Take actress Sharon Stone's recent complaint to an Arab newspaper, for instance.
"I feel at great pain when the spotlight is on the death of 4,000 American soldiers, while 600,000 Iraqi deaths are ignored," she said. "War is not a movie, it is a tragedy of dead bodies, victims, the disabled, orphans, widows and the displaced."
I read this and then wondered how so many people, like Ms. Stone could fall for such an outlandish figure as 600,000. So, I typed in a search of "600,000 Iraqi deaths" and here is what I found. In this search, we find articles from the NY Times and USA Today. In all of the articles that turn up in this search, the root of this figure is a study done in 2006 by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
From the the NYT article (emphasis is mine):
It is the second study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It uses samples of casualties from Iraqi households to extrapolate an overall figure of 601,027 Iraqis dead from violence between March 2003 and July 2006.
The findings of the previous study, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in 2004, had been criticized as high, in part because of its relatively narrow sampling of about 1,000 families, and because it carried a large margin of error.
The new study is more representative, its researchers said, and the sampling is broader: it surveyed 1,849 Iraqi families in 47 different neighborhoods across Iraq. The selection of geographical areas in 18 regions across Iraq was based on population size, not on the level of violence, they said.
The word extrapolate is defined as :
1: to infer (values of a variable in an unobserved interval) from values within an already observed interval
2 a: to project, extend, or expand (known data or experience) into an area not known or experienced so as to arrive at a usually conjectural knowledge of the unknown area
b: to predict by projecting past experience or known data intransitive verb
When one sees this word, one must be reasonably cautious of the conclusions being drawn, in a given piece of information. This is especially true when dealing with matters that are presented as fact, with no real hard evidence to support it.
In the case of this study, the NYT ran with this story without much thought as to the reader's ability to put it into the proper perspective. Subsequently, many like Ms. Stone have come away with this as a credible establishment of fact. Granted, the onus of responsibility lies squarely with the reader. But, too many people that are predisposed to believe this study (because they want to) and those that are too busy to do their own research and analysis are going to come away with this as, a firmly established truth.
I doubt the NYT is the only news outlet that did this. But as we can see from the USA Today article covering the same story, there is some reasonable attempt to put this into a comparative perspective with other sources:
Iraq's Health Ministry has estimated 50,000 violent deaths since the war began, through June. Last December, President Bush put the figure at 30,000. The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, estimated the death toll at 60,000.
The Iraqi and U.S. governments may have reason to skew the number downward, but the Brookings Institute is hardly a tool of either government. And if anything, it may be predisposed to be critical of both.
So, where does one go when one wants better information in this area? The Iraqi Body Count (IBC) website is an objective source of information. Keeping in mind that the articles reporting on the study were written in 2006, the IBC puts today's total in the 80,000 range.
Why is there such disparity in claims?
Again, from the USA Today's article:
The research relied on random sampling of 1,800 Iraqi households by researchers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the School of Medicine at Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. Based on deaths suffered by those households, analysts calculated an average of about 600 deaths a day since the invasion.
The methodology from IBC:
Iraq Body Count restricts its published database to documented (not inferred, extrapolated or otherwise estimated) deaths of civilians from post-invasion violence in Iraq, established to the standard of evidence specified below.
The key word here is documented.
Sampling from Iraqi households is not the preferred method of reaching an established truth for many reasons. The same holds true of any survey, where documentation is not used.
As for the total reached by IBC, 88,000 is still a lot of people. But it does not lie squarely at the feet of the coalition forces. Many of those deaths were caused by the insurgency, Iraqi-led, Al Qaida-led, or others. Even if the Johns Hopkins figures were accurate, it still begs for perspective. One only needs to contrast that number with the 55 million killed in WWII and they can clearly see the difference (if they are truly objective, that is).
So, the next time you hear someone say there has been 600,000 Iraqis killed since the beginning of the war, you can know with some certainty that the person throwing this number out, probably has a pre-disposition to believe the worst case scenario. Maybe you can ask him/her what his/her screen name is, on the Daily Kos.