Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tales Of Exaggeration And Extrapolation: Iraqi Death Totals

Hollywood has a way of telling a story. Even in the most factually-based tales, there usually seems to be an element of added drama and exaggeration to make the films more palatable and watchable.

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.


Greg said...

When someone has to lie and/or wildly exaggerate to make their point, their point is almost always not worth listening to.

Same topic, but more specific example: the so-called "Haditha massacre." Let's remember what birdbrain John Murtha had to say about it:

"There was an IED attack, it killed one Marine, and then they overreacted and killed a number of civilians without anybody firing at them."

"U.S. Marines killed innocent civilians in cold blood"

"Well, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. One Marine was killed and the Marines just said we’re going to take care – we don’t know who the enemy is, the pressure was too much on them, so they went into houses and they actually killed civilians. And, and –" (and then he went on to say it was "exactly" like My Lai)

Don't know if you caught Frontline's expose on the incident last night. It was very well done. It showed people like me - how haven't seen it first hand - the absolute horror of war; and just what our young Marines have dealt with in Iraq; and what Iraqi civilians have endured. Most importantly, it demonstrated that there was, of course, no intentional killing of civilians. Everyone watching must surely have been left with the distinct impression that Murtha is a Piece Of Sh!t.

I have no use for people like Murtha, who libel specific troops; or for left-wing front groups that libel all the troops. Sometimes I'm tempted to use their dispicable tactics against them, though.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I did a double take when I heard Sharon Stone’s “convenient truth.” Dr. Stone (an honorary title) lost her credibility by using that high figure of Iraqi deaths, although it might have been in the ballpark had she used the word “casualties” instead, and she is probably oblivious to the embarrassment she ought to feel. Moreover, while I remain critical of my government generally and the Bush Administration in particular with respect to the Iraqi War, she failed to mention that even supposing there were 600,000 Iraqi dead, it was Muslim fanatics who did 99% of the damage to the civilian population, even discounting the number of “civilian” insurgents killed by US forces. I have no doubt the number is high, and even unacceptably so . . . but Dr. Stone should be critical of the Iranian, Saudi, Syrian, Lebanese, Pakistani, and Afghan insurgents for their genocide, not the US government.

Dr. Stone and that nitwit George Clooney might be “Ambassadors” of one sort or another for the United Nations (gasping for breath), but they should confine themselves to their own field of expertise, which is as best as I can tell, an occupation where they make lots of money “pretending.” The real world is suitable for those who do that for a living, and by extrapolation, are experts in what they do.

Stone’s hair-brained commentary encourages Muslim extremists and their public relations organizations. If Stone is unaware of this, then she may not be the genius others have made her out to be (IQ 158); if she is aware of it, then she is providing aid and comfort to people who not only kill their own people, they are killing ours as well. The practical reality is (even if Stone cannot see it) that nations who provide encouragement to Islamacists have learned, in terms of human lives lost, an expensive lesson. Kill 3,000 of ours, lose 600,000 of yours: it sounds fair to me.

Anonymous said...

Greg . . . very well said. Murtha is a piece of shit, and I hope after the mess is over, the Thomas Moore Law Center will assist the Marines in suing the crap out of Murtha and every one of his heirs. As the story unfolds, TMLC has learned that the government suppressed evidence that clearly showed that for more than 10 hours, Islamic insurgents used those houses and the people inside them to protect them from coalition fire. What CNN provided to its viewers was four fifteen minute duration clips of the 10-hour long aerial drone photography. They were clips that government officials edited prior to turning them over to CNN, and then CNN edited them again to make them time-suitable for television viewing. What the American public and military jury saw was “civilians” entering and leaving houses; edited out was unquestionably armed militant insurgents using civilian women and children as hostages and shields, and as I said, this went on for 10 hours.

I believe that Murtha knew this before he pronounced our Marines guilty in the press. I am stunned that anyone in the government would tamper with this evidence in order to crucify our troops — and I cannot even understand why anyone would do this. Does Murtha have friends at NCIS? I don’t know . . . but let’s all hope TMLC will get to the bottom of this at discovery, and that some one’s head rolls for such a travesty to our system of justice.

Semper Fi