Body Count

Info Tech, Politics

A very well done and important story on This American Life:

About a year ago, a study estimated the number of civilian casualties in Iraq. It came up with a number — 100,000 dead — that was higher than any other estimate, and was mostly ignored. This week, Alex Blumberg revisits that study to look at the reality behind it.

The show rebuts many criticisms of the report, showing that it was actually far more accurate than most people realized at the time. Much of the report is drawn from this excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Scientists say the size of the survey was adequate for extrapolation to the entire country. That’s a classical sample size,” says Michael J. Toole, head of the Center for International Health at the Burnet Institute, an Australian research organization. Researchers typically conduct surveys in 30 neighborhoods, so the Iraq study’s total of 33 strengthens its conclusions. I just don’t see any evidence of significant exaggeration,” he says.

David R. Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, says any such survey will have uncertainty because of extrapolation based on small numbers, and because of the possibility that people gave incorrect information about deaths in their households.

I don’t think the authors ignored that or understated” those factors, he says. Those cautions I don’t believe should be applied any more or any less stringently to a study that looks at a politically sensitive conflict than to a study that looks at a pill for heart disease.”

The uncertainty leads to the breadth of the so-called 95-percent confidence interval — in other words, the 95-percent chance that the number of deaths in Iraq resulting from military activities is between 8,000 and 194,000.

Critics like the Slate writer seized on that range, says Dr. Woodruff, the government epidemiologist. They thought, Well, it’s just as likely to be 18,000 as 100,000.’ That’s not true at all,” he says. The further you get away from 100,000, the probability that the number is true gets much smaller.”

Iraq Body Count’s much lower estimate of 30,000 is because they only use published news reports of deaths, which means that it far underreports the number of dead.

The report also didn’t investigate the number of wounded …

Oh, and that report is a year old.

Here are some additional links from the This American Life website:

UPDATE: From today’s Washington Post:

Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.

This is enemy combatants, not civilians, which they still don’t count.

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