Saturday, January 12, 2008

Crooked Timber Comment

I comment that I made at Crooked Timber is worth repeating here. I have also been active in Deltoid recently: here, here, here and here. There is no rest for the wicked. Of course, the master plan is to convince smart folks like Tim Lambert and Daniel Davies that the underlying data from L2 is suspect. Once they are on my side, things will go much faster.

Did someone call for me? Hello Crooked Timber! I have been banned from Henry and dsquared's threads, but, since Kieran has not banned me, I assume he does not object to my contribution. Kieran writes:

A study like this gives us good reason to substantially revise our estimate of the total number of excess deaths downward. The Burhnam et al estimate of excess deaths looks like it was too high, assuming that the new survey is basically reliable.

Exactly correct! Last year, my estimates were:

If I had to bet, I would provide much wider confidence intervals than either the Lancet authors or most of their critics. Burnham et al. (2006) estimate 650,000 "excess deaths" since the start of the war with a 95% confidence interval of 400,000 to 950,000. My own estimate would center around 300,000 and range from 0 to 1.2 million. Obviously, no one is really interested in my estimate --- derived as it is from reading the literature and associate debates --- but I thought it reasonable to be upfront about my prior beliefs.

In retrospect, I should have placed more weight on the informed estimates of people like Jon Pedersen. He estimated violent deaths at 100,000 (1/6th of the L2 estimate) and that sure matched up nicely with the 150,000 from IFHS. So, my new estimate is 150,000 (at first glance, this new paper seems much better than L1 or L2) with a confidence interval of 0 to 500,000.

It would be interesting to read the current estimates of folks like Kieran and dsquared. Note that I wrote a month ago:

Where is the debate going? I sometimes worry that, like so many other left/right disputes, this will never be resolved, that we will never be sure whether or not the Lancet articles were fraudulent. Will these estimates be the Chambers/Hiss debate of the 21st century? I hope not. Fortunately, other scientists are hard at work on the topic, reanalyzing the data produced in L2 and conducting new surveys. Both critics and supporters of the Lancet results should be prepared to update their estimates in the face of this new evidence. If independent scientists publish results that are similar to those of the Lancet authors, then I will recant my criticism. Will Lancet supporters like Lambert and Davies do the same when the results go against their beliefs? I have my doubts.

I should not have doubted Kieran's willingness to update his estimates. My apologies! dsquared, on the other hand, is acting about how I suspected. Is there any new information that would cause him to doubt the L2 results?

Because more stuff is coming! What's most interesting about IFHS is how they went out of their way to attack L2. They didn't need to do that. They could have been much nicer. They could have spun the story as Roberts and dsquared would like to. Instead, they go for the jugular, as much as you can in the NEJM. They highlight how their confidence interval rejects the L2 range by more much more than 100,000 deaths. They don't just argue that they are right. They argue that L2 is very, very wrong.

Who is right? Time will tell. Did everyone catch how Horton was shoving the L2 authors off the sled in the National Journal article?

Today, the journal's editor tacitly concedes discomfort with the Iraqi death estimates. "Anything [the authors] can do to strengthen the credibility of the Lancet paper," Horton told NJ, "would be very welcome." If clear evidence of misconduct is presented to The Lancet, "we would be happy to go ask the authors and the institution for an official inquiry, and we would then abide by the conclusion of that inquiry."

Hardly a ringing endorsement! Perhaps Richard Horton knows/suspects that something is not right with the L2 data . . .

Where is this going? The wheels of science grind slowly, but they grind very fine indeed. If the data underlying L1/L2 is fake, then the Lancet papers will be the most important scientific fraud of the decade. Think that is impossible? Think again.

What can the Crooked Timber community do? Act like scholars and scientists. (As Kieran does in this post.) Keep an open mind. Consider all the evidence. Look at the underlying data. Study the statistical models. Replicate the results. Make our findings public.

One small step would be for dsquared to allow me to publish comments in his threads on this topic. But perhaps open discussion and debate is not what he is looking for.


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