When war is waged to improve the lives of a country’s people, the body count — the number of those killed as a result of the war itself — cannot help but be wrapped up in politics. No one who has been trumpeting the American presence in Iraq as a liberating force wants to hear that so far 654,965 Iraqis have died due to the fighting, sectarian and otherwise. But those were the results of an academic study released yesterday and published in the Lancet, the well-regarded British medical journal.
The Bush administration immediately discounted the findings, throwing doubt on the accuracy of the results. The president himself, at a press conference yesterday, said the report was not “credible” and that “the methodology is pretty well discredited.” Newspapers paid attention but also offered plenty of dissenting voices to counterbalance the surprisingly high number.
But should we be so skeptical? This was, after all, not a group of high school students handing out questionnaires at a Baghdad bazaar. These are scientists from a respected public health school — Johns Hopkins — conducting a study funded by another respected school — MIT — using a methodology that is not quite as contentious as President Bush let on at the press conference.
Cluster sampling, in which researchers interview families from a few representative segments of society and then extrapolate out to arrive at an estimate, is how most surveys are conducted. It’s how exit polls are run. It’s also the method by which we’ve come to the figure 400,000 for the number of people killed in Darfur, a measurement that has allowed the media to call what is happening there a genocide.
In this study, 50 clusters were randomly selected from 16 of Iraq’s Governorates, with every cluster consisting of 40 households. And out of the 1,849 households, there were 1,474 births and 629 deaths in the 40 months post-invasion. Whereas the mortality rate before the war was 5.5 per 1,000 people per year, since March 2003 it has been 13.3 per 1,000 people per year. Multiply that out for the whole country and they arrive at an average of 654,965 for the whole of Iraq, with a margin of error between 426,369 and 793,663.
There are two reasons for thinking the survey might be more accurate than has been portrayed, both of which were not mentioned much yesterday. First, the researchers were able to duplicate, with different households, the results of a survey they conducted two years ago (which was also widely disputed) that put the death toll then at 100,000. And secondly, the pre-invasion mortality rate of 5.5 per 1,000 people per year, found in both surveys, is similar to the estimate used by the CIA and the U.S. Census Bureau.
The researchers point out that organizations counting civilian deaths in Iraq — like the British-based Iraq Body Count research group (which has the number at roughly 50,000) — rely almost exclusively on media reports. But what gets left out of newspaper coverage, they argue, is anything that happens outside of Baghdad or the Kurdish north.
Here’s part of the researchers’ convincing argument (and thanks to the Plank for pointing it out):
Much violence is occurring far from the view of journalists and widely cited mechanisms for counting the dead. Most Western reporters are based in Baghdad. Even there, large-scale events tend to gain attention, not the numerous but scattered incidences of violence that also occur. […]
The large rise in sectarian violence, and the survey’s findings regarding gunshots being the principal cause of death, correlate closely. They also reflect the reports of widespread assassinations. If, for example, there were three such killings daily in each of the 75 or so urban centers of Iraq (outside of Baghdad and the Kurdish north), the total for the 40 months covered by this survey would equal more than 270,000; four such killings daily in those 75 cities would equal 360,000 in that period.
Put this way, it sounds a bit more plausible.