Friday, April 06, 2007

IBC v Lancet, part 9045

The 'debate' between Iraq Body Count and some scientists, and the epidemiologists behind the Lancet report has not let up for months, and the same motifs keep appearing. I only want to mention the latest installment, which is a letter-exchange between two IBC staffing academics and the World Socialist Website. IBC repeats the same circular criticims over and over: that the Lancet's estimate is based on a cluster survey technique and therefore couldn't be accurate; that it involves a shockingly high number of casualties; that it doesn't distinguish between civilian and non-civilian deaths; that the media surely can't have ommitted so many deaths; that we don't really need to believe that over 600,000 people died violent deaths to say enough is enough. The authors of the letter include at least one serious anti-imperialist academic and activist, and it is by no means unfriendly to the socialist criticique of the Iraq war. And yet, their criticisms of the Lancet study are so inept, so ridiculously question-begging, so obtuse, that one has to ask why. There is no scientific value whatsoever in the claim that estimating excess deaths based on a sample size of 12,000 Iraqis is inadequate, and there is no attempt to flesh it out. Nor is there any reason to believe that the media have covered more than a fraction of the violent deaths in Iraq. There is no doubt that the numbers raised by the Lancet survey are shockingly high, but I don't think anyone missed that. It is surely the case that distinguishing between civilian and non-civilian deaths is valuable from an analytical point of view if it is at all possible, but a) it doesn't in any way invalidate the Lancet's efforts that they were unable to do so, and b) such assessments invariably involve value-judgments about precisely what is a civilian and what is not. IBC, for its part, relies on English-language media reports to make the distinction for it. And it is certainly true that a smaller number of deaths should still be intolerable, but there is surely some distinction of importance to be had between killing 60,000 and killing 655,000, (and perhaps now close to a million if the same trends have persisted). It is the distinction between mass murder and democide.

So what is the point of IBC expending so much energy and writing to various organisations to cast baseless or irrelevant aspersions on the Lancet study in this bizarre, ritualistic fashion? As others have pointed out, they don't seem to make this much effort to correct news media who misuse their figures by claiming that they represent the total number of deaths, which even the IBC doesn't claim. As I said before, its about defending their turf. Since their method involves relying on media reports, media reports couldn't possibly miss the greater number of deaths. Since that is so, a higher estimate, a shockingly higher one, could not possibly be correct. And they spend a lot of time writing to various organisations to point this out. They seem to feel quite strongly about it: one of their staffers recently called yours truly "scum" for doubting their criticisms, while John Sloboda told BBC Newsnight that the critics of IBC are comparable to terrorists in their "mindset". This latest letter exchange was initiated one week before it was revealed that the Ministry of Defense's top scientist had described the Lancet report as accurate, and also that government officials had stated internally that if anything it was likely to be an underestimate. If the best information available to one of the leading warmongering states in Iraq was that the methodology was sound, and the results likely to be cautious and conservative (which is exactly what the authors have maintained), then IBC's manoeuvring begins to look more and more redundant.