Friday, October 13, 2006

Liberation From the Tyranny of Life

What an interesting phenomenon the blogosphere is. This unique and unprecedented means of communication allows bloggers and readers separated by vast oceans, land masses, cultures, religions and more to communicate about a wide variety of topics, in near unison, in real time. The medium itself is conducive to the adoption of less formalistic conventions, allowing for up close, personal and tangential confessions and observations from blogger and reader alike. The cumulative nature of blogs also allows for something like character development over time, akin to a serial novel (with political commentary replacing the narrative in many instances - at least in the poli-blogosphere).

Through this constant progression of interaction, it is not uncommon to develop feelings of solidarity, affection, gratitude and something bordering on friendship for those one encounters in the ether. While I would not consider Riverbend, of Baghdad Burning, to be a close or even personal friend, I have felt sympathy for her plight, admiration of her courage, respect for her writing and concern for her safety.

Those feelings of concern have recently given way to a creeping sense of dread. She has not updated her blog since August 5th, and has left no note to readers that I am aware of explaining her absence. Each day that passes without clarification leads me to fear that Riverbend has become yet one more tragic life swallowed up in the maelstrom of death in Iraq that was recently chronicled - to much fanfare - in a study published in The Lancet.

That study, through peer reviewed and accepted scientific methodology, calculated the number of excess deaths that have occurred in Iraq since the invasion (that is, deaths from violent causes and all other causes, over and above the rate that was prevalent in the 18 monhts preceding the invasion). The results: an estimation of approximately 650,000 excess deaths.

Predictably, Bush supporters (and even the President himself) have rushed to cast doubt on the study's findings. Such numbers represent an uncomfortable truth, and the source of reverberating cognitive dissonance. Neither the President nor his reflexive supporters, have, however, been able to mount a feasible statistics-based, scientifically-sound challenge. Rather, they resort to question begging and gut reaction appeals along the lines of: "Things can't really be that bad, therefore they must not be."

According to Daniel Davies (via Matt Y), the number are, and in some ways aren't, as bad as the headline-grabbing estimate:

First, don't concentrate on the number 600,000 (or 655,000, depending on where you read). This is a point estimate of the number of excess Iraqi deaths - it's basically equal to the change in the death rate since the invasion, multiplied by the population of Iraq, multiplied by three-and-a-quarter years. Point estimates are almost never the important results of statistical studies and I wish the statistics profession would stop printing them as headlines.

The question that this study was set up to answer was: as a result of the invasion, have things got better or worse in Iraq? And if they have got worse, have they got a little bit worse or a lot worse. Point estimates are only interesting in so far as they demonstrate or dramatise the answer to this question.

The results speak for themselves. There was a sample of 12,801 individuals in 1,849 households, in 47 geographical locations. That is a big sample, not a small one. [...]

The Iraq Body Count website and the Iraqi government statistics are not better measures than the survey results, because one of the things we know about war zones is that casualties are under-reported, usually by a factor of more than five.

And the results were shocking. In the 18 months before the invasion, the sample reported 82 deaths, two of them from violence. In the 39 months since the invasion, the sample households had seen 547 deaths, 300 of them from violence. The death rate expressed as deaths per 1,000 per year had gone up from 5.5 to 13.3.

Talk of confidence intervals becomes frankly irrelevant at this point. If you want to pick a figure for the precise number of excess deaths, then (1.33% - 0.55%) x 26,000,000 x 3.25 = 659,000 is as good as any, multiplying out the difference between the death rates by the population of Iraq and the time since the invasion. But we're interested in the qualitative conclusion here.

That qualitative conclusion is this: things have got worse, and they have got a lot worse, not a little bit worse. Whatever detailed criticisms one might make of the methodology of the study (and I have searched assiduously for the last two years, with the assistance of a lot of partisans of the Iraq war who have tried to pick holes in the study, and not found any), the numbers are too big. If you go out and ask 12,000 people whether a family member has died and get reports of 300 deaths from violence, then that is not consistent with there being only 60,000 deaths from violence in a country of 26 million. It is not even nearly consistent.

This is the question to always keep at the front of your mind when arguments are being slung around (and it is the general question one should always be thinking of when people talk statistics). How Would One Get This Sample, If The Facts Were Not This Way? There is really only one answer - that the study was fraudulent.[1] It really could not have happened by chance. If a Mori poll puts the Labour party on 40% support, then we know that there is some inaccuracy in the poll, but we also know that there is basically zero chance that the true level of support is 2% or 96%, and for the Lancet survey to have delivered the results it did if the true body count is 60,000 would be about as improbable as this. Anyone who wants to dispute the important conclusion of the study has to be prepared to accuse the authors of fraud, and presumably to accept the legal consequences of doing so. [...]

[1] In the context of the 2004 study, I was prepared to countenance another explanation: that the Iraqis were lying and systematically exaggerating the number of deaths. But in the 2006 study, death certificates were checked and found in 92% of cases.

While the point estimate was 655,000, the study itself puts the range between 400,000 to 800,000 excess deaths. An unthinkable tragedy. The actual numbers are most likely much closer to (or within) this range than the highly improbale 60,000 figure bandied about by Iraq Body Count site (the IBC methodology is not designed to get an accurate read by their own admission).

Regardless of what the final grotesque number ends up being, let's just hope that our friend Riverbend isn't one of them. Let's also remember that for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, liberation from Saddam's rule has meant liberation from the bonds of life itself. An interesting notion of freedom. And the President wonders why Iraqi citizens are not more grateful to their putative liberators.

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