Authors of Lancet Article Stand by Iraqi Death Toll Estimate

January 16, 2008 05:34 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
In 2006, an article in The Lancet published a higher estimate for Iraqi civilian deaths than any NGO or government; serious doubts about the methodology used to arrive at that figure arose this year. The authors of the Lancet report respond.

30-Second Summary

The Lancet's October 2006 figures 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.
In January this year, the National Journal printed a piece arguing 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 researchers 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 accuracy 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. Consequently, it went to print having bypassed the journal’s fact-checking process.

When the National Journal’s article was picked up by The Wall Street Journal, the Lancet study’s principal authors, Les Roberts and Gilbert Burnham, were moved to respond.

In the Journal on Jan. 9, Roberts wrote that his colleague Lafta was never a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Burnham said that the article’s peer-review process was thorough, and that sociologists and demographers had approved their data collection methods.

An article running Jan. 9 in the New England Journal of Medicine said that the extremely high figures in The Lancet’s study may be a result of “main street bias,” or an “oversampling of highly trafficked areas.”

Headline Links: The authors respond

Background: The National Journal and The Wall Street Journal

Historical Context: The Lancet’s 2004 study

Opinion & Analysis: Do the figures add up?

Reference Material: The Lancet; Iraq Body Count


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