The 2004 Golden Rake Award

Welcome to the 2004 Deltoid awards. Today we are giving out the Golden Rake Award, named in honour of Sideshow Bob and the rakes in the Simpsons Cape Feare episode:

How many other series would waste valuable prime-time real estate by showing a man whacking himself in the face with a garden rake not once, not twice, but NINE TIMES?!? If ever there was a gag genius in its repetitive stupidity (progressing from funny to not so funny to the funniest thing ever), this is it---merely the sharpest cut in an entire episode that just plain kills.

The award goes to Michael Fumento for claiming over and over again that the Lancet study on excess deaths in Iraq included deaths in Falluja in their estimate, despite being repeatedly shown the clear language of the report, which states:

"We estimate that 98 000 more deaths than expected (8000-194 000) happened after the invasion outside of Falluja and far more if the outlier Falluja cluster is included."

Notable was the way he would respond to the above quote from the report with a demand that he be shown where the paper gives an estimate that excludes Falluja.

While Sideshow Mike makes his way to the stage to accept his award, read some extracts from his Hate Mail, Volume 33. Sterling Vinson wrote this letter to the Arizona Daily Star

Michael Fumento criticizes a study carried out by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in the British medical journal The Lancet ("Numbers on Iraqi deaths questionable," Nov. 6).

Fumento incorrectly states, "The Lancet (claims) the United States has killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians since the invasion."

The article makes no such claim. The summary says, "We think that about 100,000 excess deaths or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths, and airstrikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths."

Note the use of the word "most." That leaves plenty of room for other causes of death and other killers.

The methodology of the Johns Hopkins study was used in Kosovo and is generally regarded as sound. Moreover, the authors of the Lancet article are careful to qualify their results and to recalculate the number of deaths after excluding those in Fallujah, where the worst fighting is taking place.

Please correct Fumento's misstatements.

Fumento's reply:

I reply to a letter sent to The Star concerning an opinion by Michael Fumento published in the paper on 6 November 2004. Dr. Vinson criticizes a study carried out by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and published in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

Actually, Vinson is criticizing Fumento, not the study.

I have read the study, which he just as easily could have since it appeared free and full-text online, but he did not. The term "most" applied only to causes of death other than airstrikes, not causes of death other than coalition actions.

Vinson's quote comes directly from the study and is completely accurate. Fumento is claiming that the study attributed all the excess deaths to coalition actions, which is not what the study claimed at all. It would seem that Vinson read the study while Fumento did not.

Notice from Dr. Vinson's own words compared to mine that I actually understated what the Lancet propagandists claimed in that I left out there (sic) modifier "or more." If anything, perhaps I am guilty of understating just what shoddy work they did.

One of the features of Fumento's replies is the way he inserts a "(sic)" after any spelling mistakes he finds in the text he quotes. I think that is a kind of petty thing to do, but I thought I'd make an exception for Fumento.

Regarding Kosovo, Dr. Vinson has no idea what methodology was used there. He's simply repeating what he heard, like an old parrot.

Fumento can't offer any reason why Vinson was wrong about Kosovo, so he insults him instead.

In any case, I explicitly said that the methodology could be correct but only if it were used in a completely unbiased manner, then went on to show how truly biased the researchers and the journal itself are. I also showed in other ways how the 100,000 figure couldn't possibly be correct, but Mr. Vinson seems to have neglected that.

Uh oh, is that a rake in front of Sideshow Mike?

Moreover, the authors of the Lancet article CLAIMED to have re-calculated the number of deaths after excluding those in Fallujah, except that strangely enough they never bothered to say what those numbers were.

Thwack! Fumento steps on the rake yet again.

Again, had Dr. Vinson looked at the report itself instead of a 300-word summary published by the AP or some other intermediate media he would know that. Instead he simply establishes what I already written (sic), that people are simply accepting this study because they find it convenient not because they find it convincing.

Actually, Vinson, like everybody else who read the study, including all the other critics, managed to find where the study stated what the number of deaths excluding Falluja were.

Please correct Dr. Vinson's misstatements and forgive him for his support of Hussein's henchmen.

"support of Hussein's henchmen." I wonder if the Arizona Daily Star approves of one of its columnists abusing its readers?

It's too long to reproduce here but Fumento also has exchange about the Lancet with A. Michlmayr, where Fumento responds to Michlmayr's attempt to educate Fumento about confidence intervals and age-adjusted death rates with:

I suggest that if you're as serious about all this as you seem to be, get on a plane to Syria or Iran and volunteer your services to the terrorists. They might saw your head off on camera, or they might accept you into their ranks.

This exchange is short enough to reproduce in full. No comments from me are necessary. Jonathan Dursi wrote:

I've read with some interest your analysis of the recent Roberts et al. in Lancet. As a scientist, I believe science journalism to be a very important connection between the research community and society, and I think science journalists have an important role in informing public debate. Speaking as someone who has actually published scientific papers, your written articles and comments on blogs have been really, really weak and intellectually lazy. If you are as concerned about reporting truth as your protestations about this Lancet article claim, I see no evidence of it in your own writing.

[150 words omitted.]

I'm glad you don't seem to write about astrophysics. If I were to someday write a paper on something you disagreed with, I imagine you would write just as spiteful articles based on just as weak (or absent) arguments about my own papers. It's a shame; the world needs good science journalism.

Fumento's reply:

Dear Mr. Dursi:

Fear not, I don't write about astrophysics because I don't know anything about the field. Would that you had such humility. But I do know this definition: "There is a vague notion that astrophysics is more rigorous or quantitative than astronomy; all this means in practice is if you're an astronomer and you're out to impress you call yourself an astrophysicist, whereas if you want to avoid freaking out people out you say you're an astronomer." Well, I'm impressed neither by your field nor your sad attempt at presenting cogent commentary. It's okay to have your head in space but your brain should remain earthbound. I've answered your criticisms on the very blogs you've mentioned, yet you ignore them. So guess what? I'm going to do like the rest of the world and ignore you.

Update: Sideshow Mike's acceptance speech:

As I've indicated before, you are a "hit" slut. You will do anything to increase traffic to your worthless site, including what you are trying to do now -- bait a person who actually DOES have a readership. As has been the case with your life in general, you have failed.

Watch out for those rakes on the way back to your seat, Mike.

Update 2: John Fleck has found a picture of the Golden Rake Award.

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Theren is that funky bit from the summary, quoted by Vinson: "we think that about 100,000 excess deaths or more ..." One could equally say 100,000 excess deaths or less. Even The Lancet demands that statistical estimates give confidence interval figures. Why then does The Lancet then turn around and allow "or more" in the summary? Marketing? Certainly the norms of scientific discourse and communication don't demand it.

By RH Morgan (not verified) on 08 Jan 2005 #permalink

RH: I've dug the paper out, and whilst you're right - it is a bit iffy to take the estimate of 98,000 +- lots and call it "100,000 or more" - it holds together better in context.

Findings:

We estimate that 98 000 more deaths than expected (8000-194 000) happened after the invasion outside of Falluja and far more if the outlier Falluja cluster is included.

But the line quoted is from the next section, the interpretation:

Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100 000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Note that these two, whilst close, aren't quite saying the same thing. The first says "not counting Fallujah, we have 98k give or take"; the second says "all told, we have an indeterminate number which we think is over a hundred thousand".

Later:

We estimate that there were 98 000 extra deaths
(95% CI 8000-194 000) during the post-war period in the
97% of Iraq represented by all the clusters except Falluja.

The Fallujah numbers were abnormally high, so they didn't include them in that figure... but had they been overall the same as the rest of the country, your 98,000 value notches up a few thousand to just over 100,000. If you assume that the post-invasion life expectancy in Fallujah is lower than most of the rest of the country (which seems a fairly uncontroversial conclusion), it'll work up further; it does seem to me to be a valid statement to draw when you remember that 98,000 is their conservative-leaving-some-contentious-stuff-out value.

(I hope that makes sense, I get distracted by having to markup my replies...)

Tim: Please tell me you are making up the acceptance speech! I refuse to believe that that was a real communication! On the other hand - "hit-slut"? You can't make that stuff up!

I like the part where he tries to use the invented 'poor reputation of astrophysics'(!) against the critic. I mean, ad hominem arguments are usually the last refuge of the pathetic in any case, but it's almost astounding to see one made up out of whole cloth like that.
Sometimes we just need to sit back and appreciate the quality of the guy's bullshit. Most people who didn't want to admit their mistake would try obfuscating at that point, or maybe answering questions with more questions. But not Fumento- he goes straight for the jugular, regardless of how ridiculous he looks.

By Carleton Wu (not verified) on 12 Jan 2005 #permalink

Fumento brags of large population of supporters based on the readership of papers that carry his coarse and unreasonably angry material. But surely it is the editors that are his audience, and they may decide to publish his offerings for reasons that have little to do with truth, or even competence. They will number in the hundreds, or less, but not millions. They in turn will probably wish to please their customers, who are businesses that buy ad space ranked by the size of their contribution to the newspaper revenue. The editors will not want to publish material that could get them in trouble with these customers. They will want one man brass bands that can stir up enmough interest to give the appearance of what they call "color", and they will be concerned about correct spelling. So there is a market for the sort of serial side-swipes and rear enders that constitute the weight of Fumento's verbal violence. There is even some humour to find, as when he attacked Gary Taubes on the diet controversy, a year or so back, and wound up staked out on an anthill. Taubes response is a classic of the genre: how-to-bury-a-bully.

Too bad most of us, like this writer, have neither the deep knowledge of a subject, nor the extraordinary skill of a Taubes. For myself I am grateful for such humour moments, and I celebrate the Golden Rake Award. I can picture it clearly, and it fits.