The Science of Counting the Dead

A recent study published in the Lancet claims that over 650,000 “excess” deaths have occurred in Iraq since the invasion in March, 2003. STATS look at how scientists figure these numbers out, how their methods compare to other counts, and whether criticism of the numbers is justified. A companion article examines the media coverage.

…In a careful study published in the Lancet, a prestigious British journal for medicine, professors from Johns Hopkins University and the School of Medicine at Al Mustansirlya Univesity in Baghdad found through a random sampling of Iraqi households that over 650,000 deaths have occurred in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, that would not have occurred had there not been war.

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study’s methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study.  When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.
President Bush, however, says he does “not consider it a credible report” and the media refer to the study as “controversial.” And even as the Associated Press reported mixed reviews, all the scientists quoted in its piece on the “controversy” were solidly behind the methods used. Indeed, the Washington Post points out that this and the earlier study are the “only ones to estimate mortality in Iraq using scientific methods.”

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