Lyndon Hood - Being Counter, Lower Hutt

Monday, May 16, 2005

Things I've Been Meaning to Bitch About 1

Saturday's Dom Post ran a story from The Times. That is, the newspaper some journos refer to as "The Times of London", presumably lest listeners mistake it for the Times of Otago Daily.

It was about a particular result - among many others - of the UN Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004:
The 370-page report said it was 95 per cent confident 29,000 ... This figure is far lower than the 98,000 deaths estimated in British Medical Journal The Lancet...
The author doesn't seem to follow statistics too good anyway - what the study actually found was that the "data indicates 24,000 deaths, with a 95 percent confidence interval from 18,000 to 29,000 deaths" - but Mr of-London also makes the same bloody mistake everyone commentating the Iraq casualty figures seems to.

The UN study was counting "war related deaths" in the year following the invasion. The study in The Lancet was considering the before-and-after difference in overall mortality rate due to any cause, including the effects of generalised lawless violence and a collapse in hygiene, health and infrastructure or who knows what (commentary at Crooked Timber, for the which a tip'o'the hat to - yes - Hard News).

You would expect that number to be a lot bigger than the war dead. The fact that Iraq is now a horrible place to live is pretty much supported by the UN report's other findings. In terms of survivability, Iraq is a worse place than it was before the invasion.

Whichever count you prefer, bear in mind that both use data from are year ago or more. Particularly in the case of the Lancet numbers (the latter from a team who made "conservative assumptions"), it will have kept going up.

Iraq Body Count, which totals "Civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq" also gets an inevitable mention. In some respects IBC was propelled into mainstream fame as a conterpoint to the Lancet study - as in this other Times article. I'l put it in IBC's own words (and their own emphasis):
Our maximum ... refers to reported deaths - which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported.
Since they need two independent approved sources before they rack it up, and journalists are rare outside the green zone, you can imagine that 24,415 (at the time of writing) might be on the low side.

These are of course just numbers. Whether they have any bearing on particular ethical conclusions - about the justification for the war (as proffered before and/or after the fact) or the level of foresight involved in its planning and prosecution - is another matter entirely. Or indeed, whether there are issues of process and justice (on either side of the argument) where the particular consequences matter little.

Frankly, questions of how to use number like these - for example, what one should compare them with - can get very complicated and arbitrary quite quickly.

All I'm saying (for the moment) is, if certain people are going to throw numbers about, they should try to remember what they were counting.