Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Lancet report

As everyone is now aware, the Lancet has published a survey on the mortality rate in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, which estimates that there have been in over six hundred thousand 'excess' deaths since the invasion of 2003.

I have no wish to contribute to the current "must necessarily/can't possibly be true" debate currently being conducted across the blogosphere so I'll limit this to a couple of observations.

One is that the obvious partisanship of the editor of the Lancet cannot be taken as reason for believing, as some seem to suggest, that the manner in which this data was collected is in some way suspect. One's political position will obviously determine the interpretation that is put on this data; it does not follow that the data itself has been compromised by this - and given the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it is wrong to make this accusation.

Neither, regardless of the application in this case, is there any reason for saying, as Bush apparently did, that the methodology used here "is pretty well discredited." By whom? Certainly not by Michael White, as you can see in this toe-curling attempt:
"I am not competent to judge the methodology of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, other than to note that it is a pretty solid university. The study group of 50 clusters of 40 households in 16 provinces, 12,801 people interviewed by Arabic-speaking medical teams from al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, all sounds thorough and sensible: at least up to the point where they extrapolate nationwide."
The extrapolation technique is not in and of itself controversial. It is routinely used to predict the results of elections based on the insight that the representativeness of a sample is more important than its size. This is why a MORI survey is a better source than a telephone opinion poll in the Sun.

The accuracy of the survey in this case depends on the representativeness of the sample and, obviously, the veracity of the accounts received. While it is clearly possible for one or either of these in the present situation to be wrong and therefore skew the results of this study, again in the absence of any evidence of this, it doesn't seem reasonable to assume as a default position that the survey is wildly wrong.

To say that those currently making professions of faith about statistical estimates are not adding to the sum of human knowledge involves no understatement. And they are, as Daniel Davies says, missing the point:
"Point estimates are almost never the important results of statistical studies and I wish the statistics profession would stop printing them as headlines.

The question that this study was set up to answer was: as a result of the invasion, have things got better or worse in Iraq? And if they have got worse, have they got a little bit worse or a lot worse. Point estimates are only interesting in so far as they demonstrate or dramatise the answer to this question."
And the answer, which everyone understands, is that Iraq is sigificantly more violent than it was three years ago. And whatever the death-toll, Davies is also surely right to describe this as a humanitarian catastrophe.

But the assumptions that Davies, Horton et al make about what should have been done in the first place and what should happen now do not follow. Horton in particular takes the view that the escalation of violence is largely a function of the presence of coalition troops in Iraq. Yet the situation described in the report is essentially one where violence is increasing because no one group in society has the capacity to monopolise its legitmate use. It is, in other words, a function of the fact that Iraq presently does not have, post-Saddam, a properly functioning state. Specifically the report records an increase in the casualty rate but a decline in the proportion that can be attributed to the actions of coalition troops.

It is clearly the absence of government that is the problem, which leads directly to the positions taken by those currently using these statistics as a basis to analyse recent history and prescribe future solutions. For one, since the accusation of denial - not always unjustified - has been spread abroad, it is worth considering whether there isn't another kind working here. Pre-2003 was preferable, is the argument, because while Saddam Hussein was violent in the extreme, because he enjoyed the monopoly over it, there was less of it. If one, as very thinking person should, dispenses with the happy and convenient notion that other forms of regime-change would have necessarily left Iraq free from the sectarian consequences we see now - this is an argument for actually-existing statehood.

The idea that the first virtue of a polity is order is by no means absurd but it a conservative argument. Those who are currently making this should either acknowledge this is so or concede that there is no reasonable grounds for believing that any imagined 'bottom-up' revolution in Iraq would have avoided this kind of civil conflict. And those arguing for a maintenance of the pre-2003 status quo should also give some kind of indication of how long it could have realistically been expected to endure.

Moreover, if the basis for criticising a political action is that has increased civilian deaths as a result of overthrowing a state, no matter how bad it might have been - there is absolutely no credible reason for supporting the 'resistance', since their very existence and actions are inimical to the establishment of a functioning state of any kind. Its character should be enough to make one recoil at the idea it somehow represents a progressive future for Iraq but beyond this, surely even the notion that it represents one thing, that it represents a coherent force capable of bringing order to Iraq, will be dismissed by everyone apart from children and adults in denial?

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