Weasel words by the dogs of straw By William Bowles

19 November 2004

We have yet to discover the true scale of the slaughter that the US wrought on Fallujah but one thing is clear, if we rely on the British government for the numbers we’ll never know the truth. On 17 November the Foreign Office issued a response to the report in the Lancet that calculated that deaths in Iraq (excluding those in Fallujah from the current blitzkrieg and those of last April’s attack on Fallujah) were in the order of 100,000 and this number is more than likely to be on the conservative side.

According to the FO, total deaths since the invasion last March were in the order of 3,800. And where did it get these numbers from? The destroyed Iraqi Heath Ministry. Well whaddya know but then what else can we expect from a government that fabricated an entire lie in order to justify the invasion in the first place.

Last week, we published an analysis of media coverage of the Lancet’s report by MediaLens for in line with the media’s master in Whitehall, the media felt that the Lancet’s numbers were just too uncomfortable to live with. In other words, 100,000 is just too close to the numbers the government has been accusing Saddam Hussein of killing. So what is it about numbers? Does the government consider that 3,800 or 15,000 (the number the government was using when the Lancet report was published, and taken from the Iraq Body Count Website) are ‘acceptable’ levels of slaughter, acceptable that is, to a population inoculated to anything less than let’s say 50,000?

Analysing the FO’s response is no mean feat for most of it has little to do with analysing the Lancet’s report. What can be said about it is that the FO’s response is an exercise in obfuscation, denial and civil service newspeak. Hence the job of refuting its conclusions involves delving into the complex world of statistics and of course this exactly what the government is relying on. But beyond this what of the media’s burial of the horror of the slaughter beyond it’s initial reaction to the report? For it reveals once again, the double standard of the West’s attitude toward death in the lands of people of colour for clearly their lives are not worth counting no matter what the total.

But on to the ‘meat’ of the Foreign Office’s response. The response is 1664 words in length of which the first 616 words consists of a justification for the invasion and occupation under the headings “Security Context” and “The Legal Context” that has no bearing on the Lancet’s findings. The remainder of the document (986 words) allegedly deals with the numbers under the headings “The Casualty Estimates” and “The Lancet”. Under the heading of “The Casualty Estimates” it says

“[S]ince 5 April 2004 the Iraqi Ministry of Health has sought to collect casualty data. Explaining the procedure, the Iraqi Minister of Health stated on 29 October: “Every hospital reports daily the number of civilians (which may include insurgents) who have been killed or injured in terrorist incidents or as a result of military action. All casualties are likely to be taken to hospital in these circumstances except for some insurgents (who may fear arrest) and those with minor injuries. The figures show that between 5 April 2004 and 5 October 2004, 3,853 civilians were killed and 15,517 were injured. I am satisfied that this information is the most reliable available.” We share this view. The Ministry’s figures do not of course cover the whole of the period since military action was taken, but they do include the months of April and August, when casualty figures were particularly high. [my emph. WB]”

Critically, the FO’s statement says “[the] figures do not of course cover the whole of the period” but fails to point out that the numbers cover only seven months out of a total twenty-one months or only one-third of the total time the country has been occupied. Weasel words indeed. The document says that “I am satisfied that this information is the most reliable available” but supplies no supporting evidence except that the source is the Iraqi Ministry of Health but how reliable is the Iraqi ‘Ministry of Health’ when it exists more in name than reality given that its infrastructure was almost totally destroyed by the invasion and in any case, these are the numbers produced by a puppet government installed by the occupation forces, not exactly an objective or unbiased source of information. Of course the FO is “satisfied”.

Moreover, without any supporting evidence, it alleges that the months of April and August casualties”were particularly high”. Nor is there any mention made of the initial invasion and the rain of bombs and missiles that descended on the unfortunate inhabitants. No wonder the FO doesn’t cite numbers before April 2004 because none at all were recorded.

With regard to the running total kept by Iraq Body Count that the FO “do[es] not regard as reliable”, given that the response is meant to be refutation of the Lancet’s report, it does not strike me as relevant.

Finally, we come to the section headed “The Lancet”. The response admits that:

“The design of the Lancet study and its statistical methodology passed the process of peer review before publication and is similar to that followed in cases where the data are difficult to obtain. But that should not mask the fact that any methodology critically depends on the accuracy of the data subject to its analysis.”

Hence the critical issue is the accuracy of the data collected by the researchers and here it sidesteps the methodology upon which the Lancet was based by simply comparing the Lancet’s numbers with the Iraqi Ministry of Health’s total. It says:

“If the Lancet survey is accurate we could have expected Iraqi Ministry of Health figures, compiled by hospitals, to show many more times the number of people killed and wounded over that period than they in fact do.”

For an understanding of the scientific method the Lancet report used we have to turn to the folks at Media Lens who took the trouble of finding out how the authors arrived at their conclusions. One of the authors Richard Garfield responded thus

“Research is more than summarizing data, it is also interpretation. If we had just visited the 32 neighborhoods without Falluja and did not look at the data or think about them, we would have reported 98000 deaths, and said the measure was so imprecise that there was a 2.5% chance that there had been less than 8,000 deaths, a 10% chance that there had been less than about 45,000 deaths,…all of those assumptions that go with normal distributions.

“But we had two other pieces of information. First, violence accounted for only 2% of deaths before the war and was the main cause of death after the invasion. That is something new, consistent with the dramatic rise in mortality and reduces the likelihood that the true number was at the lower end of the confidence range. Secondly, there is the Falluja data, which imply that there are pockets of Anbar, or other communities like Falluja, experiencing intense conflict, that have far more deaths than the rest of the country. We set aside these data in statistical analysis because the result in this cluster was such an outlier, but it tells us that the true death toll is far more likely to be on the high-side of our point estimate than on the low side.” (Professor Richard Garfield, email sent to Media Lens reader, October 31, 2004)”

Garfield goes on to say:

“It is important to recognise that providing 95% confidence intervals is standard in scientific analysis of data.”

The author of the Lancet study, Dr. Gilbert Burnham says in response to questions about the reliability of the data collected

“Can one estimate national figures on the basis of a sample?

“The answer is certainly yes (the basis of all census methods), provided that the sample is national, households are randomly selected, and great precautions are taken to eliminate biases. These are all what we did. Now the precision of the results is mostly dependent on sample size. The bigger the sample, the more precise the result. We calculated this carefully, and we had the statistical power to say what we did. [my emph. WB]” (Dr. Gilbert Burnham, email to David Edwards, October 30, 2004)

The Media Lens article looked primarily at how the media had dealt with the Lancet report but it shows the remarkable congruence (and avoidance of the scientific basis of the Lancet report) between the media and the government.

“In a BBC Newsnight debate – the only debate we have seen on the Lancet report – Michael Clarke of the International Policy Institute challenged the Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton:

“”This 100,000 figure, remember, has a huge margin of error. It ranges from 8,000 – which is half what most of the rest of us think it is – to 194,000. And what they’ve done is split the difference and said, ‘Well, we think about 98,000 with some measure of confidence,’ because there is a sort of a confidence statistical factor built into that. But that really isn’t, to my mind, very credible.” (BBC2, Newsnight, November 2, 2004)

“Horton replied:

“”Well that’s not true. What you just heard isn’t a correct summary of the research.””

The Media Lens article continued:

“Horton began explaining that the figures were higher than previous estimates because this was the first empirical research of Iraqis themselves carried out in Iraq. Newsnight anchor, Gavin Esler, then interrupted, starkly revealing his failure to understand the figures:

“”But you haven’t got 100,000 death certificates, you haven’t got 100,000 bodies. You’ve got somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000 is where you’ve put it, and you’ve gone in the middle.”

“Horton continued his reply:

“”But that again is a misunderstanding of the figures. The most likely estimate of excess deaths is 98,000. It’s not right to say that it’s equally likely it could be between 8,000 and 194,000. The most likely figure is 98,000, and as soon as you go away from that figure, either lower or higher, it’s much less likely it will be much lower or higher.””

The Lancet report quite clearly and unequivocally states that the 100,000 figure can be relied upon with “great certainty” based upon scientific logic.

The FO simply ignores all of this and accepts as fact the numbers produced by the Iraqi Ministry of Health. More shocking is the fact that aside from the Newsnight debate cited above, there has been no public debate about the Lancet report let alone the Foreign Office’s lame response to it. The entire issue, just as with every other aspect of the occupation and its aftermath that challenges the status quo has been swept under the carpet. Silence rules.


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