Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Thursday, October 12th, 2006.

Numbers That Go Crunch

blogging, Bush Administration, War on Terror

Daniel Davies, better known to bloggers as Daniel of Crooked Timber, explains the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study on deaths in Iraq.

First, don’t concentrate on the number 600,000 (or 655,000, depending on where you read). This is a point estimate of the number of excess Iraqi deaths – it’s basically equal to the change in the death rate since the invasion, multiplied by the population of Iraq, multiplied by three-and-a-quarter years. 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.

The results speak for themselves. There was a sample of 12,801 individuals in 1,849 households, in 47 geographical locations. That is a big sample, not a small one. The opinion polls from Mori and such which measure political support use a sample size of about 2,000 individuals, and they have a margin of error of +/- 3%. If Margaret Beckett looks at the Labour party’s rating in the polls, she presumably considers this to be reasonably reliable, so she should not contribute to public ignorance by allowing her department to disparage “small samples extrapolated to the whole country”. The Iraq Body Count website and the Iraqi government statistics are not better measures than the survey results, because one of the things we know about war zones is that casualties are under-reported, usually by a factor of more than five.

And the results were shocking. In the 18 months before the invasion, the sample reported 82 deaths, two of them from violence. In the 39 months since the invasion, the sample households had seen 547 deaths, 300 of them from violence. The death rate expressed as deaths per 1,000 per year had gone up from 5.5 to 13.3.

Just as a number on a chart, a mortality rate of 13.3 is not self-evidently absurd. A great many third-world nations have mortality rates at least that high, if not higher. (You can find a handy-dandy table of world demographics in this PDF file. I believe Mozambique wins the mortality prize at 20 deaths per 1,000.)

Talk of confidence intervals becomes frankly irrelevant at this point. If you want to pick a figure for the precise number of excess deaths, then (1.33% – 0.55%) x 26,000,000 x 3.25 = 659,000 is as good as any, multiplying out the difference between the death rates by the population of Iraq and the time since the invasion. But we’re interested in the qualitative conclusion here.

That qualitative conclusion is this: things have got worse, and they have got a lot worse, not a little bit worse. Whatever detailed criticisms one might make of the methodology of the study (and I have searched assiduously for the last two years, with the assistance of a lot of partisans of the Iraq war who have tried to pick holes in the study, and not found any), the numbers are too big. If you go out and ask 12,000 people whether a family member has died and get reports of 300 deaths from violence, then that is not consistent with there being only 60,000 deaths from violence in a country of 26 million. It is not even nearly consistent.

Most of the criticism coming from the Right Blogosphere amounts to “I don’t believe it,” albeit expressed in more colorful language and accompanied by ad hominem attacks on the researchers. And all of the criticisms of the study that I’ve seen pick apart the point estimate number but do not seriously address the methodology or the increase in mortality rate.

Some of the comparisons are downright weird. For example, some guy quoted on Instapundit said “It is a larger number than were killed in Germany during five years (and 955,044 tons) of WWII bombing.” I assume that’s true, but that’s not an honest comparison. An honest comparison would compare pre-war mortality rates to mortality rates of German citizens during World War II — deaths from everything, including mumps, traffic accidents, and the Holocaust — and extrapolate from that the number of people who would not have died had the mortality rate not risen.

The “WWII bombing” comparison just tells me that whoever came up with it does not grasp what the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study even is about, never mind understand the methodology. Yet he declares himself an expert and says it’s wrong.

Daniel Davies continues,

A particularly disgusting theme of some right-wing American critics of the study as been to impugn it by talking about it being “conveniently” released before the November congressional elections. As if a war that doubled the death rate in Iraq was not the sort of thing that ought to be a political issue. Nobody is doing anything about this disaster, and nobody will do until people start suffering some kind of consequences for their actions (for example, no British politician, soldier or spy has lost his job over the handling of the Iraq war and no senior member of the Bush administration either).

There has to be some accountability here. It is not good enough for the pro-intervention community to shrug their shoulders and say that the fatalities caused by the insurgents are not our fault and not part of the moral calculus. I would surely like to see the insurgents in the ICC on war crimes charges, but the Nuremberg convention was also correct to say that aggression was “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”. The people who started this war of aggression need to face up to the fact, and that is a political issue.

Richard Horton writes in The Guardian

Not only do we have a better understanding of the toll our invasion has had on the country; we also understand better just how those deaths have come about. Before the invasion only a tiny proportion of deaths were due to violence. But since the invasion over half of all deaths have been due to violent causes. It is our occupation and our continued presence in Iraq that is fuelling this violence. Claims that the terrorist threat was always there are simply disproved by these findings.

The nature of these causes has changed too. Early on in the post-invasion period deaths were made worse by aerial bombing. But now gunshot wounds and car bombs are having a far greater effect. Far from our presence in Iraq stabilising the chaos or alleviating the rate at which casualties are mounting, we seem to be making the situation worse. In each year since the invasion, the mortality rates due to violence have increased.

In each year since the invasion, the mortality rates due to violence have increased.
That’s the important point, and that’s what the Bush Administration and its rightie supporters need to explain. And answer for.

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Blame Everybody (But Bush)

Bush Administration, North Korea

Someone’s leaking again. Bill Gertz writes for The Washington Times (emphasis added):

Recent U.S. intelligence analyses of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were flawed and the lack of clarity on the issue hampered U.S. diplomatic efforts to avert the underground blast detected Sunday, according to Bush administration officials.

Some recent secret reports stated that Pyongyang did not have nuclear arms and until recently was bluffing about plans for a test, according to officials who have read the classified assessments.

The analyses in question included a National Intelligence Estimate a consensus report of all U.S. spy agencies produced several months ago and at least two other classified reports on North Korea produced by senior officials within the office of the Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.

And these classified reports were leaked by … ?

The officials said there were as many as 10 failures related to intelligence reporting on North Korean missile tests and the suspected nuclear test that harmed administration efforts to deal with the issue.

Like they didn’t know North Korea was processing plutonium? It’s been in the news, dudes. You can find out about it by googling. I realize that having plutonium is not the same thing as having a bomb, but if somebody’s got enriched plutonium, I understand that making the bomb itself is the relatively easy part. On top of that, it has been widely believed for years that North Korea built one or two nuclear bombs back in the 1970s.

I can’t believe even Bush Administration diplomats are so stupid they wouldn’t have been working under the assumption North Korea could have nuclear weapons, or might get them at any time, no matter what some NIE said.

And if they were genuinely surprised by the recent alleged nuclear test, is there something they would have done differently had they known? Like, maybe, take North Korea talks more seriously?

Even more astonishing, White House mouthpiece John Hinderaker admits his masters leaked the reports to get back at the CIA. Get this:

We’ve reported many times on the four-year-long war the CIA has carried on against the Bush administration. Today the administration returned the favor by telling Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that the intelligence community failed to foresee the recent North Korean nuclear test.

Of course, this isn’t really about North Korea. It’s about making excuses for George W. Bush’s sorry ass and setting up a scapegoat to take the blame. Oh, and selectively leaking intelligence for political purposes. Same old, same old.

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New York News

blogging, News Media

I check the blog aggregating site Memeorandum at least once a day, because it tells me at-a-glance what most people are blogging about. And as many have noticed, righties and lefties tend to comment on different stories.

Most of the time, the reason for this is obvious. “Our” side chases stories that make “them” look bad; “they” go after stories that make “us” look bad. The occasional “hooray for us” swarm is usually followed closely by a posse of “so what?” posts.

But what about this: Yesterday most of the Right Blogosphere reported frantically on the plane accident in Manhattan that killed a New York Yankees pitcher. Several righties “live blogged” what they saw on television. The Left mostly left it alone, except to comment on what the righties were up to.

I didn’t blog about it because I do political and social commentary here, and there was neither a political nor social angle to the accident. It was off topic, as far as I was concerned. I probably would have blogged about it had I been an eyewitness, but I wasn’t. I don’t know anything more than what was reported on television yesterday.

Tom Tomorrow
snarked at the righties: “No one is going to get a blogging Pulitzer for being the fastest to post what they just saw and heard on the TV.” Allahpundit responded,

True, but no one’s going to win a blog Pulitzer anyway. And it does come in handy for the 90% of the readership that are at work and looking for information.

But why was this “information” so vital that people couldn’t wait to hear about until they got home? A political development likely to impact the elections or the government or otherwise have widespread consequences is one thing. But a small plane accident? I could sorta kinda see commenting on the accident before it was determined it was an accident and not terrorism, but a number of righties continued to treat it as a Big National Bleeping Deal story long after they knew it was an accident.

For that matter, I was surprised Chris Matthews spent the entire hour of the 5:00 Hardball on the plane accident. New York local news was all over it, which is understandable, as the accident was a big local story. And since a nationally known sports figure died, it was worth some time on national news. But an entire hour of Hardball? Of course, cable news is not exactly famous for perspective, given the absurd amount of attention given to John Karr a few weeks ago.

But it gets worse — apparently, for some reason, the accident was a global story. Tim Footman in the UK comments:

A small aircraft has crashed into a building in Manhattan. Obviously, we are gripped by the news: the attacks five years ago are still seared in our minds, and the memory is made more grim by the knowledge that the whole thing was a beginning, not an end. The outside chance that such an event might be repeated grabs the attention of media providers around the globe.

But soon, it becomes clear that, although the precise details are yet to emerge, it wasn’t a terrorist attack. There’s added flavour from the fact that one of the men on the aeroplane was a baseball player with the New York Yankees, but that’s as far as the story looks likely to run: a tragedy for the people directly involved and their friends and families; a shock for local residents. Please move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Except, apparently, there is. I quite understand why the initial reports flashed around the planet – no editor would want to miss the possibility of 9/11 redux. But when we realised that it was a false alarm, surely it became little more than a footnote.

Not according to the BBC website, which was still making it their lead story, hours after it became clear that Osama was nowhere in sight. Ditto the Daily Telegraph site. The Guardian, Times and Independent kept it as second or third lead. Further afield, the story led on the sites of Le Monde, La Repubblica, Süddeutsche-Zeitung, El País, the Times of India, Yomiuri Shimbun and many more.

Mr. Footman speculates that the story got international attention because it happened in New York.

It seems that we’ve exchanged the Little Englander insularity of the men in dicky-bows for a weird loss of perspective, in which the lives and deaths of Americans take precedence over all else. It’s a sort of vicarious insularity, something akin to the morbid fascination some people feel for the celebrities in Heat magazine, to the exclusion of news that may actually affect their own lives. Just as medieval scholars created maps that placed Jerusalem at the centre, the world’s media has made Manhattan the capital of the planet.

Maybe, but that doesn’t explain rightie bloggers, who tend to think of New York City as an alien corruption defacing the edge of the beloved Homeland. Maybe, deep down inside, they hope one plane crash in Manhattan is the beginning of a trend. Otherwise — WTF?

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