Thursday, July 31, 2008

Influencing the Election

One of the on-going disputes is whether or not Les Roberts and his co-authors attempted to influence that US election with the publication of L1 (or L2). There is no doubt that they did. Consider the original AP article on L1.

Researchers have estimated that as many as 100,000 more Iraqis -- many of them women and children -- died since the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq than would have been expected otherwise, based on the death rate before the war.

Writing in the British-based medical journal The Lancet, the American and Iraqi researchers concluded that violence accounted for most of the extra deaths and that airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition were a major factor.

There is no official figure for the number of Iraqis killed since the conflict began, but some non-governmental estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000. As of Thursday, 1,106 U.S. servicemen had been killed, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

The scientists who wrote the report concede that the data they based their projections on were of ``limited precision,'' because the quality of the information depends on the accuracy of the household interviews used for the study. The interviewers were Iraqi, most of them doctors.

Designed and conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and the Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, the study was published Thursday on The Lancet's Web site.

The survey attributed most of the extra deaths to violence and said airstrikes by coalition forces caused most of the violent deaths.

``Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children,'' the researchers wrote.

The report was released just days before the U.S. presidential election, and the lead researcher said he wanted it that way. The Lancet routinely publishes papers on the Web before they appear in print, particularly if it considers the findings of urgent public health interest.

Those reports then appear later in the print issue of the journal. The journal's spokesmen said they were uncertain which print issue the Iraqi report would appear in and said it was too late to make Friday's issue, and possibly too late for the Nov. 5 edition.

Les Roberts, the lead researcher from Johns Hopkins, said the article's timing was up to him.

``I emailed it in on Sept. 30 under the condition that it came out before the election,'' Roberts told The Associated Press. ``My motive in doing that was not to skew the election. My motive was that if this came out during the campaign, both candidates would be forced to pledge to protect civilian lives in Iraq.

``I was opposed to the war and I still think that the war was a bad idea, but I think that our science has transcended our perspectives,'' Roberts said.


1) As here, Roberts often tries to deny that he sought to affect the election even as he admits to doing so. What does it even mean to "skew the election?" The easiest way to think about the issue is to compare two worlds: In world A, L1 comes out after the election. In that world, Bush and Kerry spend the week before the election campaigning, arguing about issues X, Y, and Z. Both candidates seek to focus the debate on topics most likely to benefit them. Iraqi (civilian) mortality plays a role in that world but it is a small one. The less that Iraqi civilian mortality is discussed, the better off that Bush is (I think). In world B, L1 comes out before the election. (This is the world we actually live in.) Iraqi mortality is much more a part of the campaign then it was in world A. Issues X, Y and Z are still discussed, but less than they were in world A. (There are only so many hours in the day, questions that reporters can ask, speeches that Bush and Kerry can give.)

The causal effect of issuing L1 before the election rather than after is the difference between world A and world B. Roberts sought to force the candidates to "pledge to protect civilian lives in Iraq." He sought to influence what issues the candidates addressed. He wanted to change the debate from what it would have been without L1 so that more time/energy/attention was focussed on Iraqi mortality.

And that is fine! It's a free country and Roberts has the right to try to influence the electoral process. He is smart enough to know that his actions, alone, are unlikely to be the deciding factor in which candidate wins. But that does not change the fact that he sought to force the candidates to address an issue that they would not have otherwise addressed were it not for his decision to publish L1 before the election.

2) Can Roberts (or any author) insist on a specific publication date when working with journal like the Lancet? I guess so, if the article is desirable enough, from the editors point of view. Given what we know about Lancet editor Richard Horton's politics (and don't forget his YouTube videos here and here), it seems likely that he was also in favor of the article coming out before the US elections.

3) A similar story on the importance of timing applies to L2. Paul Foy reported in 2006 that:

Roberts organized two surveys of mortality in Iraqi households that were published last October in Britain's premier medical journal, The Lancet. He acknowledged that the timing was meant to influence midterm U.S. elections.

This is confused in that L1 was published in October 2004 and L2 in October 2006, but midterm elections were (obviously) only in 2006.

4) Fox News is probably quoting Burnham out of context here.

We wanted to get the survey out before the election if at all possible, but our agenda on this is concern for the humanitarian issues.

As always, I think that Burnham is a good guy. He is really focussed on humanitarian issues. But there is no compelling scientific or humanitarian reason why the studies needed to come out in the two weeks prior to the US elections. You can make the case (and I have seen Horton, for example, make it) that the key issue is not that the studies come out before the election but that they come out as soon as possible. That is a reasonable belief. Alas, the Lancet studies did not work that way. It took only 6 weeks for L1 to go from survey finish (mid September 2004) to publication. Why, if getting the information out fast is what matters, did it take 14 weeks for L2? (The survey work was completed in early July 2006.) The obvious explanation is that the authors and/or editors wanted the articles to come out just before the US elections. They worked more than twice as fast on L1 than on L2 in order to make that happen.

5) Roberts has spent the last 5 years backpedaling. He realizes that his credibility is damaged if people know that he sought to "influence" the US elections in 2004 and 2006. See our many transcripts for examples. The Hopkins Q&A (since deleted) included this tidbit.

At no time did study authors Les Roberts or Gilbert Burnham say that the release of their mortality studies was timed to affect the outcome of elections.

The only way for this to be true is for "outcome of elections" to be defined as "whether Bush or Kerry won." It is reasonable to think that Roberts/Burnham were smart enough to realize that their articles would not swing the election one way or the other. But there is no doubt that they (or at least Roberts) have admitted that they sought to influence the course of the campaign by forcing the candidates to address the issue of Iraqi mortality when they would have otherwise spent their time on other topics.


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