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THURSDAY'S LETTERS: Number of Deaths in Iraq Underreported?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

THURSDAY'S LETTERS: Number of Deaths in Iraq Underreported?

Article excerpt

In today's letters, readers respond to the recent study on the underestimation of deaths since the start of the war in Iraq.

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Counting Civilian Deaths in Iraq

I welcome the coverage you've given the recent paper which addresses the Lancet article that estimates civilian deaths in Iraq. I am a physician at an academic health center, and a key part of my job is to review medical literature. Unlike many sciences, medical literature is mostly based on statistics, so understanding all the various ramifications of sampling, bias, etc is a must. Medical students get many hours of lecture to start to understand this, and residents, and fellows get more hours. Despite this many fail to understand how to read and interpret papers. Bottom line: it's a complicated and difficult subject.

When I read the Lancet article I was struck by its quality. It's a sound, good study, and very good considering the conditions under which it was conducted. The deficiencies, honestly noted by the authors, are minor, and cannot detract from its primary conclusion. Hence I was dismayed to read story after story in the media citing critics without talking about the facts.

The Associated Press particularly dismayed me. Why are they citing President Bush, Anthony Cordesman, and DoD personnel on this study? These might be influential people, but I'm not aware that any of them have the ability to critically analyze this work, and they're all subject to bias. Proponents of the work, when cited at all, are mentioned toward the end of articles. And then there are the endless claims of "I can't believe that the numbers are so high" without citing any study flaw which can account for an inflated result. This is what I call argument from incredulity, and it is weak. Just because some people don't have much imagination, doesn't mean it's not true.

Overall, the paper strongly supports its assertions, and the critics have not advanced cogent arguments, but despite this, headlines proclaim that the study is "disputed", or "exaggerated", and the critics are given significant coverage.

I applaud Greg Mitchell for his insightful analysis of this reporting. He's the only one whom I've read who essentially says "Who cares what Anthony Cordesman thinks. …

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