Fact rather than Fable in the Iraq Debate

Ted Lapkin

Courier-Mail – October 29, 2006

It is late-October of an even numbered year, and that means it’s election season in the United States. And it also seems to be the season for the deployment of pseudo-science in a bald-faced campaign to sway America’s choice of leadership.

This is the second successive US election-cycle in which Britain’s most prestigious medical journal has been wielded as a weapon of partisan politics. A mere nine days before the ballots opened in November 2004, Lancet guestimated that Iraq had suffered 100,000 “excess civilian deaths” since the outbreak of war the previous year. And three weeks before this year’s election day, the magazine published new survey that upped the ante of gratuitous Iraqi deaths to 655,000.

But the statistical methodology of these studies was deemed dodgy by a chorus of critics who assailed the Lancet articles as political hatchet-jobs in scientific guise. Slate magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning science editor, Fred Kaplan, dismissed the 2004 survey as a textbook case of agenda-driven research: “this isn’t an estimate. It’s a dart board.”

In the Wall Street Journal, political statistician Steven Moore savaged both Lancet studies on account of their miniscule sample groups. And it’s not as if Moore had no experience in Iraq. He spent much of the past three years in Baghdad measuring public opinion and training Iraqi pollsters in the fine art of survey research.

The 2006 Lancet article was based on data that was extrapolated from 47 groupings of people chosen at random throughout Iraq. But Moore found the size of this research sample to be grossly inadequate: “I wouldn’t survey a junior high school, no less an entire country, using only 47 cluster points.”

And when viewed in historical context, the shaky nature of the Lancet thesis becomes more readily apparent. The study essentially contends that three-plus years of low-intensity war inflicted more deaths on Iraq than did six years of high-intensity combat on Britain.

From 1939 to 1945, the United Kingdom suffered 450,000 military and civilian fatalities in the bloodiest armed conflict ever to mar the pages of human history. Yet Lancet would have you believe that the Iraqi insurgency has eclipsed the collective ferocity of Dunkirk, D-Day, Monte Cassino, El-Alamein and the London Blitz.

The patent absurdity of this argument, when combined with the transparently political timing of the Lancet survey’s release, indicates a triumph of subjectivity over objectivity. And through their words and actions, the main protagonists in this drama have only fanned the flames of partisan suspicion that already surrounded them.

The lead researcher for both studies was Dr. Les Roberts, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. A former Democratic Congressional candidate, Roberts makes no secret of his anti-war sentiments. And in a letter to a colleague he conceded that he had orchestrated a “rush to publish” the Lancet study prior to the 2004 election.

And in editor Dr. Richard Horton, authors of an anti-war bent could be confident that their submissions to Lancet met with a sympathetic eye. Just last month, Horton delivered the keynote oration at a protest rally where he dispelled any pretence of objectivity where the conflict in Iraq was concerned.

Resurrecting the overwrought rhetoric of the 1960s-era New Left, Dr. Horton ascended the stage to denounce an “axis of Anglo-American imperialism.” He then proceeded to accuse Tony Blair of presiding over a government “that prefers to support the killing of children instead of the building of hospitals and schools.”

Hardly the sober stuff of disinterested science.

The Lancet Iraq casualty surveys are so tainted by hyperbole that they have attracted criticism even from fellow anti-war travellers. The most notable demurrer emerged from Iraq Body Count (IBC), an organization explicitly critical of the Bush administration whose raison d’être is the documentation of civilian deaths.

Through rigorous empirical sourcing, the IBC has calculated that between 44,000 and 49,000 Iraqi non-combatants have died as a result of the war and its aftermath. And in a press release issued after the publication of the Lancet study, Iraq Body Count skewered Les Roberts, et al, for their “extreme and improbable” estimates.

The Lancet team claims that over 85% of the 600 fatalities that formed the foundation for its study were validated through official Iraqi death certificates. If so, then logic would indicate that the authorities have also documented a similar proportion of Roberts’ 655,000 excess fatalities. But because the Lancet estimates far exceed government casualty figures, the survey implausibly suggests the existence of a half-million certified, yet unregistered, death certificates.

The situation in Iraq is horrible enough without resort to partisan hyperbole. And when the justice of the war is placed upon the scales, today’s tragic carnage should be weighed against the infinitely bloodier track record of Saddam Hussein.

By all means let us engage in a national debate on the wisdom of Australia policy in the Middle East. But we owe it to ourselves to ensureat the arguments we that our arguments are based on fact, rather than fable.

Ted Lapkin is Director of Policy Analysis at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council