Over 600,000

That’s how many people are estimated to have died in Iraq due to the war since the March 2003 invasion.

A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists produced the estimate by “interviewing residents during a random sampling of households throughout the country. …The interviewers asked for death certificates 87 percent of the time; when they did, more than 90 percent of households produced certificates.”

The number is startling, and of course Bush supporters are already declaring it categorically wrong.

At issue is the methodology—“cluster sampling,” which is also used to estimate mortality during famines and after natural disasters. The methodology was assailed after the 2004 estimate of 100,000 casualties, objections which, Drum rightly notes, “mostly didn't hold water. (For example, they were accused of inflating the figures by including a cluster from Fallujah, which had just gone through a horrific battle. In fact, they specifically excluded the Fallujah cluster for exactly that reason.) This time around, the figures from their new study buttress the previous one, and also match up with other data, which suggests their methodology is on target.”

The researchers are also defending their work again, by noting that “The recent survey got the same estimate for immediate post-invasion deaths as the early survey, which gives the researchers confidence in the methods. The great majority of deaths were also substantiated by death certificates.”

The thing about cluster sampling is that it is largely dependent on the reporting of people who may have something to gain by over-reporting deaths. One can imagine that in areas devastated by famine, the desire to exaggerate a death count would appeal to someone who hopes to elicit sympathy and draw attention to their plight. But researchers take such things into account—which is no doubt why they requested death certificates, and why their margin of error ranges from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths. The possibility of over-reporting is simply not a concern worthy of dismissing the findings outright.

(Bear in mind, even if the researchers were off by double, and the death toll was only 300,000, that’s still ten times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths cited by President Bush last December.)

In reality, the biggest problem with this number is not the methodology, but that no one wants it to be true. We don’t want to believe it, and so we look for reasons not to.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus