Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Civilian" Casualties

Consider the original news release about L1, before our friends from Hopkins dump it down the memory hole. The title is "Iraqi Civilian Deaths Increase Dramatically After Invasion." Lancet aficionados will recall that this news release (and, I think, the original Lancet editorial) caused some controversy because they both discussed "civilian" deaths. Needless to say, L1 did not differentiate between civilians and non-civilians in its methodology, so the authors have no idea whether the excess mortality was driven by military deaths (whether Saddam-era soldiers during the initial invasion or insurgents thereafter) or civilian ones. (Leaving aside deductions one might make by focusing on female/child/elderly deaths.)

Anyway, there was some dispute about this in the first few months (before I started paying attention to the debate) but I always thought that none of this mattered, that it was an honest mistake caused by someone who did not read the study closely. And, indeed, if I just point to the title of the press release, this would be reasonable. After all, Roberts/Burnham do not make the titles for press releases (one assumes). So, we should not blame them if some secretary in the news office, presumably acting in good faith, gives this release a misleading title.

But note how the release begins.

Civilian deaths have risen dramatically in Iraq since the country was invaded in March 2003, according to a survey conducted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Columbia University School of Nursing and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. The researchers found that the majority of deaths were attributed to violence, which were primarily the result of military actions by Coalition forces. Most of those killed by Coalition forces were women and children. However, the researchers stressed that they found no evidence of improper conduct by the Coalition soldiers.

The survey is the first countrywide attempt to calculate the number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the war began.

Leave aside the anti-coalition slurs here, we see that the author of the news release maintains that this is a count of civilians, rather than just Iraqis. Again, this could be just a mistake by someone in the Hopkins press office, but one expects more care to be taken with the actual body of a news release rather than just its title. Indeed, one would expect the news office to show a news release to the researchers whose work it is describing before the news release is made public. Did Roberts/Burnham know ahead of time that the news release would make claims about civilians? Did they approve this ahead of time? Again, both are busy academics, so we might want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they never saw the release, either before publication or even now. But then we read:

“Our findings need to be independently verified with a larger sample group. However, I think our survey demonstrates the importance of collecting civilian casualty information during a war and that it can be done,” said lead author Les Roberts, PhD, an associate with the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies.


“There is a real necessity for accurate monitoring of civilian deaths during combat situations. Otherwise it is impossible to know the extent of the problems civilians may be facing or how to protect them,” explained study co-author Gilbert Burnham, MD, associate professor of International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for International, Disaster and Refugee Studies.

Burnham and Roberts themselves used the term "civilian(s)" in direct quotes! There is no need to blame Tim Parsons, the media contact at Hopkins. He, or whoever wrote the news release and its title, were just repeating what the professor had told them, that the Lancet survey showed a dramatic rise in civilian mortality.

This is, in many ways, a minor sin. There is no doubt that thousands of civilians have died in Iraq. But the fact that Roberts/Burnham were happy to mislead readers about exactly what their study measured indicates that we need to maintain a skeptical attitude about the claims that they make.


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