Thursday, October 12, 2006

About the Iraqi death figures

It's interesting to compare the BBC's report on the latest survey with the report in Nature.

According to the BBC, the latest estimate of 600,000 odd dead: vigorously disputed by supporters of the war in Iraq, including US President George W Bush.

True, but wording it that way gives the impression that it is only supporters of the war who are disputing. Later in the article it makes mention of "critics" and never gives any indication of who they are.

Nature, on the other hand, gives a clear indication that there are critics who are unlikely to be considered "war supporters":

"I doubt it is large as they say," says Jon Pedersen, a social scientist at Fafo, an independent research centre is Oslo, Norway. Pedersen helped run a United Nations study that concluded between 18,000 and 29,000 people died as a result of violence between the start of the war and May 2004.

He says that violence has become more frequent since his study, but doubts whether the real number can be so much bigger than media reports suggest. Iraq Body Count, a website that collates mortality figures from media sources, puts the current figure at around 45,000.

"We are told about at least 30 to 40 deaths per day just from news reports," says Pedersen. "But 500 per day is very different."

Pederson also points out that the pre-invasion death rate recorded by the Al Mustansiriya team is very low. Figures from the United Nations Children's' Fund from before the war put the number at around 13 deaths per thousand per year. If correct, this suggests almost no increase that can be attributed to the conflict.

Further down, the report notes:

Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, says that Burnham's team have published "inflated" numbers that "discredit" the process of estimating death counts.

Of course, Tim Lambert's unerring faith in statistics, how they are collected (and the objectivity of scientists) leads him him to support the study to the hilt. Funny how a science person can seem to lose all sense of common sense skepticism of their own field. (Can't say he ever shows a sense of humour, or any other likeable characteristics either.)

Here's one thing that strikes me as a bit fishy: the Lancet authors say that the deaths claimed by the families were backed up by death certificates in 92% percent of cases (according to Nature.) Given the poor infrastructure in Iraq since the war, what is the reliability of the information in death certificates? Frankly, I am a little surprised that there were even that many death certificates issued. Is there a financial incentive for relatives to falsely claim a death in the family?

Also, who is responsible for burying the dead in Iraq? Is there the equivalent of an undertaker's profession there? Or do Mosques have a role in this? Is this survey method really the best way they think they can up with to estimate deaths?

Just saying...

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