Mismeasuring War Deaths in Iraq: The Partial Striptease

I now continue the discussion of the Roberts et al. paper that I started in my series on the Chilcot Report.  This is tangent from Chilcot so I’ll hold this post and its follow-ups outside of that series.

Les Roberts never released a proper data set for his survey.  Worse, the authors are sketchy on important details in the paper, leaving us to guess on some key issues.  For example, in his report on Roberts et al. to the UK government Bill Kirkup wrote:

The authors provide a reasonable amount of detail on their figures in most of the paper.  They do, however, become noticeably reticent when it comes to the breakdown of deaths into violent and non-violent, and the breakdown of violent deaths into those attributed to the coalition and those due to terrorism or criminal acts, particularly taking into account the ‘Fallujah problem’…

Roberts et al. claim that “air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths” but Kirkup points out that without the dubious Fallujah cluster it’s possible that the coalition accounted for less than half of the survey’s violent deaths.

Kirkup’s suspicion turns out to be correct.

However, you need to look at this email from Les Roberts to a blog to settle the issue.  It turns out that coalition air strikes outside Fallujah account for 6 out of 21 violent deaths there with 4 further deaths attributed to the coalition using other weapons.

My primary point here is about data openness rather than about coalition air strikes.  Roberts et al. should just show their data rather than dribbling it out in bibs and bobs into the blogosphere.

Roberts gives another little top up here.  (I give that link only to document my source.  I recommend against ploughing through this Gish Gallop by Les Roberts.)  Buried deep inside a lot of nonsense Roberts writes:

The Lancet estimate [i.e. Roberts et al.], for example, assumes that no violent deaths have occurred in Anbar Province; that it is fair to subtract out the pre-invasion violence rate; and that the 5 deaths in our data induced by a US military vehicles are not “violent deaths.”

Hmmm…..5 deaths caused by US military vehicles.

Recall that each death in the sample yields around 3,000 estimated deaths. This translates into 15,000 estimated deaths caused by US military vehicles – nearly 30 per day for a year and a half.  There have, unfortunately, been a number of Iraqis killed by US military vehicles.  Iraq Body Count (IBC) has 110 such deaths in its database during the period covered by the Roberts et al. survey.  I’m sure that IBC hasn’t captured all deaths in vehicle accidents but, nevertheless, the 15,000 figure looks pretty crazy.

Again I come back to my main point – please just give us a proper dataset rather than a partial striptease.  Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking Roberts et al. are holding back on the data because it contains more embarrassments that we don’t yet know about.

PS – After providing the above quote I feel obligated to debunk it further.

  1. Roberts writes that his estimate omits deaths in Anbar Province (which contains Fallujah).  But many claims in his paper are only true if you include Anbar (Fallujah).  Indeed, this very blog post opened with one such claim.  We see that Fallujah is in for the purpose of saying that most violent deaths were caused by coalition airstrikes but Fallujah is out when it’s time to talk about how conservative the estimate is because it omits Fallujah.  Call this the “Fallujah Shell Game”.  (See the comments of Josh Dougherty here.)Shell Game_Thimblerig small
  2. Roberts suggests that he bent over backwards to be fair by omitting pre-invasion violent deaths from his estimate.  But, first of all, there was only one such death so it hardly makes a difference whether this one is in our out.  Second, it’s hard to understand what the case would be for blaming a pre-invasion death on the invasion.  .



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