Iraq’s ‘Excess’ Death Toll 655,000

A new study has found that there have been 655,000 more deaths in Iraq since the war started than would otherwise have occured.

A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred. The estimate, produced by interviewing residents during a random sampling of households throughout the country, is far higher than ones produced by other groups, including Iraq’s government.

It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December. It is more than 10 times the estimate of roughly 50,000 civilian deaths made by the British-based Iraq Body Count research group.

The surveyors said they found a steady increase in mortality since the invasion, with a steeper rise in the last year that appears to reflect a worsening of violence as reported by the U.S. military, the news media and civilian groups. In the year ending in June, the team calculated Iraq’s mortality rate to be roughly four times what it was the year before the war.

Of the total 655,000 estimated “excess deaths,” 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country.

I’ll let others comment on the study methodology; I simply have no idea how one might best go about determine the number of dead absent good recordkeeping and with many having an incentive to lie. I have a few thoughts about the reported findings, though.

Contrary to how NPR (and presumably others) are reporting the story, this is not simply a list of “civilian casualties,” which is what the other estimates are. These are people who have died from any cause, whether directly related to the war or not.

Further, it’s hardly surprising that a country at war has more deaths than it did prior to the war, even if there was ongoing violence before the war. The American Civil War, for example, ended the oppression of slavery but at a bloody up-front cost.

It would be interesting to see a better breakdown of the numbers. Most of the violent deaths are coming from gunshot wounds and car bombs, which would seem to indicate that they’re mostly being caused by the “bad guys” rather than Coalition forces.

Update (Steve Verdon): Since my day job is basically statistics I thought a comment by Charles Austin was worth mentioning. If this 655,000 number is valid it means that the average number of deaths since March 20, 2003 would have to be 503. Now, that is the average, and we’d expect the actual number of deaths to move around that. Further, based on the article James has linked to, the number of deaths has been increasing (in statistics we’d call this a non-stationary time series). So, if all of this is true, then we’d expect to see some days where the number of deaths well exceeds 1,000. It might even be conceivable that there are as many as 2,000 dead on a single day. Such a death toll strikes me as being rather news worthy, but we haven’t heard such news (at least that I know of). Maybe it is becuase Iraq is quite chaotic and that these deaths are distributed all around Iraq. However, it still seems like an astronomical number of deaths to go completely unnoticed, which is sort of implied by this research. Furhter, given that other research indicates much lower numbers, I think it quite reasonable and appropriate to take this study not with a grain of salt, but a shovel.

Update II (Steve Verdon): The study can be found here. One thing that is interesting is that if we use the crude mortality figure on page 4 of 19.8 per 1,000 for June 2005 to June 2006 and calculate the average number of deaths per day we get 944 deaths per day. As I noted above, this would indicate that we could have days were the number of deaths is considerably higher, so the 2,000 deaths on a given day is pretty likely.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    It is interesting that the “margin of error” in this revelation is between 400,000 and 800,000 deaths.

    I wonder WHY that is nor revealed?

  2. Anderson says:

    I dunno about the study, but JJ’s remark–

    These are people who have died from any cause, whether directly related to the war or not.

    –doesn’t fit the story he quotes:

    655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.

    So that wouldn’t seem to include “regular” deaths?

  3. Boyd says:

    Most of the violent deaths are coming from gunshot wounds and car bombs, which would seem to indicate that they’re mostly being caused by the “bad guys” rather than Coalition forces.

    What would be the most common cause of death at the hands of Coalition forces if not gunshot wounds?

  4. M1EK says:

    If Texas invaded Virginia, and then did such a poor job of managing the occupation that gangs of terrorists from Maryland roamed the streets at will, killing Virginians, it would be disingenuous to claim that _those_ deaths weren’t our (Texans) fault.

  5. legion says:

    James, once again you’re assuming honesty and responsibility are traits our government actually has. As far as Bush, et al, are concerned, Iraq is not actually in a state of civil war. And the war actually ended years ago. This is just the result of cleaning up a few “dead-enders” according to Cheney & Rumsfeld.

  6. Triumph says:

    It would be interesting to see a better breakdown of the numbers. Most of the violent deaths are coming from gunshot wounds and car bombs, which would seem to indicate that they’re mostly being caused by the “bad guys” rather than Coalition forces.

    Of course the story misses the main point: if Clinton hadn’t screwed things up so much, then none of these people would have died.

    I am sure that this “study” is funded by George Soros to make Bush look bad.

  7. mike says:

    Don’t worry, victory is right around the corner – there are just a lot of corners in Iraq.

  8. legion says:

    Yeah Triumph – ’cause it was really Clinton, wearing a Rumsfeld disguise, shaking hands with Sadam Hussein and telling him he could do any damn thing he wanted to his own people, as long as he kept up the war pressure on those nasty Iranians.

  9. Andy Vance says:

    It is interesting that the “margin of error” in this revelation is between 400,000 and 800,000 deaths.

    That’s not the “margin of error.” See here.

  10. A couple points of sanity in this debate.

    1) These are the same people, using the same methodology who released the discredited report of 100K dead right before the 2004 election.

    2) Their number breaks down to about 15K per month, which is four times higher than the highest civilian death rate month in the UN report from last month. So if the worst month is only 1/4 as much as the average they claim, what does that tell you about the accuracy of the study?

    3) The study identified only 567 actual deaths. From those 567 actual deaths they have extrapolated to the 650K. Can someone explain to me how swallowing swamp gas like this whole would in any way be seen as being part of the reality based community?

    4) The left wing Iraqi body count uses a different methodology, (news reports, morgue reports, etc) and comes up with about 49K for the same period.

    In short, this is not science but political lying.

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    From Andy Vance’s link,

    Lots of heavy lifting here has been done by Tim Lambert and Chris Lightfoot; I thoroughly recommend both posts, and while I’m recommending things, I also recommend a short statistics course as a useful way to spend one’s evenings (sorry); it really is satisfying to be able to take part in these debates as a participant and I would imagine, pretty embarrassing and frustrating not to be able to. As Tim Lambert commented, this study has been “like flypaper for innumerates”; people have been lining up to take a pop at it despite being manifestly not in possession of the baseline level of knowledge needed to understand what they’re talking about.

    That is pretty funny considering that Tim Lambert doesn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground when it comes to statistical concepts like confidence intervals.

    And this from one of Daniel Davies links,

    “This isn’t an estimate. It’s a dart board”. The critique here, from Slate, is that the 95% confidence interval for the estimate of excess deaths (8,000 to 200,000) is so wide that it’s meaningless. It’s wrong. Although there are a lot of numbers between 8,000 and 200,000, one of the ones that isn’t is a little number called zero. That’s quite startling. One might have hoped that there was at least some chance that the Iraq war might have had a positive effect on death rates in Iraq.

    Another one who doesn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground when it comes to confidence intervals. If a confidence interval (CI) contains zero then it is statistically insignificant. That is there is no effect. If the CI is both positive and negative same thing. He is right, that the Lancet CI is statistically significant, but there are some valid reasons (that most here would find rather boring) as to why Frequentist methods should not be used in a study like this.

    As for this new study, I haven’t read it so I can’t comment on the statistical methods. However, based on this from the bottom of the story,

    An independent group of researchers and biostatisticians based in England produces the Iraq Body Count. It estimates that there have been 44,000 to 49,000 civilian deaths since the invasion. An Iraqi nongovernmental organization estimated 128,000 deaths between the invasion and July 2005.

    These numbers should be taken with a shovel of salt, IMO. We have results that are all over the board here.

  12. If we do the math, that’s about 450 deaths a day, every day, since hostilities began. After the first couple of weeks, the daily death toll has rarely come anywhere near that number and, by God, we hear about the death toll each and every day.

    As others have noted, this isn’t science. Richard Feynman described science as something who’s validity can be verified by experiment. There is nothing here that can be validated by experiment. Others have called this politics. That’s true to a certain extent, but what it really is is propaganda, i.e., carefully and selectively packaged truths, half-truths and falsehoods presented to sway opinion towards a political viewpoint. Ask yourself whose interests are being served by this propaganda.

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    Actually Charles the exact number is slightly over 503 deaths per day since March 20, 2003. If Anderson’s position is correct that these deaths do not count any and all causes, then that number sounds astronomically high, IMO, and given the previous estimates for deaths this study should be looked at with a great deal of skepticism.

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    By the way, that 503 is the average number of deaths per day, so since it is highly unlikely that we’d see 503 deaths every day since March 20, 2003 we should also expect to see days where the death toll goes higher than that. Heck we might even see some days that get as high as 750 or even 1,000.

    Wouldn’t that kind of number of deaths be news worthy? Especially when we consider that according to the study authors the number of deaths has ramped up over time. That is the more recent days should see much, much higher number of deaths each and every day…maybe some even as high as 2,000 per day of excess deaths.

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    3) The study identified only 567 actual deaths. From those 567 actual deaths they have extrapolated to the 650K. Can someone explain to me how swallowing swamp gas like this whole would in any way be seen as being part of the reality based community?

    Wellll…techinically it could be done. After all, we do similar things here in the U.S. were pollsters will call up a small sample (relative to the population) that they then use to derive projections/forecasts for voter support during elections. It all works off of things like the Central Limit theorem of statistics.

    Now that being said, this doesn’t automatically mean the research here is valid. As has been pointed out, the death toll is actually ginormous in the sense that we could reasonably expect days where the death tolls are very much like 9/11 (if less dramatic and concentrated) in terms of relative proportions. Hence, they should have been able, IMO, to get a much higher number of deaths with little or no extra effort. When 2.6% (approximately) of the entire population is dead, finding surviving family members, friends, etc. should be damn easy.

  16. Thanks for the correction Steve. I just took the raw number and divided by four full years, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    As someone else famous once said, “they’re not anitwar — they’re just on the other side.”

  17. Tano says:

    Such an eyeroll to see the real propagandists, like Charles, and yetanotherjohn, descend into name-calling and pretending that the methodologies here are all political driven.

    The methodoligies used are very well laid out in the study, and even in the reports. If you wish to argue with the methodology, then feel free – these are legitimate arguments, although our commenters offer none. To claim that this is “carefully and selectively packaged truths, half-truths and falsehoods” is a blatant lie. It is a standard epidemeological study using standard methods endorsed by the United States government for use in making such estimates in chaotic situations like war or natural disasters.

    “Paul Bolton, a public-health researcher at Boston University who has reviewed the study, called the methodology “excellent” and said it was standard procedure in a wide range of studies he has worked on.”

    yetanotherjohn asks how anyone can swallow the extrapolation from acutal counted (and documented) deaths to an overall number. What a bizarre question – which seems to display a complete lack of understanding of the very notion of statistics – ie sampling a population to make inferences about popuylation-wide trends. As a political observer, one wonders if he has ever heard of a poll.

    Herb asks why the “nmargin of error” as he calls it, was not reported – with sinister overtones of a coverup of something or another. But of course it was, and is featured prominently in all reports.

    In the end, the clear thrust of the objections to this study come down to disbelief at the results. I havent see yet any valid, or even intruiguing criticism of the method. I guess it is standard “Republican science” to accept the results of a study only to the extent that the results fit your worldview.

  18. civilbehavior says:

    600,000 or 60,000 these are people who inarguably were better off under Saddam.

    THEY were alive.

    Which comma do you think their family reflects on?

  19. Tano says:

    And lets look at the larger picture.

    Lets imagine that the results of this study are greatly inflated. Iraq Body Count has a number of roughly 50K, which is an absolute minimum, given the rigid critera they use before counting a death. UN reports, and extrapolations from the Pentagon’s own vague statements all lead to estimates in the 100K-200K range. Lets pull a number from our butts and say – roughly 150K.

    In a country of 25 million. That would be an equivalant impact, in the United States, of 1.8 million people dead. That is the great gift we have brought to the Iraqi people. Put another way, its like 50 9/11s that they have suffered, or more than one a month – or, using the population proportionality – 600 9/11s, or one every other day for the past three and a half years.

    Of course, if the numbers in the new study are valid, multiply all that by 4. Even if all these estimates are completely wrong, and the Iraq Body Count absolute minimum is correct, then divide all those numbers by 4 – you still have a stunning impact.

    It would be gratifying to see the war hawks accept their responsibilities for all this.

  20. Steve Verdon says:

    In the end, the clear thrust of the objections to this study come down to disbelief at the results.

    No, not quite. The results are out of whack with other reports of civilian deaths such as the Iraq Body Count. The only previous study that was close to this, was the one these very same authors did. Hence having a much lower prior seems valid and makes this result somewhat shocking. That is the basis for my doubt. Along with the idea that there have been such high death tolls without much notice.

    I havent see yet any valid, or even intruiguing criticism of the method.

    I don’t think you have the mathematical/statistical sophistication to follow a methodological discussion. So why bother?

    I guess it is standard “Republican science” to accept the results of a study only to the extent that the results fit your worldview.

    This is true of everybody Tano, which is why I think the Frequentist approach to statistics is flawed. Whoops, there I go getting into the methodological stuff.

  21. Francis says:

    Since both Crooked Timber and Deltoid have threads going on the Lancet report, maybe Steve could stick his head in the lion’s den, go to one or the other site, and demonstrate why neither Davies nor Lambert know their butt from a hole in the ground when it comes to sampling methodologies and statistics.

    while i like a good insult as much as the next guy, it’d be nice to see an actual argument joined.

  22. Steve Verdon says:

    I’ve argued with Davies on this before and he agreed that he misrepresented what a CI is, and how to interpret them, but then said it didn’t matter.

    I’ve also argued with Lambert as well, and he simply insists he is correct.

    What more do you want? Fly to Australia and beat him up?

  23. ahem says:

    I’ve argued with Davies on this before and he agreed that he misrepresented what a CI is, and how to interpret them, but then said it didn’t matter.

    Got a link for that? Or are you misstating the confidence interval on that assessment, Mr Protesteth-Too-Much?

  24. Steve Verdon says:

    Here is a link of where I take both Davies and Lambert to task. Lambert showed up and argued, not very convincingly, IMO.

  25. Francis says:

    i’m not sure how you flying to Australia and going mano a mano with Lambert would result in an edifying post about possible errors with the newest Lancet study. but feel free to correct me.

    since, however, i remain interested about learning about possible deficiencies in the Lancet report and you are, so far, the only poster i’ve found who is saying anything more than inconceivable, i still think that your contribution either at Deltoid or CT could be useful.

  26. Engineer says:

    240,000 cluster bombs have been dropped so it makes sense that maybe some people died when they landed. Add in gunfire and car bombs and 600,000 dead doesn’t seem that big.

    Even if you ignore that fact, let’s really think about the fact that they interviewed 1,849 and found over 500 people dead and 92% of those had death certificates to prove it. That doesn’t even count the homes that don’t exist anymore. 1 dead person for every 4 randomly selected homes around the country, that’s bad no matter how you look at it.

  27. mule says:

    Daniel Davies would make mincemeat of these skeptics. They won’t show.

  28. Let’s see, according to Tano, the proper way to complain about what he sees as an ad hominem attack is to launch a …, wait for it …, an ad hominem attack by calling me a propagandist. Brilliant! Now I know why I always lose these arguments to my debating opponents on the left.

    Perhaps Tano is also unaware that the authors of this study admitted that their previous all points bulletin exaggerating civilan deaths in 2004 that was released just before the election was timed to …, wait for it …, affect the election! So much for these brave, objective scientists speaking truth to power. But Tano’s faith in the infallibility of those who work for the government, or at least those who can generate or support opinions that criticize George Bush, is touching.

    Mind you, I readily admit to not having read the study and never claimed that I did. I lack the time to waste on such a fruitless endeavor. And yes, there is no need for me to examine the details of the methodology when the results are clearly nonsensical. I am not interested in arguing the merits of how many corpses can dance on the heads of the authors’ pens. Now, if this were quantum mechanics, perhaps something so counterintuitive and contrary to our real every day knowledge and experience would merit more study, but to abuse another aphorism, this ain’t rocket science.

    I doubt there’s a point in trying to explain further, but I defy anyone, including Tano, to quote anything I wrote in my first post above that even mentioned, much less criticized the methodology used to inflate 567 deaths into 650,000. Since, as mentioned above, I haven’t read the report, it remains prudent for me to avoid criticizing the specific details of the report. But I absolutely have criticized the published and publicized results because they fly in the face of reason and the daily body counts I hear every day on NPR. If pressed for an opinion, I would guess that the methodology is probably flawed, but I’ll leave that analysis to others with the time and inclination to wade through the muck.

    And don’t get me started on the implication that every death can be laid on the doorstep of George Bush. Jeez, Louise.

    Perhaps I’ll ask Mr. Joyner to weigh in on the personal insults being directed my way in this comment section. Tano, you may not like or agree with my comments, opinions, or the facts I state from time to time, but that does not justify calling me a propagandist. I’m not as current with my statistical toolset as Mr. Verdon is, because I don’t use it nearly as much. However, there was a time in the distant past when I was quite up to date on such matters. Even twenty years removed, I can still smell a pile of statistical feces from several feet away without having to put my hands into it to verify it.

    Nonetheless, I grow weary of this pissing contest. One of the problems with getting into a pissing contest is that even if you win you still end up covered in urine.

  29. Steve Verdon says:

    Mule,

    Why should I? Last time Davies pronounced the comment sections, IIRC, as not the place for a dicussion between Bayesian and Frequentist statistics. That pretty much rules out a large part of anything I’d write. Davies insulated himself from criticism by that “edict”. So if you consider that “making mincemeat” of those who disagree with him you are easily impressed.

  30. Tano says:

    “The results are out of whack with other reports of civilian deaths such as the Iraq Body Count. The only previous study that was close to this, was the one these very same authors did. Hence having a much lower prior seems valid and makes this result somewhat shocking.”

    How is this in any way different from my summary statement – “the clear thrust of the objections to this study come down to disbelief at the results.”

    “I don’t think you have the mathematical/statistical sophistication to follow a methodological discussion. So why bother?”

    Seriously Steve, can you not recognize how absolutely pathetic a response that is?

    “to accept the results of a study only to the extent that the results fit your worldview.

    This is true of everybody Tano, which is why I think the Frequentist approach to statistics is flawed. Whoops, there I go getting into the methodological stuff. ”

    Oooh please stop with all this complicated statistical stuff Steve, I’m still struggling with basic math! I can only dream of ever being half as smart as you.
    But if you do have a spare moment, could you explain why a frequentist approach is more conducive to the actual issue I raised, which is the reluctance to accept the resluts of a study because they challenge your preconceptions? That strikes me as more a problem with ones intellectual honesty rather than one’s statistical approach.

  31. Tano says:

    Well Charles, where to begin…

    First of all, complaints about the timing of the release of the data do not constitute a valid critique of the results. Would you be more amenable to accepting the results if they were released on Nov. 8? I didn’t think so.

    As to my “faith” in anything – I do recall stating that critiques of their methodology would be a legitimate exercise, and I think it fair to characterize my post as an expression of my willingness to listen to such critiques. And frustration that the criticism I have heard is not at all focused on any methodological issues.

    “I readily admit to not having read the study and never claimed that I did. I lack the time to waste on such a fruitless endeavor”

    Well fine Charles. I never made any claim on the issue of whether you have read the study. Thank you for clarifying. Given the fact that you will not even read the study, I think it fair to claim that your opinion on the validity of the study is utterly worthless. And I think it clear that any strong opinion that you have on the subject is based soley on how it relates to what you wish were true.

    As for the tone of my comments, and calling you a propagandist, let me just say this Charles. Having not read the study, nor analyzed the methods, you feel free to characterize the authors as having produced “carefully and selectively packaged truths, half-truths and falsehoods presented to sway opinion towards a political viewpoint”. This is a strong, and rather outrageous charge to level against professional scientists. There is NO basis for such a claim that you can legitimatly put forth given your knowledge of the report. I think that my charge against you, as being a propagandist, pales in comparison to the strength of the charges that you launch against others. And your response simply confirms my view of your role here.

  32. Steve Verdon says:

    How is this in any way different from my summary statement – “the clear thrust of the objections to this study come down to disbelief at the results.”

    As I noted your mathematical and statistical sophistication is…lacking.

    But if you do have a spare moment, could you explain why a frequentist approach is more conducive to the actual issue I raised, which is the reluctance to accept the resluts of a study because they challenge your preconceptions? That strikes me as more a problem with ones intellectual honesty rather than one’s statistical approach.

    You know Tano, if you stopped being so damned pissed off about everything you might come across as more coherent. My comment implied the exact oppossite, that Frequentist methods may very well be inappropriate for studying this issue. The reason has to do with the very nature of Frequentist statistics. Frequentist statistics relie on a frequency in the phenomenon being studied. Drawing balls from an urn is fine since you can do that kind of thing repeatedly. Same with coin tossing, rolling dice, and even many scientific experiments in the laboratory or quality-control. However, when a person dies it is a one time event. Hence, frequency isn’t really going to help you here. Applying Frequentist concepts to a one shot event is problematic.

    I know you probably think I am making this up so I’ll give you a citation for you to look up if you are so inclined. Check out Dale Poirier’s text Intermediate Statistics and Econometrics, page 18.

    This of course, doesn’t mean that the results are wrong, but it does indicate a problem with the methodology at a very fundamental level, one that many who do emprical work often ignore or don’t get into.

    As for beliefs and disbelief, sorry Tano those are part of science. They inform the scientists in all sorts of ways and even on occasion which data to include or reject in their analysis. So, while you find beliefs/disbelief objectionable, I on the other hand want to incorporate them explicitly into statistical analyses. I find this view to be superior to the one that tries to pretend that scientists/researchers have no beliefs and that they have no impact on their work.

    I’m sure you’ll come back with a snide and dismissive comment which will prove that my initial “pathetic” response to you was in actuality quite correct.

  33. Steve Verdon says:

    As to my “faith” in anything – I do recall stating that critiques of their methodology would be a legitimate exercise, and I think it fair to characterize my post as an expression of my willingness to listen to such critiques. And frustration that the criticism I have heard is not at all focused on any methodological issues.

    That you can’t see the methodological criticisms due to your own statisitcal and mathematical failings is not Charles’ nor my problem. However, I will give you a hint: disbelief, or more accurately that the data is so out of whack with existing information, implies a methodological problem.

  34. Tano says:

    Steve,

    Do you think you do yourself any credit by framing all your responses around insults? That calling me stupid constitutes scoring a point for your perspective?

    I understand the distinction between frequentist and subjectivist approaches in statistics. You object to the study in question because it makes inferences about people dying, which is a one-time event. I think it a silly objection. That people die once is indisuputable. That you can amass data on that event multiple times, is also true. The study entails doing interviews with family members to ascertain when relatives have died, and under what circumstances. The pool of all Iraqis can be sampled infinitly. with replacement, to gather this data. Death certificates can be examined, recorded, then returned to the family, and can be sampled again, if necessary. I can see no problem with using these methods to sample a subset of the population, and then to infer an estimate of the number of people who have died over the past few years.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me that your approach would be to say that you had a prior sense (perhaps pulled from thin air, or wishful thinking) that the number was markedly lower, and that this study is so dramatically out of line with those beliefs that it cannot be considered of high probability. Which would mean, of course, that it is all about you and your subjective beliefs, and not about what the actual numbers are.

    Your questions regarding the entire approach taken, rather than the specific methodology, is a critique of epidemiology as a whole, and not this specific study. Sorry if all this is a mischaracterization, but perhpas you could explain to us how you would go about deriving an accurate estimate of the number of excess deaths?

    “That you can’t see the methodological criticisms due to your own statisitcal and mathematical failings is not Charles’ nor my problem. ….disbelief, or more accurately that the data is so out of whack with existing information, implies a methodological problem”

    A methodologicial problem with the new study, or perhaps with the prior estimates. To the extent that it may refer to the new study, then an appropriate response might be “this seems weird, I suspect there might be some methodological problem that needs to be investigated.” Not ” this study presents carefully and selectively packaged truths, half-truths and falsehoods presented to sway opinion towards a political viewpoint”.

    I guess it is just a function of my mathematical and statistical failings that I don’t see those two statements as being the same.

  35. Charles Kennedy says:

    Alas, one can only despair. As usual, leave the obfuscation and misrepresentation to a statistician (Steve, that’s you kid), and the bulldogging to the sidekick (pathetic little Charles).

    As you’ve both indicated, this is a debate about science. So, as a scientist, I’ll address your points.

    Let’s look at your oh-so-sophisticated statistical and scientific claims (contrary to your tone Steve, you are not a stat demi-god worthy of knee-scraping).

    First, if you’re a statistician you surely know that if you fit a normal distribution to a mean of 500 deaths, anything over 1,000 is just as likely to occur in Iraq as 0 (depending on the variance you choose — though I’m sure you’d choose a large one, since you are clearly biased), and would be well outside 3 standard deviations (i.e., an outlier). That would mean that only 10 or so days during the entire war would have had body counts exceeding 1,000. 2,000 would mean a Fallujah debacle, and they excluded such outliers in the recent analysis.

    Second, of course there are theoretical quibbles with measuring one-time events with statistical methods. In biology at least, we refer to it as pseudoreplication. But what the authors have employed is a largely descriptive statistical technique that does not require true replication. All parametric stats (and non-parametrics) were simply in the form of modeling or estimation, not hypothesis testing, so calm down. Thank god we don’t have the replication you seem to suggest. Actually, why don’t we turn all of central Asia into a theoretical analysis Steve (i.e. by invading each country independently, all at the same time)? THEN we’d know, right? You’re probably one of the “statisticians” hired by Exxon to argue that there was no way to establish that the Valdez killed anything, because it was only one spill.

    Finally, neither of you are scientists (if Steve is a statistician as he has claimed). According to Charles, “this ain’t rocket science.” I’m not convinced you know your ass from a hole in the ground” here, in your words, Steve. Neither of you are epidemiologists. Another commenter was correct to note that a fellow epidemiologist claimed that the methods were impeccable. What more can you ask for? As an ecologist, I’d tell you to go to hell if you thought I didn’t know how to measure nitrogen mineralization or plant community composition. Stay within the realm of your expertise and stop over-extending yourself, committing precisely the mistakes you criticize others for.

    Besides, newsworthy scientific papers are often rushed through, and not to change election results. Your spittling is tantamount to an attack on science and scientists, and I for one take severe exception.

  36. Charles Kennedy says:

    One more thing — as far as repeatability of the method goes in terms of post-war mortality, their figures line up pretty well. Of course this won’t satisfy your mis-placed statistical yearnings for replication and conventional statistics, Steve.

    But it does indicate that as we scientists know is of the essence, lack of repeatability of measurements does not explain their figures.

    I’d downgrade your shovel of salt back to the pinch. These are not “real” numbers, it is a ballpark. You ought to read up on the sort of modeling we apply in the biological sciences.

    Cheers!

  37. snuh says:

    I’ve argued with Davies on this before and he agreed that he misrepresented what a CI is, and how to interpret them, but then said it didn’t matter.

    still waiting for a link to where you had Davies “agree[] that he misrepresented what a CI is.”

    also, it does not strike me as inherently unreasonable to suppose that only 1 in 13 [50,000 (the IBC number) in 650,000(the lancet)] of the “excess deaths” in iraq were corroborated by two accounts in the foreign press [the criteria for inclusion in the IBC].

  38. stephen daedalus says:

    Steve,

    As I noted your mathematical and statistical sophistication is…lacking.

    And I note that your pose of condescension is… transparent and laughable.

  39. Steve Verdon says:

    Do you think you do yourself any credit by framing all your responses around insults?

    Why not, that is you tactic. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.

    That calling me stupid constitutes scoring a point for your perspective?

    I didn’t call you stupid, I called you ignorant. Considering your track record around here calling others cretins and other names I fail to see why this bothers you. You crapped in your mess kit, now live with it, most think your a complete jerk.

    I understand the distinction between frequentist and subjectivist approaches in statistics.

    I know.

    You object to the study in question because it makes inferences about people dying, which is a one-time event. I think it a silly objection.

    This is because of you lack of understanding that you admitted above. What can I do beyond this other than point out that fequentists concepts don’t hold for one time events. This is obvious from the frequentist definition of probability.

    That people die once is indisuputable. That you can amass data on that event multiple times, is also true.

    Again, the problem isn’t that you have multiple observations, but that it doesn’t fit the frequentist definition of probability. Now you can say, “Well, okay, but it is close enough for me,” but then you are starting to get perilously close to the realm of subjective probability and one should at least admit that this makes the results some what less reliable than say a lab experiment that is more highly controlled.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me that your approach would be to say that you had a prior sense (perhaps pulled from thin air, or wishful thinking) that the number was markedly lower, and that this study is so dramatically out of line with those beliefs that it cannot be considered of high probability. Which would mean, of course, that it is all about you and your subjective beliefs, and not about what the actual numbers are.

    Not bad. Yes, this captures a large part of my view of this study. However, the number of deaths isn’t something pulled out of thin air. For example, there are several other numbers out there. There is the 30K that Pres. Bush mentioned a while ago, probably way too low. There is Iraq Body Count, but also low. There are other accounts that put the numbers higher as well, but not this high. These numbers seem to be several times larger than other estimates. Using these other numbers, and one’s subjective beliefs about them, to inform one’s on beliefs about the number of deaths is not unreasonable in that any and all scientists do it everywhere on anything they are studying.

    Further, using the “machinery” of Bayesian statistics one can take their subjective beliefs about the the number of deaths and give them mathematical form, called a prior. This prior is actually a probability distribution that could be say, normal with a given mean and variance: say 200,000 for the mean and 25,000 for the variance. Then using Bayes theorem you can update that prior probability distribution using the data you observe. Hence one’s subjective beliefs become tied to the data and even wildly bizarre initial beliefs will be swamped by the data.

    So your view of this is not bad, but your final take on it is wrong. There are lots of Bayesian statisticians out there and to imply that they are all dishonest is inaccurate. In fact, I’d say they are perhaps more honest in that they put their subjective beliefs out there for everyone to see, and at the same time agree to let those beliefs be changed by the data. Frequentists don’t do any of this save in a ad hoc manner.

    Your questions regarding the entire approach taken, rather than the specific methodology, is a critique of epidemiology as a whole, and not this specific study.

    No, not necessarily. While I think that Bayesian methods are superior, Frequentist methods can be used in situations that conform to the Frequentist concept of probability. One can argue that there is a problem with the Frequentist approach in that its measure of probability is a limit,

    Prob(A) = limN -> infinity m(N)/N.

    Since that is a limit one can change a finite number of outcomes without affecting the limit, but since in reality this isn’t the case (i.e. we only have a finite number of observations) the above isn’t an operational concept since it can’t form the basis of empirical measurement of probability. I don’t tend to go that far since we can often get very large numbers of observations that probably do the trick nicely.

    Sorry if all this is a mischaracterization, but perhpas you could explain to us how you would go about deriving an accurate estimate of the number of excess deaths?

    Well, I’d look at the other numbers on this topic, use them to form my prior, then I’d gather the data (their method there looks good) then update my prior. I’d probably select a number of priors to see how sensitive my results are to the selection of my prior including what is called an non-informative prior (think of a very flat distribution). This way, people would see my “biases” and could see how my biases impacted the results (by comparing them to the other priors).

    A methodologicial problem with the new study, or perhaps with the prior estimates. To the extent that it may refer to the new study, then an appropriate response might be “this seems weird, I suspect there might be some methodological problem that needs to be investigated.” Not ” this study presents carefully and selectively packaged truths, half-truths and falsehoods presented to sway opinion towards a political viewpoint”.

    I didn’t say that, my view is that this study should be taken with a great deal of caution. For example, every Frequentist result can be obtained using Bayesian methods by carefully selecting your prior. However, the Frequentist method doesn’t make this prior explicit. The prior, as I’ve noted, is a way of putting your biases out there for everyone to see. So, in a sense one could make the claims Charles Austin has made.

    Charles,

    First, if you’re a statistician you surely know that if you fit a normal distribution to a mean of 500 deaths, anything over 1,000 is just as likely to occur in Iraq as 0 (depending on the variance you choose — though I’m sure you’d choose a large one, since you are clearly biased), and would be well outside 3 standard deviations (i.e., an outlier). That would mean that only 10 or so days during the entire war would have had body counts exceeding 1,000. 2,000 would mean a Fallujah debacle, and they excluded such outliers in the recent analysis.

    Did you even read the article? My guess is no, since for the last 13 months of their study the average number of deaths per day is about 1,000 on a yearly basis. Further, we need to know the variance of the distribution since you don’t know it either you are talking out of your ass.

    Further, the point wasn’t that 1,000 deaths/day or even 2,000 deaths/day were likely or even frequent, but that those kinds of things would be somewhat news worthy. As has been pointed out that would be like mutliple 9/11s here in this country. I noted that these deaths aren’t as highly concentrated nor did they happen in such a grandiose manner as 9/11, but it still seems like a huge number of deaths to go completely under the radar.

    Second, of course there are theoretical quibbles with measuring one-time events with statistical methods. In biology at least, we refer to it as pseudoreplication. But what the authors have employed is a largely descriptive statistical technique that does not require true replication. All parametric stats (and non-parametrics) were simply in the form of modeling or estimation, not hypothesis testing, so calm down. Thank god we don’t have the replication you seem to suggest.

    Uhhmmm, I’m not saying we must have replication, just that if we are going to use Frequentist methods, that replication is a requirement.

    Actually, why don’t we turn all of central Asia into a theoretical analysis Steve (i.e. by invading each country independently, all at the same time)? THEN we’d know, right? You’re probably one of the “statisticians” hired by Exxon to argue that there was no way to establish that the Valdez killed anything, because it was only one spill.

    This is just stupid. Nowhere have I indicated that anything of the sort be done.

    Finally, neither of you are scientists (if Steve is a statistician as he has claimed). According to Charles, “this ain’t rocket science.” I’m not convinced you know your ass from a hole in the ground” here, in your words, Steve.

    I think I’ve demonstrated that I know far more about this than you do. Not that I expect you to admit it.

    Neither of you are epidemiologists.

    Thank God.

    Another commenter was correct to note that a fellow epidemiologist claimed that the methods were impeccable.

    One can follow Frequentist methods to the “T” and still be “wrong” in that it is the wrong methods to apply to the situation. Further, I’ve seen some evidence suggesting that epidemiology has a problem with over estimating the efficacy of things like drug efficacy, and that part of the problem might be the dependence of Frequentist methods. You can see more in my comment above to Tano.

    Besides, newsworthy scientific papers are often rushed through, and not to change election results. Your spittling is tantamount to an attack on science and scientists, and I for one take severe exception.

    Oh this is just simply bullshit. Because I disagree with a methodology, I’m attacking scientists. What errant nonsense.

    One more thing — as far as repeatability of the method goes in terms of post-war mortality, their figures line up pretty well. Of course this won’t satisfy your mis-placed statistical yearnings for replication and conventional statistics, Steve.

    Which raises an intriguing question…how do those pre-war death rates match up with pre-war claims of infant deaths? I seem to recall much chest thumping about the sanctions killing a million babies.

    Oh, and you notion of repeatability seems to need some work. The fact that their results match up with other estimates isn’t repeatability in terms of an individual death. And also, I’m not saying we must have repeatability (because, IMO, we can’t), but that we need to shift to a method that does not rely on repeatability. For somebody who thinks they understand statistics, you sure are advertising your ignorance.

    Snuh,

    still waiting for a link to where you had Davies “agree[] that he misrepresented what a CI is.”

    Well, I just read in one of the thinks to Crooked Timber. I don’t know what more to tell you, other than you missed it.

    Stephen Daedalus,

    And I note that your pose of condescension is… transparent and laughable.

    Hey, just giving my pal Tano there a taste of his own medicine. What can I say, turn about is fair play, IMO.

  40. Charles Kennedy says:

    Hey Steve,

    In case you didn’t notice, no one is impressed with your proclivity to use vulgarity, force, and insults to convey your viewpoint.

    In fact, using less of these would make you sound less like a cornered cat hissing.

    Yes I did read the study, fine sir, the 500 figure was in response to your posts, not the article. Are you familiar with your own posts?

    You still have no true critique of their methodology that I can detect. Go read up on log-linear models and then let’s talk. Fair enough, they should have gone Bayesian, at least for a comparison if nothing more. Why don’t you give them a call if you’re so right and so concerned?

    I find it hard to believe your claims that essentially all epidemiologists are losers. If the methods of this study are so wrong, why haven’t at least a few stood up and said so?

    Cheers!

  41. John says:

    92% of the deaths discovered in the survey were supported by death certificates. If the Iraqis are that diligent about issuing death certificates, shouldn’t there be some sort of governmental repositories of death records which could be consulted in an exhaustive manner rather than using sampling to determine the number of deaths?

  42. Steve Verdon says:

    In case you didn’t notice, no one is impressed with your proclivity to use vulgarity, force, and insults to convey your viewpoint.

    Please, your are just as insulting, spare me your faux indignation.

    Yes I did read the study, fine sir, the 500 figure was in response to your posts, not the article. Are you familiar with your own posts?

    Yes, and it is quite clear from the second update, that upon reading the study my 500 number was too low.

    You still have no true critique of their methodology that I can detect.

    Your inability to detect my criticism isn’t my problem.

    Go read up on log-linear models and then let’s talk.

    This is so childish.

    I find it hard to believe your claims that essentially all epidemiologists are losers.

    Sorry, those are your words not mine.

    If the methods of this study are so wrong, why haven’t at least a few stood up and said so?

    Why bother, I think the study is not worth the time. Consider this, according to this study more civilians have died in Iraq than died during the Allied Strategic Bombing of Germany (about 400,000). That was when we really were bombing cities pretty much indiscriminantly.

  43. snuh says:

    Well, I just read in one of the thinks to Crooked Timber. I don’t know what more to tell you, other than you missed it.

    well, yes, i must have missed it. perhaps you can post it again, because the only relevant link i see is to a post at your own site (where i can see no evidence of davies having admitting what you claimed).

    Why bother, I think the study is not worth the time. Consider this, according to this study more civilians have died in Iraq than died during the Allied Strategic Bombing of Germany (about 400,000). That was when we really were bombing cities pretty much indiscriminantly.

    IIRC there was no civil war in germany.

  44. snuh says:

    and incidentally, the lancet study includes both civillian and non-civillian excess deaths, but for some reason you choose to compare this to civillian deaths in the allied bombing campaign of germany.

    perhaps a better point of comparison would be to either the total civillian death rate in germany, or (more relevantly) the combined german military/civillian death rate. wikipedia has more than 10% of the german population dying in ww2.

  45. Going beyond the statistics and the exact degree to which the fatility rate has increased. I think the more relevant question is whether people are better off today in Iraq than before. It certainly seems more and more that Iraq has become more of a hell hole since we went to Iraq. And considering the amount of money and lives we have spent this seems to be a somewhat poor return on our effort.

  46. Steve Verdon says:

    Snuh, see the first link to CT posted way up in this thread. Scroll down to the footnote number 1. Then go enroll in a remedial reading course.

  47. Charles Kennedy says:

    Well Steve, you sure showed me. Believe me, I feel humiliated!!!

    Seriously, if you actually have a professional critique, you ought to comment specifically on why the phenomenological modeling in the report, parametric or otherwise, is so clueless here (i.e. differentiate it from hypothesis testing, as you have failed to do so thus far). If you’re really interested in honest debate, you’d share your oh-so-high-and-lofty view.

    And John, yes 92% had death certificates. But I find it unlikely that one could find some alleged central repository of certificates.

    Imagine how a developing country functions on a day-to-day basis, and then imagine how chaotic it would be after decades of an exceedingly barbaric dictatorship, followed by an invasion and three years of foreign occupation and civil war.

    Most of the certificates were probably issued by hospitals or other local authorities, in which case it would be unlikely that someone will risk their life to transfer records of people who are already dead to central authorities in Baghdad.

    This is probably one of the rationales for making the approach a classic epidemiological method.

    Hence also my skepticism that the estimate of the Iraqi government is too low (in addition to the facts that their political situation dictates that they must placate the Bush administration, and they are hopelessly overwhelmed on all fronts).

    Cheers!
    Jason

  48. Charles Kennedy says:

    Alright then, until the public eye can see a legitimate critique of the study from the illustrious and humble Steve Verdon, I’d say this conversation’s pretty much exhausted.

    Unless, of course, you’d like to see what a doctor who is ACTUALLY FAMILIAR with the metholodology, unlike any of us here apparently, you can read this: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/200601017_655000_iraq_war_deaths/

    Cheers!