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October 30, 2004
Kaplan Becomes What He Debunks

Fred Kaplan at Slate is always an interesting read, a partisan who still is interested in the truth. Both sides of Kaplan are displayed in his latest article, a devastating critique of the Johns Hopkins study published by the New York Times that asserted that the American invasion of Iraq caused 100,000 "extra" deaths.

The Hopkins study sampled 33 neighborhoods in Iraq and interviews around a thousand families to determine how many Iraqis died in the fourteen months leading up to the war, and how many died after the invasion, and from what causes. The difference between the two sets of deaths (pre- and post-invasion), extrapolated for the entire country, was given as the extra deaths caused by the US invasion. This has heavy political implications, as part of the American rationale relied on estimates by te UN and human-rights organizations that the Saddam regime killed thousands of Iraqis every month, either through torture, mutilation, or deliberate starvation.

Hopkins published its study with their conclusion that 98,000 extra deaths had occurred in Iraq since the invasion. The Times, of course, published this study prominently in the week before the election, causing a wave of revulsion and anger among the reader of the Times. However, Fred Kaplan noticed a strange proviso in the study and in his article does an excellent job of explaining why not only the study's results are flawed, but the methodology is also suspect:

The report's authors derive this figure by estimating how many Iraqis died in a 14-month period before the U.S. invasion, conducting surveys on how many died in a similar period after the invasion began (more on those surveys later), and subtracting the difference. That differencethe number of "extra" deaths in the post-invasion periodsignifies the war's toll. That number is 98,000. But read the passage that cites the calculation more fully:
We estimate there were 98,000 extra deaths (95% CI 8000-194 000) during the post-war period.

Readers who are accustomed to perusing statistical documents know what the set of numbers in the parentheses means. For the other 99.9 percent of you, I'll spell it out in plain Englishwhich, disturbingly, the study never does. It means that the authors are 95 percent confident that the war-caused deaths totaled some number between 8,000 and 194,000. (The number cited in plain language98,000is roughly at the halfway point in this absurdly vast range.)

This isn't an estimate. It's a dart board.

It means that the study has no specific way to measure an accurate count of so-called extra deaths; with a margin of error that approaches 100% (1-(8K/98K)=91.8%), it's an implicit acknowledgement that the study model failed. Kaplan goes on at length about why the methodology was so poor, a detailed and impressive analysis that defies excerption. He notes that the pre-war and post-war mortality rates that Hopkins uses are probably wrong, with the pre-war rate given in the study ridiculously low, by as much as 60%.

But then Kaplan does a strange thing near the end of the article; he subtly changes the parameters of the argument. Instead of talking about extra deaths among the civilian population, he morphs into a discussion of all deaths, failing to take into account those who died at Saddam's hands before his fall:

There is one group out there counting civilian casualties in a way that's tangible, specific, and very usefula team of mainly British researchers, led by Hamit Dardagan and John Sloboda, called Iraq Body Count. They have kept a running total of civilian deaths, derived entirely from press reports. Their count is triple fact-checked; their database is itemized and fastidiously sourced; and they take great pains to separate civilian from combatant casualties (for instance, last Tuesday, the group released a report estimating that, of the 800 Iraqis killed in last April's siege of Fallujah, 572 to 616 of them were civilians, at least 308 of them women and children).

The IBC estimates that between 14,181 and 16,312 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the warabout half of them since the battlefield phase of the war ended last May.

That would put the war-related civilian deaths at less than 1,000 per month, which falls far short of pre-war estimates of 5,000 Iraqi deaths each month from starvation from Saddam's perversion of the oil-for-food program and his regime's barbarism in general. Iraqis are still discovering mass graves of coldly executed people, thousands at a time, comprising men, women, children -- even infants still clutching their toys. In fact, if you look at the deaths since major combat operations ceased in May 2003, that figure drops to less than 500 deaths per month.

Kaplan fails to recognize that the "extra" deaths have disappeared in his argument, either by accident or design. Worse, his conclusion does exactly what he scolds John Hopkins for doing -- pulling numbers out of thin air for his own strawman purposes:

The group also notes that these figures are probably on the low side, since some deaths must have taken place outside the media's purview.

So, let's call it 15,000 orallowing for deaths that the press didn't report20,000 or 25,000, maybe 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed in a pre-emptive war waged (according to the latest rationale) on their behalf. That's a number more solidly rooted in reality than the Hopkins figureand, given that fact, no less shocking.

It's an unfortunate denoument to an otherwise sterling critique of how poor methodology leads to bad analysis and false results, and how that can be twisted for political purposes. Kaplan's ethereal calculation still would represent the death toll for six months under the Saddam regime, which I would offer as more shocking than the notion that an invasive war followed by a terrorist campaign to undermine the occupying force would cost a great deal in civilian lives. In fact, given the scope of the invasion and the predilection of the Saddam regime for staging military assets in residential areas, it's a wonder the totals were so low. They certainly are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis -- National Geographic earlier estimated several millions of Shi'a alone -- that Saddam murdered during the past 15 years.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 30, 2004 7:01 AM

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» Oh, and about those extra 100,000 dead Iraqis from Opinion8 - Not just one man's opinion
Captains Quarters has an interesting story up about the Johns Hopkins estimates of Iraqi deaths caused by the US led invasion of Iraq. It refers to an article at Slate, by [Read More]

Tracked on October 30, 2004 7:58 PM

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