Gross Distortions, Sloppy Methodology and Tendentious Reporting How the New England Journal of Medicine Undercounted Iraqi Civilian Deaths

 By ANDREW COCKBURN

Almost five years into the destruction of Iraq, the orthodox rule of thumb for assessing statistical tabulations of the civilian death toll is becoming clear: any figure will do so long as it is substantially lower than that computed by the Johns Hopkins researchers in their 2004 and 2006 studies. Their findings, based on the most orthodox sampling methodology and published in the Lancet after extensive peer review, estimated the post-invasion death toll by 2006 at about 655,000. Predictably, this shocking assessment drew howls of ignorant abuse from self-interested parties, including George Bush (“not credible”) and Tony Blair.

Now we have a new result complied by the Iraqi Ministry of Health under the sponsorship of the World Health Organization and published in the once reputable New England Journal of Medicine, (NEJM) estimating the number of Iraqis murdered, directly or indirectly, by George Bush and his willing executioners at 151,000–far less than the most recent Johns Hopkins estimate. Due to its adherence to the rule cited above, this figure has been greeted with respectful attention in press reports, along with swipes at the Hopkins effort as having, as the New York Times had to remind readers, “come under criticism for its methodology.”

However, as a careful and informed reading makes clear, it is the new report that guilty of sloppy methodology and tendentious reporting — evidently inspired by the desire to discredit the horrifying Hopkins findings, which, the NEJM study triumphantly concludes “considerably overestimated the number of violent deaths.” In particular, while Johns Hopkins reported that the majority of post invasion deaths were due to violence, the NEJM serves up the comforting assessment that only one sixth of deaths in this period have been due to violence.

Among the many obfuscations in this new report, the most fundamental is the blurred distinction between it and the survey it sets out to discredit. The Johns Hopkins project sought to enumerate the number of excess deaths due to all causes in the period following the March 2003 invasion as compared with the death rate prior to the invasion, thus giving a number of people who died because Bush invaded. Post hoc, propter hoc. This new study, on the other hand, explicitly sought to analyze only deaths by violence, imposing a measure of subjectivity on the findings from the outset. For example, does the child who dies because the local health clinic has been looted in the aftermath of the invasion count as a casualty of the war, or not? As CounterPunch’s statistical consultant Pierre Sprey reacted after reading the full NEJM paper, “They don’t say they are comparing entirely different death rates. That’s not science, it’s politics.”
For the rest follow this link: http://counterpunch.org/andrew01122008.html

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