Fabrication in Survey Data: A Sustainable Ecosystem

Here is a presentation I gave a few weeks ago on fabrication in survey data.

It includes some staple material from the blog but, mainly, I set off in a new direction – trying to explain why survey data get fabricated in the first place.

While writing the presentation I realized that these conditions are similar to those that led to the Grenfell Tower fire.  I only hint at these connections in the presentation but I plan to pursue this angle in the future.

Secret Data Sunday – Iraq Family Health Survey

The WHO-sponsored Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS) led to a nice publication in the New England Journal of Medicine that came complete with an editorial puff piece extolling its virtues.  According to the NEJM website this publication has generated 60 citations and we’re still counting.   If you cast a net wider than just medical publications then the  citation count must run well into the hundreds.

But the IFHS virtues don’t stop there.  The NEJM paper, and the accompanying report, are well written and supply plenty of good methodological information about the survey.  The authors are pretty up front about the limitations of their work, notably that they had to skip interviews in some areas due to security concerns.  Moreover, the IFHS is an important survey not least because its estimate of 150,000 violent deaths discredited the Burnham et al. estimate of 600,000 violent deaths for almost exactly the same time period.  (The Burnham et al. survey hid its methodology and was afflicted by serious ethical and data integrity problems. )

I have cited the IFHS multiple times in my own work and generally believe in it.  At the same time, the IFHS people did several questionable things with their analysis that I would like to correct, or at least investigate, by reanalyzing the IFHS data.

But here’s the rub.  The WHO has not released the IFHS dataset.

I and other people have requested it many times.  The field work was conducted way back in 2006.  So what is the WHO waiting on?

I’ll leave a description of my unrealized reanalysis to a future post. This is because my plans just don’t matter for the issue at hand; the IFHS data should be in the public domain whether or not I have a good plan for analyzing them.  (See this post on how the International Rescue Committee hides its DRC data in which I make the same point.)

There is an interesting link between the IFHS and the Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Survey, another important dataset that is also unavailable.  The main point of contact for both surveys is Mohamed Ali of the WHO.  Regarding the IFHS. Mohamed seemed to tell me in an email that only the Iraqi government is empowered to release the dataset.  If so, this suggests a new (at least for me) and disturbing problem;

Apparently, the WHO uses public money to sponsor surveys but then sells out the general public by ceding their data distribution rights to local governments, in this case to Iraq.  

This is practice of allowing governments benefiting from UN-sponsored research to withhold data from the public that pays for the research is unacceptable .  It’s great that the WHO sponsors survey research in needy countries but open data should be a precondition for this service.

 

 

How Many People were Killed in the Libyan Conflict – Some field work that raises more questions than it answers

Hana Salama asked me for an opinion on this article. I had missed it but it is, potentially, interesting to me so I am happy to oblige her.

I’ve now absorbed it but find myself even more puzzled than I was after reading that Syria survey I blogged on a few weeks back.  Again, it looks like some people did some useful field work but the write up is so bad that it’s hard to know exactly what they did.  In fact, the Libya work is more opaque than the Syria work to the point where I wonder what, if anything, was actually done.

For orientation here is the core of the abstract:

Methods

A systematic cross-sectional field survey and non-structured search was carried out over fourteen provinces in six Libyan regions, representing the primary sites of the armed conflict between February 2011 and February 2012. Thirty-five percent of the total area of Libya and 62.4% of the Libyan population were involved in the study. The mortality and injury rates were determined and the number of displaced people was calculated during the conflict period.

Results

A total of 21,490 (0.5%) persons were killed, 19,700 (0.47%) injured and 435,000 (10.33%) displaced. The overall mortality rate was found to be 5.1 per 1000 per year (95% CI 4.1–7.4) and injury rate was found to be 4.7 per 1000 per year (95% CI 3.9–7.2) but varied by both region and time, reaching peak rates by July–August 2011.

I’m not sure but I think the researchers (hereafter Daw et. al.) tried to count war deaths (plus injuries and displacement numbers) rather than trying to statistically estimate these numbers.  (See this paper on the distinction.)

Actually, I read the whole paper thinking that Daw et al. drew a random sample and did statistical estimation but then I changed my mind.  I got my initial impression at the beginning because they say

This epidemiological community-based study was guided by previously published studies and guidelines.

They then cite the (horrible) Roberts et al. (2004) Iraq survey as providing a framework for their research (see this and follow the links).   Since Roberts et al. was a sample survey I figured that Daw et al. was also a sample survey.  They then go on to say that

Face to face interviews were carried out with at least one member of each affected family….

This also seemed to point in the direction of a sample survey conducted on a bunch of randomly selected households.  (With this method you pick a bunch of households at random, find out how many people lived and died in each one and then extrapolate a national death rate from the in-sample death data.)

But then I realized that the above quote continues with

…listed in the registry of the Ministry of Housing and Planning

Hmmmm….so they interviewed all affected families listed in the registry of some Ministry.  This registry cannot have been a registry of every family living in the areas covered by the survey because there are far more families there than could have been interviewed on this project.  (The areas covered contain around 4.2 million people according to Table 1 of the paper and  surely Daw et al. did not conduct hundreds of thousands of interviews.)

So I’m guessing that the interviews were just of people from families on an official list of victims; killed, injured or displaced.  This guess places a lot of emphasis on one interpretation of the words “listed” and “affected” but it does make some sense.

To be clear, even interviewing one representative from every affected family would have been a gargantuan task since Daw et al. identify around 40,000 casualties (killings plus injuries) and more than 400,000 displaced people.  So we would still be talking about tens of thousands of interviews.

To be honest, now I’m wondering if all these interviews really happened.  That’s an awful lot of interviews and they would have been conducted in the middle of a war.

So now I’m back to thinking that maybe it was a sample survey of a few thousand households.  But if so then the write up has the large flaw that there is no description whatsoever of how its sample was drawn (if, indeed, there was a sample).

Something is definitely wrong here.  I shouldn’t have to get out a Ouiji board to divine the authors’ methodology.

The Syria survey discussed a few weeks ago seems to be in a different category.  For that one I have a lot of questions about what they did combined with doubts about whether their methods make sense.  But this Libya write-up seems weird to the point where I wonder whether they were actually out in the field at all.

Maybe an email to Dr. Daw will clear things up in a positive way.  With the Syria paper emailing the lead author got me nowhere but maybe here it will work.  I’m afraid that the best case scenario is that Daw et al. did some useful field work that was obscured by a poor write up and that there is a better paper waiting to get written.

 

 

 

Secret Data Sunday – BBC Edition Part 2 – Data Journalism with Data

Last week I described my initial attempt to obtain some Iraq survey data from the BBC.

You can skip the long back story that explains my interest in these data sets if you want.  In short, though, these award-winning polls played an important role in establishing the historical record for the latest Iraq war but they are very likely to be contaminated with a lot of fabricated data.  ABC news, and its pollster Gary Langer, are hiding the data.  But the BBC is a co-sponsor of the polls so I figured that I could just get the data from the BBC instead.  (This and this give more details on the back story.)

At first I thought, naively, that the BBC had to produce the data in response to a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request.  But when I put this theory to the test I discovered that the BBC is, essentially, immune to FOIA.

So I wrote to the Chairman of the BBC Trust (at the time, Rona Fairhead).  She quickly replied, saying that the Trust can’t intervene unless there is a complaint.  So she passed my letter on to the newsroom and eventually I heard from Nick Sutton who is an editor there.

Nick immediately plopped a bombshell into my lap.

The BBC does not have and never did have the data sets for their award-winning polls.

Studio shot of a handsome man with a confused expression

To my amazement, BBC reporting on these Iraq public opinion polls just forwarded to its trusting public whatever ABC news told the BBC to say.

Such data journalism without data is over-the-top unethical behaviour by the BBC.

However, you can’t hide data that you don’t have so the ethics issues raised here fall outside the scope of Secret Data Sunday.  Consequently, I’ll return to the data journalism issues later in a middle-of-the-week post.

Here I just finish by returning to my failed FOIA.

Why didn’t the BBC respond to my FOIA data request by simply saying that they didn’t have the data?  Is it that they wanted to hide their no-data embarrassment?   This is possible but I doubt it.  Rather, I suspect that the BBC just responds automatically to all FOIA’s by saying that whatever you want is not subject to FOIA because they might use it for journalistic or artistic purposes.  I suspect that they make this claim regardless of whether or not they have any such plans.

To British readers I suggest that you engage in the following soothing activities while you pay your £147 subscriber fee next year.  First, repeatedly recite the mantra “Data Journalism without Data, Data Journalism without Data, Data Journalism without Data,…”.  Then reflect on why the BBC is exempt from providing basic information to the public that sustains it.

 

The AAPOR Report on 2016 US Election Polling plus some Observations on Survey Measurement of War Deaths – Part 1

I’ve finally absorbed the report of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) on polling in the Trump-Clinton election.  So I’ll jot down my reactions in a series of posts  (see also this earlier post).   In keeping with the spirit of the blog I’ll also offer related thoughts on survey-based approaches to estimating numbers of war deaths.

I strongly recommend the AAPOR report.  It has many good insights and is highly readable.

That said, I’ll mostly criticize it here.

But before I proceed to the substance of the AAPOR report I want to draw your attention to the complete absence of an analogous document in the literature using household surveys to estimate war deaths.

There has been at least one notable success in survey-based war-death estimation and several notable failures.  (two of the biggest are here and here).  Yet there has not been any soul searching within the community of practitioners in the conflict field that can be even remotely compared to the AAPOR document.  On the contrary, there is a sad history of epidemiologists militantly promoting discredited work as best practice.  See, for example, this paper which concludes:

The use of established epidemiological methods is rare. This review illustrates the pressing need to promote sound epidemiologic approaches to determining mortality estimates and to establish guidelines for policy-makers, the media and the public on how to interpret these estimates.

The great triumph that drives the above conclusion is the notorious Burnham et al. (2006) study which overestimated the number of violent deaths in Iraq by at least a factor of 4 while endangering the lives of its interviewees.

Turning back to the AAPOR document, I want to underscore that AAPOR, to its credit, has produced a self-critical report and I’m benefiting here from the nice platform their committee has provided.

The report maintains a strong distinction between national polls and state polls.  Rather unfortunately though, the report sets up state pollsters as the poor cousins of the real national pollsters.

It is a persistent frustration within polling and the larger survey research community that the profession is judged based on how these often under-budgeted state polls perform relative to the election outcome.

Analogously, we might say that Democrats are frustrated by the judgments of the electoral college which keeps handing the presidency over to Republicans despite Democrat victories in popular votes.  Yes, I too am frustrated by this weird tick of the American system.  But the electoral college is the way the US determines its presidency and we all have to accept this.   And just as it would be a mistake for Democrats to focus on winning the popular vote while downplaying the electoral college, it’s also a mistake for pollsters to focus on predicting the popular vote while leaving electoral college prediction as an afterthought.

The above quote is followed by something that is also pretty interesting:

The industry cannot realistically change how it is judged, but it can make an improvement to the polling landscape, at least in theory. AAPOR does not have the resources to finance a series of high quality state-level polls in presidential
elections, but it might consider attempting to organize financing for such an effort. Errors in state polls like those observed in 2016 are not uncommon. With shrinking budgets at news outlets to finance polling, there is no reason to believe that this problem is going to fix itself. Collectively, well-resourced survey organizations might have enough common interest in financing some high quality state-level polls so as to reduce the likelihood of another black eye for the profession.

I have to think more about this but at first glance this thinking seems sort of like saying:

Look, for a while we’ve been down here in Ecuador selling space heaters and, realistically, that’s not gonna change (although we’re writing this report because our business is faltering).  But maybe next year space heater companies can donate  a few air conditioners to some needy people.  It’s naive to imagine that there will be any money in the air conditioner business in Ecuador but this charity might help us defend ourselves against the frustrating criticism that air conditioner companies are supplying a crappy product.

In other words, it’s clear that a key missing ingredient for better election prediction is more high-quality state polls.  So why is it obvious that the market will not reward more good state polls but it will reward less relevant national ones?

(Side note – I think there are high-quality state polls and I think that the AAPOR committee agrees with me on this.  It’s just that there aren’t enough good state polls and also the average quality level may be lower on state polls than it is on national ones.)

Maybe I’m missing something here.  Is there some good reason why news consumers will always want more national polls even though these are less informative than state polls are?

Maybe.

But maybe journalists should just do better job of educating their audiences.  A media company could stress that presidential elections are decided state by state, not at the national level, and so this election season they will do their polling state by state, thereby providing a better product than that of their competitors who are only doing national polls.

In short, there should be a way to sell high quality information and I hope that the polling industry innovates to tailor their products more closely to market needs than they have done in recent years.