Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Old Roberts Interview

This interview with Les Robert is two years old (and only covers Lancet I) but still interesting. Highlights:

Americans are so hated that I couldn’t go around talking to people. We would pick a random point in each “cluster” — each village or town we surveyed.

I would show our Iraqi team how to pick a random point in a town, how to use a Global Positioning System to draw a map of the town and drive to the right point, how to find the few houses closer to the point.

Always in the first few houses there’s some that are a bit quirky. There might be a cousin visiting and you have to decide whether you include him in the sample. We worked through the first few clusters together to go through those issues.

I’d walk around on the street with our interview team. Then I’d go get in a car and hide, and the Iraqis would visit the houses by themselves. I was almost never out in public.

My driver had three brothers so he had access to four different cars and he would pick me up in a different one each morning. We’d leave at different times and use different routes.

I only went out with the interviewers for the first eight days. On the eighth day the police picked up our interviewers while I was in the car watching and that was a pretty bad experience.

After that we were convinced that interviewers knew what they were doing, and they didn’t want me there. For about 15 days I just stayed in a hotel room and didn’t go out.

It would be interesting to compare the data for Lancet I for the days that Roberts accompanied the team and the days he did not. Other reports (can't find the link) note that Roberts did not go to Fallujah. Note that the paper reports that the survey actually occurred over a 13 day period: September 8 through September 20.

Two thirds of all violent deaths in your survey were in one city — Fallujah. Why were the deaths so concentrated in this city?

The city was shelled extensively in the weeks before we were interviewing. We went and attempted to interview 30 households. Almost half of the houses we went to were empty.

We skipped over them and went to other houses. We think that our findings, if anything, underestimated the number of deaths because of the number of empty and destroyed houses. Some of the families probably fled, but many are probably dead.

Of those families sticking around in Fallujah, a quarter lost a family member in the few months leading up to the interview. Who knows how many have died since the assault on the city in November.

I get very angry about the coverage of Fallujah. I heard a show last week on public radio in the US. They said that it is believed that half the 200,000 people who used to live in the city had returned. Well, the ministry of health told us the population used to be 310,000.

The US press has been manipulated. Things don’t sound as bad if you say that 50 percent rather than 30 percent of the population are back.

During the invasion of Fallujah, Pentagon spokespeople said again and again that they believed 3,000 to 5,000 mainly foreign combatants were left in the city and that most of the civilian population had left.

Well, they went in, they killed a lot of people — estimates range from 600 to 2,100 — and they captured 1,600 prisoners.

Only 30 of the prisoners were identified as foreign combatants — only 2 percent of those captured. In my country no one was held to account for what was either a lie or an absurd intelligence failure.

I know terrible things happened in Fallujah, but no one has been given a chance to get good information about what is going on.

What was the reaction to your survey when it was published?

The coverage in the press varied enormously. It was very different in the US and in Europe. I had more interviews with European newspapers and radio shows than I did with American ones. The interviews I had in America were with the left wing, marginal media, which doesn’t have a very wide audience.

I have been trying to track down the population of pre-war Fallujah. Roberts reports 310,000, which seems a reasonable number. I think that an understanding of the data collection process for Fallujah would be enlightening. If you, like John Pedersen, believe that the Lancet estimates are too high, then the place to start understanding how that might have occurred is with Fallujah.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Roberts Talk at Brown

Here is a April lecture by Les Roberts given at Brown.


1) He mentions that, in Lancet I, the measured mortality rate in Falluja was 20%.

2) He highlights the accuracy of the high estimate of the proportion of deaths from air strikes given in Lancet I. He notes that this is different from other conflicts in which it is hard for someone to know which side is responsible for a given death. Who knows which side fired the artillery shell? But, in Iraq, only one side has air power so Roberts can be sure that these deaths are due to the coalition.

3) Repeats the claim that "most" of the authors were in favor of the war (although he notes that they did not discuss it at the time).

4) Shows a slide (which I really can't make out) that seems similar to one from Burnham's MIT talk. It seems to be a histogram of cluster death rates. Most of the observations form a nice normal distribution but there are at least two big outliers and a meaningful skew to the right. I am having trouble seeing this in the raw data. The simple deaths per cluster have a skew but no big outliers. Is there a negative correlation between deaths and family size? I hope to be able to reproduce this graphic by the end of the week. It could also be that the data here includes three clusters from Falluja rather than just the one that I think was distributed to me.

5) Roberts asserts that IBC's funding dried up after the first report and that their criticisms of his work are motivated by funding issues. He also asserts that there is a link (some are colleagues at Oxford) between the IBC folks and Spagat et al.

6) Roberts calls the Main Street Bias critique "absurd."

7) Asserts that most of the deaths that they recorded (might just be referring to Lancet II at this point) are not listed by IBC. How can he determine that?

8) Claims that Bagdad has lower mortality than the country as a whole.

9) Amazingly partisan at toward the end of the speech. See the video for details, but it is safe to say that Roberts is no fan of Republicans in general or President Bush in particular.

10) Compares estimates which are much lower than the Lancet data to Holocaust denial. Nice!


As penance for my sins, I try to watch every video presentation by the Lancet authors. Here is a recent one by Les Roberts.

Best part? In passing, he mentions that the documents used by Dan Rather in the famous Bush/AWOL story were "probably forged." Probably?!? The world is probably round, too.