Department of Corrections: Mike Spagat – Edition 2

I’ve just gone through and corrected this post.

The present post is, therefore, a follow up to this earlier one which, weirdly, was about correcting the claim that Keynes had claimed that he always corrected himself when he’s wrong.  It seems that Keynes didn’t actually say this although he did correct himself when wrong.

Anyway, I can’t say that I was jumping up and down with joy when I read the comment from Ben Prytherch and realized that I might be wrong on figure 14a of a paper of Cirillo and Taleb.  But I can honestly say that I’m glad he sent it in because he gave me an instant chance to avoid a dead end and get back on track.

I don’t know when edition 3 will go up.  I’m counting on my readers to get me there as soon as I earn the privilege.

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The Iraq Sanctions Myth Rears its Ugly Head at Scripps College

This unusually interesting article just appeared in the the Los Angeles Times (coming to me via Michael Shermer).

The obvious angle is the spectacle of protesters at one women’s college (Scripps) attempting to follow the  path of another (Smith) in disinviting a female commencement speaker (Madeleine Albright) who had shattered gender barriers in a male-dominated world.  That said, harsh treatment of commencement speakers seems to occupy a central role in American identity almost analogous to the English tradition of replacing regular train service with buses. So maybe the gender connection is just a coincidence here, not the driving force.

There is a lot to chew over in this letter from some Scripps faculty members.   Here I just want to highlight the issue of central concern to the blog – they fall hook, line and sinker for The Iraq Sanctions Myth.


In fact, the Scripps Scholars even nibble on the Tony Blair version of the myth which he used in front of the (apparently) credulous Chilcot Inquiry to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

More Iraqis died as a result of 13 years of U.S.-led and controlled sanctions than as a result of the 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

The old evidence the Scripps Scholars use to support their sanctions claims would be like citing Colin Powell’s Presentation to the UN Security Council on Iraq’s WMD Program to prove that Iraq really had WMD.

All that said, there is room to criticize of Madeleine Albright over her interview with Lesley Stahl in which she did say that it was worth sacrificing half a million Iraqi children in pursuit of the sanctions policy.  Stahl’s question turned out to be based on a false premise that both Stahl and Albright accepted at the time and Albright’s answer was appalling.

There is a rough analogy here with the notorious Milgram experiments during which some participants were fooled into believing they were administering huge electrical shocks to other participants but kept pushing the button anyway amidst the screams of increasingly keyed up actors.  We know that nobody was actually shocked during these experiments but we might still criticize those who thought they were seriously harming other people but kept going.

Perhaps the Scripps Scholars will now correct the gaping error in their indictment of Madeleine Albright?.  This shouldn’t take too long.

Don't make him hold his breath too much longer.
Please correct your error before I run out of air.


Department of Corrections: Mike Spagat Edition

Hello old friends.  Once again I need to apologize for neglecting you but I  plan to atone for my sins by flooding you with interesting stuff over the next few weeks.

I’ve been reading the new book by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner on “Superforecasting”.  It is spectacularly good and I will definitely come back to it on the blog but for now I draw attention a a relatively minor point of the book.

Those of you who have clicked the “About” link on my web page know that it contains this:


Well guess what?  No one can find a solid record of Keynes actually saying this and it appears that, in fact, he didn’t say it.


….and, yes, I’m aware of the irony of using precisely this quote to define a blog which devotes a lot of effort to correcting errors.  So I must issue a correction and an abject apology.

That didn’t feel too bad, which is good because I’m sure it won’t be the last time I issue a correction on this blog.

Meanwhile, I pledge to live by the sentiment of the apocryphal quote.

Columbia Journalism Review does at least have an error correction mechanism

In this post and this post I criticized Columbia Journalism Review(CJR) for writing about Iraq war-death numbers without investigating the methodologies for the production of the numbers and for suppressing the uncertainty that surrounds the numbers.

Yet I need to credit CJR for one thing – they do investigate errors and make some corrections.  My personal experience with both academic journals and journalistic publications suggests that such willingness to correct errors is not typical at all.

The first error is to cite this paper as claiming something that it doesn’t actually say.  Indeed, the CJR claim doesn’t survive first contact with the paper’s abstract.

Some readers maybe be shocked to learn that even peer-reviewed journal articles often make false claims about other published literature.  In future blog posts I will show you plenty of such false citations.

CJR cites a paper that compares two datasets and estimates their overlap.  One is Iraq Body Count, with is already familiar to readers of this blog.  The second is the  “sigacts” database for Iraq, which is the official data of the US military which was brought into the public domain by Wikileaks.

So there are two datasets recording deaths in the Iraq war.  The question is – to what extent are they recording the same deaths?  CJR cites the journal article as showing that IBC captures less than 1/4 of the sigacts deaths.  The article actually estimates that IBC captures 46% of the sigacts deaths.

…it is estimated that 2035 (46.3%) of the 4394 deaths reported in the Wikileaks War Logs had been previously reported in IBC.

(In fact, the cited article is terrible and the true percentage is much higher than 46% but I will come back to this issue in a future post.)

Now it gets more interesting.  Here is a peer-reviewed article that falls straight into the same falsehood as CJR does:

the emergence of the Wikileaks “Iraq War Logs” reports in October 2010 [69] prompted the Iraq Body Count team to add to its count, but a recent comparison of recorded incidents between the two databases revealed that the Iraq Body Count captured fewer than one in four of the Iraq War Logs deaths[70].

(Citation 70 is to the same article that CJR cites.)

Thus, 46% is represented as “fewer than one in four” in a peer-reviewed journal article.  Any reader who bothers to follow the citation can spot the falsehood instantly.

Welcome to the real world.

At least we can trust doctors…maybe….a little bit?  The recent Physicians for Social Responsibility report on war deaths avers:

Generally, however, the students found that only every sixth individual death in the Logs had a match in the IBC database

Even worse – 46% is portrayed as 1/6.  (The “Logs” refers to sigacts and, yes, the matching was done by students in a course project.)

I have some sympathy for CJR here.  They are operating inside a hall of mirrors in which multiple, seemingly respectable, sources are dead wrong.  And CJR did correct the error when it was brought to their attention.

In the end there is a happy message here – we are not doomed to drab lives of pinging back other peoples’ waste products if we follow one simple rule.  Do not cite a source without first reading that source.

The other CJR correction is, perhaps, less interesting.  As we have already discussed here the CJR article shrinks the IBC methodology to a shadow of its real self, portraying IBC as only tracking a few dozen newspapers and TV broadcasts and only recording deaths of named individuals.  CJR now admits that this was wrong although its correction still don’t recognize that sigacts integration is well under way.  So this is not the greatest correction in the world but it’s better than leaving the original alone.

Should we give CJR an award for standing up and admitting to their fallibility unlike many others who never admit error?

Not really.  Doing this would be like commending a husband for going ten years without beating his wife.  Correcting error and not beating your partner are things you’re supposed to do.  Still, it is fair to criticize those who don’t rise to even this low standard.