangement.

Check out www.zmag.org, Nov 4, "100,000 dead?"

A very good article showing why the study is credible--and in fact probably underestimates the amount of dead (in that the range of dead could be higher than 8000-198,000, or whatever the exact numbers are).

Re: Fumento.

Big winds blow from hollow caves.

The ironic thing is that Fumento, like the blind pig who occasionally finds an acorn, is actually pursuing a much more legitimate line of criticism than many other critiques (ie, the Chicagoboyz website). The only real weak point in the JHU study is that if the Iraqis systematically exaggerated death rates, then the number will be wrong. Note, however, that this would be a legitimate criticism of the number, but not a legitimate criticism of the study itself; there is no evidence from the survey that this took place and therefore no justification at all for the researcher's making ad hoc adjustments to their numbers in order to make them look more "reasonable" to people like Fumento.

dsquared is correct. The secondary point here is the continued campaign to besmirch science that doesn't agree with corporate aims. The evidence is in the TCS piece that Worstall wrote - boilerplate stuff.


fact is lambert sticks to his area of statisatical methods and provides really clear explanations, so i have learned that his blog has great clout in the controversies of the day (the account of clustering, some way back, was very helpful) while stuff like fumento is what you wrap your fish and chips in.
people read deltoid to learn. and so i wonder if any kind sole would point me in the direction of someoned who has a good account of what, exactly, von storch has done in the recent piece in Science. it sounds like he hit the pinball machine too hard and then expresses great surprize when it defaulted into "tilt". surely not, but what, then.....

dsquared is correct. The secondary point here is the continued campaign to besmirch science that doesn't agree with corporate aims. The evidence is in the TCS piece that Worstall wrote - boilerplate stuff.