Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hopkins Hogwash

The Washington post is aiding and abetting a crime against the truth by paying any attention whatsoever to the Johns Hopkins study and its magic 100,000 number which has now become 655,000. This was originally a rough attempt to find a rough number. There were so many flaws in the original work, published in The Lancet, that the estimate had to be characterized as a SWAG. The effort, however, was forgivable in that everyone knew that the circumstances were difficult. Don’t forget that the original estimate was not 100,000 but rather a spread, a confidence interval, from 8,000 to god-knows-what. There was considerable nudging, if not fudging, to get that bottom number over zero, into the realm of dubious significance. Use of a point estimate of 98,000, quickly rounded off to 100,000 in the public’s mind, was statistically unjustified and politically inflammatory. Why do it?

Forgiveness is no longer an issue because sanity is. There are, they say, or at least as Gilbert Burnham says, shall we round off again, two-thirds of a million dead people in Iraq who would not have died if the US had stayed at home. Yeah, we been busy. My question is, compared to what? The concept of excess deaths implies that we know what would have happened. We had an unstable situation that could have gone any direction. Who knows what Saddam would have done and who knows what someone else might have done to Iraq if we hadn’t acted?

My second question is, who’s to blame? We went into Iraq as a strategic move to change trajectory of Islamic radicalism. We went in as a preemptive move to forestall progressive deterioration in the political environment of the Middle East. We went in, among the many other reasons, for the charitable purpose of restoring a semblance of civilized life to a beleaguered people. Despite our motives, people have died and suffered. I don’t know the numbers, and neither does Gilbert Burnham, no matter how he might posture.

Many people have died at American hands because they have taken arms against us. Is that our fault? Yes, you might say, because they are defending their country. I’ll give you this, some of them were motivated by patriotism and were killed by our soldiers. Some of them were Baathists with blood on their hands. Can I subtract those? Some of them were Sunni ethnic supremacists who took joy in slaughtering Shiite police recruits. Do we need to take the blame for those deaths? Both sides? Many Iraqis were killed by simple criminals, released by Saddam for the explicit purpose of inducing chaos in a post-Saddam Iraq. If a man threatens to kill his family rather than face charges, what should the police do about it? Are they culpable if the man carries out his threat?

Some of these postulated "excess" deaths are attributed to public health issues. How do the researchers know what the health status of Iraq would be after four and a half years? What would be, for instance, the health status of the Marsh Arabs as Saddam continued for four years to drain and poison the swamps? People are dying for lack of electricity, for lack of drugs, for lack of gasoline. Americans have tried to bring these things to the Iraqi people but have been repeatedly thwarted by violent fanatics who wish the people to have nothing that Americans provide. Should we accept the blame for such deaths?

What does Gilbert Burnham counsel us to do? What does he think will happen in Iraq if we leave? Will he count the bloodbath that follows against us as well?

I agree with Burnham that we are culpable. We have caused many of these deaths. The fault is ours. Inaction was our sin. We are to blame for not acting much, much sooner. It would have been a lot easier to suppress all these evils if we had done it in 1992 instead of 2002.

I have talked about the Hopkins study in earlier posts, here, here, here, here and especially here for example, and other people have done better studies.

10/11/2006 9:58 PM

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At Saturday, October 14, 2006 9:30:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

These Iraqi excess mortality statistics strike me as akin to those purporting to show the number of dead from Chernobyl's radiation. Lots of smart people come up with all kinds of numbers. Ultimately, I think, they're political numbers.

Not to be insensitive, but to my way of thinking it just doesn't matter whether the number of excess dead in Iraq (or from Chernobyl radiation) is ten or a million. Every one of them may be a tragedy but, as some infamous tyrant supposedly pointed out, in the aggregate these deaths are just a statistic.

My thinking on the matter of Iraq would not change were I to become convinced of the accuracy of any particular body count.

One of your objections was, "compared to what". One of the pieces I read supporting the Hopkins study said the basis for comparison was the situation before the war. At least that has the advantage of being quantifiable, whereas questions of what might have happened if one or another situation had developed is more difficult.

Some things, like the effect of a garden hose on a forest fire, are quantifiable but meaningless. That's my take, for the moment anyway, on the Hopkins results. I think I agree with you.

At Sunday, October 15, 2006 4:43:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

New study can be found here.

On thing that should be considered about the pre-war situtation is that death statistics were being suppressed. People who may well have disappeared under Saddam were recognized as deaths after the invasion. For Sunnis, this is also good politics.

My take on the numbers is that they are just physically ridiculous. Especially if you look at the high end of the range.

At Sunday, October 15, 2006 5:01:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Jane Galt has some very good posts on this study here, here, here, here, and here.

She is on a roll!

I must admit that my opinion on the war is also not vulnerable to the size of the disaster. It doesn't change the nature of the enemy. It only changes my opinion of our pre-war naievity, our inability to credit the dangerous of the memeplex we are confronting. We still need to confront it. We are trying to be civilized about it, and civilization is worth a big sacrifice.

So is Bush incompetent? Yeah, maybe. But so what? He's doing what must be done, and I honestly believe that Al Gore would have done the same thing. Al is not one to shut his eyes and hope for the best.

At Sunday, October 15, 2006 5:17:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Oh yeah, and Iraq the Model has a good post as well looking at the "Lancet Lies".

... This fake research is an insult to every man, woman and child who lost their lives.
Behind every drop of blood is a noble story of sacrifice for a just cause that is struggling for living safe in freedom and prosperity.

Let those fools know that nothing will stop us from walking this road and nothing will stop our friends and allies from helping us reach safe shores. There’s simply no going back even if it cost us more and their fake statistics will not frighten us…our sacrifices, like I said, make us proud because our bloods are not digits in those ugly papers. Our sacrifices are paving the way for future generations to live the better life we couldn’t live. ...

At Sunday, October 15, 2006 7:41:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I think I disagree on what President Gore would have done. I don't think he'd have gone into Iraq because the influence of the neocons wouldn't have been there. Instead, he'd have gone along with the French and the Russians in the UN, and we'd still have an oil for food program in Iraq (hopefully a little less corrupt than it had become).

Saddam would probably still be in power, but Iraq would be no further from democracy than it is now. Who knows, maybe Saddam would have been taken out by his own people, as some have argued the sanctions (which, incidentally, caused excess death, too) were on the verge of accomplishing anyway.

President Gore would have gone into Afghanistan, of course, but I doubt he'd have managed any better than the current bunch. You'd still have had over-reliance on warlords at Tora Bora, you'd still have drug prohibition filling the coffers of the Taliban today, and you'd still have the Taliban in resurgence today.

Then again, with a portion of the troops that were instead committed (and diverted) to Iraq, maybe the new Afghan government would have stood a better chance. Maybe President Gore would have produced better results in Afghanistan as a side benefit of avoiding Iraquagmire.

President Gore, though, would probably not have sent an Armitage to deal with Pakistan. To the extent that such strong-arming occurred and produced results for the current bunch, President Gore's efforts would have done without.

I don't know. I have a strong sense, though, that the excess deaths people are squawking about now are nothing compared to what's coming.

At Monday, October 16, 2006 12:11:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

If you are suggesting that civil war is coming, then I share your trepidation. I still believe it is something we could avoid if we get a little more determined, if politics becomes a smaller factor in the decision making, if we all agree on the necessity for winning.

At Monday, October 16, 2006 8:56:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Yes, but possibilities of increased determination, decreased politicization and increased single-mindedness about the necessity of winning are remote.

Sorry to always be so negative, but that's just what I see.

I wasn't actually referring to civil war specifically. Civil war is probably just the most proximate among the consequences of present trends, political, demographic, environmental, economic, what have you. I don't see much sustainability in this confluence.

At Tuesday, October 17, 2006 8:20:00 AM, Blogger mal said...

debating "might haves" is always unprovable and ultimately meaningless.

We can only deal with "what is"

At Tuesday, October 17, 2006 11:17:00 AM, Blogger mal said...

just read thru the comments. I do not think civil war is coming in Iraq, I think it is here.

We have failed to notice it amidst the rest of the slaughter

At Tuesday, October 17, 2006 11:21:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Mal, there is certainly civil conflict and many deaths, but the presense of the US is damping it down. It is very bad, but it could be much, much worse than it is in terms of mortality.

Read the post at Iraq-the-Model for some perspective.

At Tuesday, October 17, 2006 11:27:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Mal, The issue of what "might have been" is actually crucial to the assessment of the Hopkins/Lancet study. The study assumes that the situation would have continued as it did for the 14 months prior to the US invasion. It also assumes that we really knew what was happening during that period.

My assertion that Gore would have done the same thing is based on my feeling that this thing was driven by strategic necessity, not a bunch of Rough Riders with nothing better to do.


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