Spewing Rancid Effluvia at Iraq Body Count – Part 1

This post follows up on this one. However, rather than calling it “A Debate about Excess Deaths – Part 2” I went with the above title which is  more descriptive of what’s actually going on here..

In fact, it’s bizarre that the Iraq Body Count (IBC)  database has been  dragooned into a debate about excess deaths.  IBC exclusively records violent deaths.  The concept of excess deaths, on the other hand, was created to account for the possibility that war violence can lead, indirectly, to non-violent deaths.  So the IBC database is not going to be particularly relevant to a debate about excess deaths.

To understand why we’re here you have to recall the following sequence of events.

  1. Hagopian et al. publish a paper claiming 1/2 a million excess deaths in Iraq.
  2.  Stijn van Weezel and I publish a critique saying that this number is greatly exaggerated.
  3.  Hagopian et al. publish a comeback claiming they are right and we are wrong.  (NEWS FLASH – their critique is actually published.  I wasn’t aware of this when I wrote my previous blog post.)
  4.  Stijn and I will publish a rejoinder.  (We’ve already signed off on page proofs but the paper isn’t out yet.)

I will blog our rejoinder (event 4) when it appears.  Now I just want to address some points that, due to space constraints, Stijn and I were forced to ommit from our paper.

One of the main arguments Hagopian et al. use to defend their excess death estimate is the very model of a modern ad hominem attack.  I am a co-author on the critique paper but I am discredited because I have worked with IBC which itself is discredited (the claim) – therefore, the excess death statistics of Hagopian et al. are correct.  With a bit more research Hagopian et al. might have bolstered their logic by pointing out that I support Crystal Palace in  Premiership Football but the Pride of South London is now teetering on the brink of relegation – thus, they are right and I am wrong about Iraq.

For the excess deaths debate the above paragraph should be enough.  However, Hagopian et al. sling so much rancid effluvia at IBC that I feel I have to correct the record.

This post is a start.

Hagopian et al. write:

Spagat has published extensively using the data of Iraq Body Count, a passive media-based measure of 2003 Iraq war mortality…This method has been discredited, however, as it understates mortality (Ahmed, 2015; Burkle & Garfield, 2013; Carpenter et al. 2013; Siegler et al., 2008)  As evidence, an important finding in our work is that small arms fire contributed substantially to mortality (63%); these events rarely make the sort of headlines tracked by the Iraq Body Count.

It’s hard to find any true statement or respectable citation in the above excerpt.  But you have to start somewhere so I’m going to go with the very end.

Notice, first of all, the weasely wording – there are five co-authors but none of them have bothered to learn what the percentage of deaths attributed to gunfire in the IBC database actually is.  They just venture, incorrectly, that IBC only tracks headlines, and that gunfire events rarely make it into these.

How do we quantify “rare”?  Maybe 10%?  That seems way too high for “rare”.  Maybe 1% or 0.1%?  I’m not sure.

In reality, IBC assigns gunfire to 54% of the deaths in its database during the period covered by the Hagopian et al. survey (March 2003 through June 2011).  And this number understates the full IBC percentage because IBC has a separate category of “executions” which are overwhelmingly gun deaths, although I can’t quickly separate gun executions from non-gun executions.

On top of that the Hagopian et al. survey (known as the UCIMS) has two separate modules; one is household based and the other is sibling based.  (In the former people are asked about deaths within their households and in the latter people are asked about deaths of siblings.)  These two modules lead to separate estimates based on different techniques.  And what is the sibling-based UCIMS estimate for the percentage of gunfire deaths?  Errr….54%, same as IBC.

So Hagopian et al. serve up the gunfire percentage as a prime defect of the IBC database when, in fact, IBC and the UCIMS are very much compatible on this metric.  Indeed, the preponderance of gun deaths has been a prime talking point for IBC since shortly after the invasion phase of the war (when air strikes predominated). So the Hapopian et al. insight is an old one.

You’d think that Hagopian et al. would be pleased by confirmation from IBC and would be happy to cite this agreement.  Instead, sadly, they manufacture a falsehood about IBC – that it rarely records gun deaths when the truth is that most deaths  in the IBC database are gun deaths.  They then swipe at IBC from atop their fictitious creation..

And this point about gun deaths is just a tiny drop in the sea of slime Hagopian et al. sling at IBC.  I’ll return soon for more cleansing.


One thought on “Spewing Rancid Effluvia at Iraq Body Count – Part 1

  1. Good post Mike. It’s always strange the way Hagopian et al attack IBC. It doesn’t make sense here and it didn’t make sense in their original 2013 paper. These attacks always turn out to rest of falsehoods too, like with the firearms claim here.

    In the 2013 paper, any reasonable person would look at the results and say these are pretty consistent with the IBC data, and in multiple ways. But they make a point to attack IBC (with falsehoods). Why? It makes no sense except for what you might call “The Grudge” dating back to the Lancet surveys. This group of academics (Les Roberts, Burnham, Garfield, Burkle, Hagopian, etc) are all close colleagues and decided years ago that the road to their acceptance lies through destroying Iraq Body Count. Ever since, all manner of falsehoods and misrepresentations have been put to that effort. And it appears that no opportunity can be allowed to pass without throwing a few smears IBC’s way, even when it makes no sense, like here.

    In the 2013 paper, they were obviously hoping or expecting to produce a corroboration of the Lancet survey. Instead, the results sharply conflicted with the Lancet survey and came out much closer to IBC (and other things like ILCS or IFHS) than to the Lancet survey. But still they have to take time and space to attack IBC. In the 2013 paper this took the form of another false citation of the Roberts-Carpenter analysis of the SIGACTS (compared with IBC). Those findings are false to begin with (ironically, in part, because Roberts was only reading the “headlines” and a few coded fields and not actually reading the full detailed descriptions in the SIGACT records), but Hagopian misrepresent even those false findings. The actual result in that paper claims that 46% of deaths matched (or around half), but the Hagopian paper claims:

    “the Iraq Body Count captured fewer than one in four of the Iraq War Logs deaths”

    This is not even true according to the (incorrect) Roberts paper they’re citing. And it’s almost exactly the opposite of how the records actually relate (capture rate around 80%). And if “fewer than one in four” was true, it would be inconsistent with their own survey findings and how these relate to IBC. So why are they even saying this? It looks like The Grudge again.

    This (false) SIGACTs reference is then followed with a weird anecdote about a Baghdad medical school dean whose death wasn’t reported in the New York Times. Hagopian also regularly mentioned these same talking points in interviews about their report. The premise here is apparently that IBC thinks the NYT issues a report about every death that happens in Iraq, and since this isn’t true, IBC is discredited. Well, of course, IBC doesn’t think this. It’s own data would show that NYT didn’t report most of the recorded deaths. And the dean is recorded in the IBC records, with eight media sources reporting (NYT not among them).

    Getting back to the issue of firearms, this is again an area where IBC is consistent with the Hagopian results, but is misrepresented as somehow being in conflict. It seems to me these authors really have no idea what any of the IBC findings really are. They just have a bunch of prejudiced assumptions (and a lot of misinformation about IBC originating from their colleagues, Roberts in particular). It’s not just this either. If you look at geographic distribution this is also consistent with the Hagopian results, particularly so if you include combatants (total violent deaths), as should be done for a like-with-like comparison. Victims demographics are almost identical as well. You put all this together you’d think the authors would be quick to cite all this agreement as support for their findings. Instead you get misinformed attacks that wind up making no sense. Strange stuff indeed.

    Looking forward to future posts on this, and hopefully i can comment further on some of the other issues.


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