Iraqi War Casualty Statistics Under the Microscope

January 11, 2008 11:54 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Newsmagazine National Journal claims statistics for the civilian death toll in Iraq were inflated by esteemed medical publication The Lancet. The scientific journal defends its peer review process.

30-Second Summary

In October 2006, The Lancet published a study that put the number of war-related deaths at around 655,000—a figure 10 times higher than earlier statistics from human rights watchdogs, the Pentagon and Iraqi officials.

The statistics were released at a sensitive time, just before the U.S. midterm elections. Within a week of the article’s being published, it was mentioned nearly 200 times in the U.S. media.

In January this year, National Journal  printed a piece scrutinizing the Lancet figures, the research methods used and the people behind the project. The article argues that the sample size used for polling was too small. It also questioned the wisdom of applying a formula that dictated that every death mentioned by respondents equaled 2,000 deaths in the whole of Iraq.

Furthermore, the National Journal piece said that one of The Lancet study’s chief data collectors and article co-author Riyadh Lafta was an official in Iraq’s Ministry of Health under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This might indicate a conflict of interest.

Questions of political bias aside, the debate over the validity of the statistics has led some to question the medical journal’s peer-review process. National Journal writers Neil Munro and Carl Cannon alleged that Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, fast-tracked the article past the journal’s usual meticulous rounds of fact-checking “without seeing the surveyors’ original data.”

Les Roberts, another chief co-author of the study, defended the statistics in a BBC interview, saying, “In actuality, during times of war, it is rare for even 20 percent [of deaths] to be detected.”

Headline Link: ‘The Lancet’s Political Hit’

Background: The National Journal article

Reactions: The Lancet authors

Opinion & Analysis: The new math

Reference Material: The Lancet article: Iraq Body Count


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