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October 29, 2004

Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

As you may well have noticed by now, media outlets across the internet are reporting the findings of a study published by the reputable medical journal, Lancet. The researchers offer a conservative estimate suggesting that 98,000 Iraqi civilians have died -- in excess of the normal or expected death rate, and not even including the city of Fallujah -- since the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

We are currently consulting experts to determine if the methodology used in this study is sound. The main concern is that researchers chose 33 sample areas, and those areas could have been particularly hard-hit by war and occupation, thus offsetting the results. Researchers admit they had prior "expectations" of the amount "levels of violence" that areas chosen are "believed to have had ... during the previous 3 years." They used this foreknowledge to more fairly assign areas to their interview teams in regions that would be more difficult to enter safely, but they had expectations nonetheless. Also, the 100,000 or so deaths are extrapolated from actual findings of just 73 violent deaths reported by fewer than 1,000 households.

The NewStandard is delaying a full report on the study until we can be reasonably certain that it is based on sensible methodology. Unlike most alternative media sites, we don't jump on a story just because it furthers some position we hold (and we don't care if we are first or last to post important news, so long as it is accurate and reliable). Some leftist sites are of course secretly happy to see the 100,000 figure, because they can use it as an argument against the war.

But I find that kind of reaction simply disgusting. And I am personally very much hoping the number is a massive exaggeration. I will have no problem reporting it if true, but I think journalists have a special responsibility to be meticulously careful about this kind of thing (almost as careful as armies should be when dropping bombs). It appears the researchers were very thorough and thoughtful, which has me quite upset, not at all elated like I fear some of my colleagues are...

If it turns out that the study's methodology is acceptable, and that the findings are even remotely accurate, this should, without exception, be the biggest story of the year -- surpassing in my opinion even reports that torture and abuse in US-run prisons in Iraq likely continue to this day. I am very much afraid that despite my concerns about the methodology, it is probably more true than false.

But even mainstream outlets that seem to consider the report valid are brushing over the significance of the findings. One hundred thousand deaths is a tremendous figure -- especially when one considers what it suggests about the number of Iraqi soldiers, most of them conscripts, who must have been killed, since those groups were openly and explicitly targeted by US airstrikes throughout the invasion. (But another reservation I have is the report's failure to define "civilian," a particularly slippery term.)

We have a report coming, but we are not interested in joining the race to rush to judgement.


gbr2004uk: Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

Very salutary and timely. Thank you. Brian Robinson (retired NHS psychiatrist, England)

djbroadhurst: Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

I appreciate your serious intent. David Broadhurst (physicist, UK)

The_Messenger: Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

I applaud your caution in accepting The Lancet's estimate of 100,000 fatalities. We have been using much more modest figures here:

But I agree with you, if 100,000 is accurate or even close to reality, it will have a dramatic and devastating effect on world opinion. But I would be interested in how or why you feel the methodology used in this study "is acceptable"?

Disillusioned_kid: Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

I think you are right to be wary of leaping to conclusions on the basis of the report, nonetheless my own impression is that it is of some value. It was, apparently, unusually thoroughly peer-reviewed for instance.

Regardless, the one thing I take from the report is that the death toll in the Iraqi conflict is probably considerably higher than most of us had realised. I had been assuming a figure in the order of tens of thousands. If the Lancet figure is even vaguely accurate, it suggests things are even worse than we had realised.

mucahit: Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

What will change if the numbers change? Is Iraq a laboratory ? Is the war an experiment ? Water boils at 100C , what about the world,humanity, dead bodies ? One picture is enough, no need for more!

barfield: Evaluating the finding of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths

I don't think it is your job to determine if the methodology is sound. That's the author's job first, the reviewers of the article second, and the editors of the Lancet third. The British gov't has weighed in with its evaluation also, although it seems thin to me. If you read the report, then you should be able to report that these researchers reached these conclusions subject to these caveats. If another study in the future finds something else, you can report that then. If you can find an expert who can evaluate the methodology, that's good, but I don't think you need to hold up reporting the study for that.

Michael Barfield

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.