July 14, 2005


In terms of thoroughness and accountability, you can't fault Molly Ivins' recent correction:

This is a horror. In a column written June 28, I asserted that more Iraqis (civilians) had now been killed in this war than had been killed by Saddam Hussein over his 24-year rule. WRONG. Really, really wrong.

. . .

Ha! I could hardly have been more wrong, no matter how you count Saddam's killing of civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, Hussein killed several hundred thousand of his fellow citizens. The massacre of the Kurdish Barzani tribe in 1983 killed at least 8,000; the infamous gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja killed 5,000 in 1988; and seized documents from Iraqi security organizations show 182,000 were murdered during the Anfal ethnic cleansing campaign against Kurds, also in 1988.

Good for her, but I'm more interested in what it says that she'd write a thing like that in the first place. How does one reach the point of "[asserting] that more Iraqis (civilians) had now been killed in this war than had been killed by Saddam Hussein over his 24-year rule?"

Well, first, you have to have "heard it somewhere." And that's not difficult--Google "more Iraqis killed occupation" and the second result (at this writing) is an article from the CBC:

Nearly 100,000 more Iraqis have died during the American-led occupation than would have been expected otherwise.
If you recall how games of "telephone" work, it's easy to see how "than would have been expected otherwise" could eventually turn into "than were killed while Saddam was in power." (There may also be sources available which assert that directly; I admit I'm too lazy right now to look.)

The CBC is citing the Johns Hopkins study published in Lancet, regarding which I'd recommend Fred Kaplan's treatment in Slate if you haven't read it already; particularly:

That difference—the number of "extra" deaths in the post-invasion period—signifies 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 English—which, 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 language—98,000—is roughly at the halfway point in this absurdly vast range.)

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

Imagine reading a poll reporting that George W. Bush will win somewhere between 4 percent and 96 percent of the votes in this Tuesday's election. You would say that this is a useless poll and that something must have gone terribly wrong with the sampling. The same is true of the Lancet article: It's a useless study; something went terribly wrong with the sampling.

(An explanation of the "95% CI 8000 - 194 000" notation used in the study may be found here. "CI" is "confidence interval.")

So it's difficult to count dead Iraqis, as even Kaplan admits, and, well, what with all the numbers floating around I guess you could pick a set that favored your side and whip out a line like "I think we have alienated our allies and have killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein ever did."

(I know I keep interrupting myself, and that must be very annoying for you the reader, and for that I am sorry, but boy, is that last column a cornucopia of laughs. This bit's taken the early lead as my favorite:

The latest and most idiotic statement yet comes from Karl Rove, who is not, actually, an objective observer. He is George Bush's hatchet man.
That's so objective of you to observe, Ms. Ivins! And you have to love that she felt the need to explain who Karl Rove is [in totally objective terms, of course]. You know, in case her readers didn't know already.)

To think that we've killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein ever did, though, you must first believe that our military's not only capable of that (and in terms of firepower, it is) but that it's willing to do that, directly or indirectly, on purpose or by accident. You have to believe that hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians are acceptable to our military. You have to have very little contact with anyone actually serving in the military to believe that, or your distrust of them has to be so great that it counteracts anything servicemen and women actually tell you about how war is conducted.

I don't know which of those it was for Ms. Ivins. I just know her set of underlying beliefs informed what she wrote, and that she held those beliefs strongly enough that they overrode any thoughts of verifying beforehand what she wrote, and that she holds a radically different view of this country and its armed forces than I do, and that I think my beliefs approximate reality better than hers do.

Good on her for correcting the error. But no wonder I don't read her.

(Via Tim Blair.)

Posted by Ilyka at July 14, 2005 09:27 PM in news | TrackBack

you are always welcome to mention the Iraqi Nobody Count, currently standing at 117,016 people alive today that probably wouldn't be were Saddam still in power.

Posted by: rammer at July 15, 2005 05:12 AM

GREAT post. Way to go!

Posted by: esther at July 16, 2005 10:20 PM