The Quantification of War

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photo of sign that says 655,000 Iraqis dead

Arlington West Memorial, Santa Monica, CA [juliedermansky / Flickr]

As its fourth year approaches, the war in Iraq is amassing some noteworthy numbers: dollars spent, US soldiers killed, and Iraqi casualties. The last figure is a source of recent controversy. In October The Lancet published a report that estimates that 655,000 Iraqis have died from the war, 601,000 of them from violence. (Most wartime civilian deaths are usually symptomatic of a broken infastructure: women who can’t get to hospitals die in childbirth, others die from malnutrition, or from diarrhea from drinking contaminated water.) Other death toll trackers such as the The Brookings Institution, and the volunteer organization Iraq Body Count, who estimate 50,000-70,00 civilian deaths respectively, consider The Lancet’s findings to be completely off the charts.

But once you get into the thousands and tens of thousands does it really matter? Some analysts claim that the statistical anarchy of an asymmetrical war renders it nearly impossible to accurately calculate how many people have died. Others assert that politicians will use whatever estimate best supports their position. Dennis Kucinich, a staunch opponent of the war, feathered his cap with the Lancet’s 655,000 before he tossed it into into the presidential ring again. George Bush dipped from the shallow end of the fatality spectrum for the 30,000 figure he cited during a press conference last October, one of the deadliest months to date.

On the other hand, good statistics (unlike lies and damned lies) have legitimite uses. Some contend that a true gauge of Iraqi fatalities is essential to determining the reality of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi and therefore our ability to plan a way out. Just as the rallying cry “3,000 dead” on 9/11 helped propel us into Iraq, could a consensus on the Iraqi death toll be used as a tool for extricating us?

Does it matter how these numbers break down? How many men, women and children have died and how? Do these numbers change the way you look at this war, or any war? At what point does a body count become a metaphor for the atrocity of war?

Les Roberts

Epidemiologist, Lecturer, Columbia Univeristy Mailman School of Public Health,

Co-author, Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey

Juan Cole

Professor, Modern Middle East and South Asian History, University of Michigan

Blogger, Informed Comment

Colin Kahl

Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

Faiza Al-Araji

Iraqi refugee living in Amman, Jordan

Blogger, A Family in Baghdad

Neurotic Iraqi Wife

Blogger, Neurotic Iraqi Wife

Nabil

Blogger, Nabil’s Blog

Extra Credit Reading

Riverbend, The Lancet Study…, Baghdad Burning, October 18, 2006: “There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.”

Omar, Responding to the Lancet Lies, Iraq the Model, October 12, 2006: “Among the things I cannot accept is exploiting the suffering of people to make gains that are not the least related to easing the suffering of those people. I’m talking here about those researchers who used the transparency and open doors of the new Iraq to come and count the drops of blood we shed.”

Staff, Bush discredits Iraqi death toll report, The Guardian, October 11, 2006: “The US president, George Bush, tonight admitted “a lot of innocent people” had lost their lives in Iraq but rejected the findings of a controversial report that the civilian death toll in the war-torn country had reached 655,000.”

Jonathan S. Landay, Study says violence in Iraq has been underreported, McClatchy Washington Bureau, December 6, 2006: “The Bush administration routinely has underreported the level of violence in Iraq in order to disguise its policy failings, the Iraq Study Group report said Wednesday.”

Michael Luo, The Reach of War, The New York Times (Select), December 6, 2006: “Ambulance workers have among the clearest views of Baghdad’s descent into chaos.”

neurotic_wife, The Smile of Victory, Neurotic Iraqi Wife, October 15, 2006: “At least a hundred bodies are found decapitated thrown in trashbins daily in Baghdad only. And I say at least 100. Take into consideration the West, East, South and North of the Country. Add another 100. Oh and by the way these are the ones we hear of. So 100 plus 100 we get 200 daily. AT LEAST. Multiply that by 365, then by 3 since thats three years from March and add 200 * 217 (number of days from March to October). You still with me???”

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  • http://del.icio.us/plaintext plaintext

    To determine if the numbers are significant in some way, they need to be put in context or perhaps more appropriately in contrast with other numbers. For example, how many Iraqis died in years before the US invasion? Before the Afghan invasion? Before the Kuwait/Iraq invasion? In other words, how many additional deaths does the conflict in Iraq account for beyond the norm?

    Any numbers of US and allied forces who died in Iraq is without question a divergence from the norm. And one could argue that Iraqi soldiers, insurgents, and trouble-makers of every ilk should likewise be removed from the calculations. Ultimately, how much is the new deathrate of Iraqis different from previous ones? Of course, one cannot calculate the new deathrate accurately until the “conflict is over” however that may be determined.

    All this death analysis is indeed repulsive. But the justification for war is a temporary loss of life in order to prevent a subsequent or future loss of life. Presumably the economic cost this entails outweighs the benefits of more people ultimately living longer, if not more fulfilling, lives at some future date.

  • Nick

    plaintext wrote: “one could argue that Iraqi soldiers, insurgents, and trouble-makers of every ilk should likewise be removed from the calculations.”

    Maybe. But I’m not so sure. I’m dithering because the US invasion has prompted an indigenous response that is partly veiled in religious righteousness. Religionists of both Sunni and Shi’ite stripes have used the so-called ‘Crusader’ presence to lure into their cause of putatively ‘righteous’ resistance young men whose life-paths might otherwise have taken very different directions. These young men might not have had any greater propensity for violence than any given American high-schooler who, say, goes out for football. But the combination of cultural shame at the intrusiveness of the occupation and the piousness invoked by the local imams might have seduced them into a cycle of warrior-ism – which normalizes violence by dulling one’s natural empathy – instead of into what we might consider a more normal response of revulsion to violence.

    Someone on another recent thread dismissed Iraq a as ‘violent society’, which troubled me because millions of Iraqis aren’t violent, and/or weren’t violent until after the series of intrusions by foreign soldiers (searching their homes for ‘terrorists’) and the Abu-Gahraib calamity.

    There’s a cause-and-effect cycle here that’s difficult to parse. Enough so for me to think that the dead insurgents and other ‘trouble-makers’ weren’t predestined for their deaths, but instead met their deaths largely because of the American invasion.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  • Ben

    Remember February 5, 2003, when a large blue curtain was placed over the reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica at the UN, so it wouldn’t be visible when Powell and Negroponte gave press conferences during the run-up?

  • JJWFromME

    This is a good quote from the ISG report having to do with the underreporting of attacks in Iraq: “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimises its discrepancy with policy goals.”

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS/World/The_United_States/US_underreported_Iraq_violence/articleshow/738284.cms

  • nother

    688 is a good number, that’s the number of days till GW takes a hike.

    I shake with shock and awe at the audacity of these men who propose sending more kids to Iraq. I love Texas hold’em poker and there is a common tactic in poker that I see being played out here. When a player bets say half their chips on a weak hand and another player with a probable stronger hand calls and raises, the player with the weaker hand is “trapped.” Even thought the player knows they probably have a weaker hand, they’ve already committed so many chips that they feel the best option is to go “all in” and take their chances on getting a miracle card. The other option would be to fold and be left with decidedly fewer chips and a much weaker position in the overall game – yet live to fight another day.

    Here’s the rub, Bush thinks he is making this play with – his chips, but he’s dead wrong. Those chips are our chips, those chips are our kids, and they are being committed to a lost pot. But to Bush, those chips are chips -or odds – or numbers.

    My problem with numbers in this conversation is the proponents of this war think in numbers. When confronted with the number of troops killed in Iraq, they respond that the number is low when compared to other wars. They would not have this response if ANY of their children were part of that low number.

    These guys are pot committed and they are about to go “all in,” I only hope they look closely before pushing in and they see a human face staring back at them on each one of those chips.

  • http://civilities.net/people/JonGarfunkel Jon Garfunkel

    Hmm, I remember a conversation about this some time ago. And when I search back, I see it was a show from thirteen months agoStuck in the Pottery Barn. How sad to once again be on this topic.

    I had brought the IraqBodyCount website to the discussion, and had compared it to the October 2004 Lancet study. I was impressed with the IBC’s diligence, but my main gripe about the tawdry presentation of the site still remains:

    The IBC fails horribly in one respect; the front of the website is pornographic with its image of a B-2 bomber dropping bombs. It has a web counter– so much for not being a statistic.

    If I were to design such a site, I’d do something akin what the NY Times did with “portraits of grief”– and duly honor each life. I’d have a little identifying information about each person, the name, at least, and as much as can be gleaned, how each died, and by whom. And you know what? Show the American lives as well as the Iraqis. They’re united in death, after all.

    I can add an addendum now with the passage of a year in my life, one in which I took the time to read several books by soldiers who fought in Iraq, and also one in which I spent some quality time over Thanksgiving at our war memorials in Washington. One of the more breathtaking works was the Faces of the Fallen exhibit at Arlington National Cemetary– a memorial that was, for a time, built as the war went on.

    That said, regarding my comment last year about an online site combining Iraqi and American portraits, I’m not so sure if I’d feel comfortable seeing suicide bombers alongside our GI’s.

    Still, I feel strongly that the IBC could learn a thing or two from public memorials.

  • Potter

    Before the invasion and in discussion about whether or not we should, I remember the heated and emotional discussion invoking the deaths of Iraqi children from disease and malnutrition due to the UN sanctions. The numbers of dead children per month being given between 3-5 thousand. This argument ( sanctions are hurting the innocent) was used in some quarters ( the far left) and caused emotional reaction ( mine as well) though it seems to me that the pro-war side could have used this argument as well drawing the same conclusions and conveniently not considering the effects of full war. In any case the pro-war argument had morphed to visions of mushroom clouds by Spring of ’03,

    This is an interesting article of that era to read from this vantage point leading to the conclusion that sanctions, though a blunt instrument, but modifying them further, might not have been as bad as what ensued. At some point in the run-up to war however, the numbers of dead Iraqis, past and future ceased to be considered as well the lives of our own soldiers in a risky and ambitious project sold as preemption:

    The Politics of Dead Children

  • JJWFromME

    At what point does a body count become a metaphor for the atrocity of war?

    Don’t forget the allergy of this administration toward any sort of counts at all, either of blood or treasure. No pictures of arriving caskets. Almost no data about civilian deaths. No war budget as part of the larger budget (not that this is the moral equivalent of the lives lost, of course). It’s all about the administration’s war on empiricism. NYU’s prof. Jay Rosen has more:

    http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2006/12/18/suskind_empiricism.html

  • http://pandachews.blogspot.com/ Paul Massari

    Wait, I don’t understand. I thought the Lancet did their study some time ago and came up with a number of over 100,000. They were criticized for their methodology – which they defended as actually being quite conservative – so the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins did another study. They sampled a much wider geographical area, and came up with the 600,000 number as most likely, with a floor of 435,000 and a ceiling of 900,000. Can someone please help me sort this out?

  • Chelsea

    Hi Paul,

    The Lancet also published the second study. Les Roberts, who is with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health was the co-author on both reports.

  • Sagebrush

    One way to put the numbers in perspective is to look at them as a proportion of the Iraqi population. 655,000 is about 2.7% of their population. Here’s what that would mean in terms of the U.S. population: 3,000 dead single every day beginning September 11, 2001, and ending about a month after George Bush leaves office.

    How wild with grief and rage would WE be toward those who touched it off if something like that happened here?

  • joshua hendrickson

    There is a footnote in Richard Adams’s novel WATERSHIP DOWN that tells us, matter-of-factly, that rabbits can count to four, and that any number higher than that is “hrair”, or a thousand–just an uncountable amount.

    I would say that human beings, though capable of counting higher than four, don’t really have any better of an understanding of numbers much higher than that. Past a certain point (which varies from person to person, probably) we are not capable of conceptualizing of each individual person or object in a large group. To keep my example low but profound, even though I could conceivably look at all the names and faces of the 3000 dead from 9/11, I could not properly conceive of them all. In a sense, the number itself is meaningless to me.

    Now I consider that there are almost 3000 US soldiers dead in Iraq. Again, I cannot conceive of it.

    50,000. 70,000. 655,000.

    I don’t care how much of a genius you are, or how spacious your compassionate heart is. Those numbers–any of them, no matter which one is right–are not within your power to grasp.

    But then, so very little about this world is.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    30,000, 70,000 or 655,000–How many Iraqi civilian deaths will it take to bring those responsible to the Hague to face war crimes?

    Since this is an illegal war and the US Congress and Senate sanctioned it, then all representatives of the people who voted for the war should be brought before the international court. OR those two political bodies should do the just thing and bring those who lied to obtain consent (didn’t take much) to account before the American people. Avoiding this to win another election taints the next administration with the foul smell of complicity.

    It’s an easy equation.

  • Igor

    plaintext:

    > In other words, how many additional deaths does the conflict in Iraq account for beyond the norm?

    Nice try… Do you think these John Hopkins guys are idiots? Or course they counted _excessive_ deaths only, and in both their surveys. Follow the link in Chelsea’s post above and read and read the findings, it’s only one paragraph, in fact, it’s shorter than your post.

  • joe

    it is sad that we as Americans let our nation go to war with out even putting up a fight. the real WMD’s are our hand guns and tanks in Iraq and Afghanistan

  • Igor

    Nick:

    > There’s a cause-and-effect cycle here that’s difficult to parse.

    Not at all. It’s a moral truism that a person is responsible for predictable results of her/his actions. The same for states and other entities. And there were plenty of forewarnings, even in all that post-9/11 hysteria. Of course one has to listen, and it you don’t, you face the consequences, again by the same truism.

  • Igor

    Joe:

    I’m not an American, although I lived in US for the last 7 years. And even I can say, Americans _did_ put up a fight. In fact, in an uprecedented manner, there were protests all over the country even _before_ the war started. And there were huge protests in New York during RNC. Of course, there could have been more, but these guys in your government are tough, see what happens right now, after all these mid-term defeats they are still pushing for more troops in Iraq. It’s a tough fight…

  • Igor

    “This American Life” did two episodes about the study, the last one 11/3/06. To listen, go to thislife.org and search for “lancet study”. Highly recommended.

  • chris carrier

    What is the point of knowing the number of deaths in Iraq?

    Would the number of Iraqi deaths return to its pre-US invasion rates if the US walked out now?

    Three years from now will the US be thanking its lucky stars that another Sadam Hussain figure has emerged and can reduce the killing?

  • congressradio

    Chris,

    Why would anyone not want to know? Burying our heads in the sand is how we arrived here in the first place.

  • hurley

    You did a good thing in addressing this subject, particularly given the resounding silence, not to mention scorn, the Lancet report has met with. Also in bringing up the Republican war on empirical truth, which seems to me the ground from which so much of the present misery has sprung (and to which there is no end, except perhaps The End, in sight). Why not a show, to take a leaf from AJ Ayer, on (American) Language, Truthiness, and Logic? Yesterday Todorov — no radical he — had an interesting op-ed in the International Herald Tribune — no radical rag that — lamenting the decline of any objective standard of truth in American political affairs. Time to get at the truth — or truthingess — of our times.

  • JJWFromME

    From France’s La Libération:

    One of the most interesting conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton report resides in the observations that, since the war in Iraq, the American government has often sought to rule out any information that runs counter to its policies, and that this refusal to take the truth into account has had calamitous effects. The report says so in measured, but firm, terms: “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” In other words, the American government has held truth to be a negligible value that could easily be sacrificed to the will to power.

    What is surprising… is that it was possible in a great democracy like the United States to parenthesize the question of the truth for close to five years. That is worrying: In spite of the pluralism of the parties, in spite of the freedom of the press, it is therefore possible to convince the population of a liberal democracy that black is white and white, black. How to explain this vulnerability?

    .

    We must first concede that, in any country whatsoever, the greater part of the population blindly obeys opinion makers, politicians, and media officials (while advice from abroad is habitually treated with contempt). If, as of September 2002, there were plenty of lucid statements in the United States from some politicians and some organs of the press, these statements were not carried by institutions in the foreground, by the Democratic Party, the big television stations, nor the main newspapers. The country allowed itself to be submerged under a wave of patriotism that relegated concern for the truth to the background.

    .

    This abandonment of the duty of truth among opinion makers does not reflect some nefarious intention, but rather the fear that seized the country’s population following the September 11, 2001, attacks. The need to protect one’s own life, to assure the security of one’s loved ones, to eliminate threats judged to be imminent, made everyone forget habitual precautions. Verifying and evaluating the news, arguing and reasoning were perceived as signs of a lack of courage and sense of responsibility…

    http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/122006G.shtml

  • JJWFromME

    Rachel Joy Larris at TomPaine.com has a piece up on the Washington Post’s recent interview with President Bush:

    Reading the transcript I have to say it reminded me of Jay Rosen of Press Think’s most recent essay, “Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind’s Scoop,” and how the media continue to act in wake of the Bush administration’s position that they, not the media, shape reality. The Post wrote the headline “U.S. Not Winning War in Iraq, Bush Says for 1st Time” but clearly the follow-up press conference (“Bush Maintains ‘Victory in Iraq is Achievable’) shows that Bush is controlling the narrative on the Iraq war, not The Washington Post or any other media outlet. And certainly not reality.

    http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2006/12/20/so_the_post_interviews_bush_eh.php

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    JJWFromME, I don’t think it was simply fear among opinion makers after 9/11, as La Libération suggests, though fear was used by opinion makers to get the public to do their bidding.

    Howard Zinn in a recent speech discussed the lack of historical understanding among the public, journalists and leaders and he talked about the deceitful nature of governments and a limp and acquiescent press. I quote:

    When you know history, you know that governments lie, as I.F. Stone said. Governments lie all the time. Well, not just the American government. It’s just in the nature of governments. Well, they have to lie. I mean, governments in general do not represent the people of the societies that they govern. And since they don’t represent the people and since they act against the interest of the people, the only way they can hold power is if they lie to the people. If they told people the truth, they wouldn’t last very long. So history can help in understanding deception and being skeptical and not rushing to embrace whatever the government tells you.

    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article15739.htm

  • thecatspajamas

    What Bush and his Administration have done makes me physically ill. The people responsible for this violence are in Washington, sitting in comfortable chairs and climate-controlled offices. In the previous Open Source show about Iraqi refugees, the Iraqi woman in Jordan expressed the state of chaos and violence. Its important for us to remember that aside from the enormous number of dead, there are approximately two million refugees, without any protection under International Law. There are even more people on the BRINK of death because of the destabilization. By the time historians look at this, the current numbers will most likely be a fraction, tragically.

    I do not understand how any individual could think that the numbers are any less then 600,000. It is insane to me that anyone would argue with these numbers.

  • plnelson

    I have YET to hear anyone in this discussion explain in detail why it matters what, exactly, the numbers are.

    100,000? 200,000? 600,000?

    Tell us, in plain English, exactly what difference in your proposed policy, about what we should do now, would it make if the number were 250,000 instead of 400,000, or vice versa?

    We may not know the exact number, but we do know that the place is an anarchic mess, that the Iraqis (or rather, “Iraqi’s” because I still regard “Iraq” to be a figure-of-speech rather than a real nation) are engaged in a bizarre frenzy of mass violence, and that no one has a plausible plan for how to fix it.

  • ralphlopez

    As American dead approach 3000, I would like to share a post from the website May8th Please consider this during your last-minute Christmas shopping and circulate, call to get the troops out of Iraq now. Leave a message at your congressman’s office over the weekend.

    Merry Christmas Call Campaign

    I’m trying to get into the spirit but this choral music is only annoying me knowing that three more families are going to have a real shitty Christmas. Air America reports 3 American dead in Iraq yesterday. I’m sitting in the Harvard Coop and the singers are really good, but I’m sorely tempted to start shouting “Jesus wants us to bomb Iran!” at the top of my lungs and scream at all these people Christmas shopping to wake the fuck up. Then I sink a little thinking that it’s not their fault. In these parts nearly everyone hates George Bush. I’d be preaching to the choir and some little old lady would pipe up and start going off on him even louder than me. It’s happened. Something about the Shrub sets people off on tantrums either way. For or against. The Uniter not Divider.

    The Defeat-o-crats are letting themselves be set up to be blamed. These guys are professional punching bags. The Bush surge strategy is nothing more than a closing gambit to keep Iraq together just long enough to get out of office and make sure someone else is in office when it falls apart. Then they write history that the Democrats lost Iraq. That’s the whole plan, and it’s going to cost how many guys their lives?

    Those families of the ones killed today will be getting the news right about now that they are going to be having a real shitty Christmas too. And there’s still six days to go until Christmas.

    Harry Reid just announced that he’s not going to walk and chew gum at the same time, that the number one issue in the new term is ethics. Nothing about Iraq. Nothing about the Military Commissions Act, or Jose Padilla, which amounts to an override of the Bill of Rights. Nothing to start blunting the set-up to be the Defeat-o-crats, such as redrawing the War Resolution to get out of Iraq, surround the Pakistani tribal areas where the Pakistani government is having a love-fest with the Taliban, and going on the political offensive to “stop making terrorists faster than we can kill them,” in the words of a Delta Forces soldier quoted by Air America’s Laura Flanders. Those Delta Force liberals.

    The problem is that our own safety depends on throwing George Bush on the tender mercies of all the people he hurt. Nothing less than charges as a war criminal may be able to bring outraged Muslims back to the fold of moderation. And now what does he want to do? He wants to bomb Iran. Yesterday’s Air America interview of Scott Ritter is a must-listen, on how the Iranian people actually still LIKE Americans, after all we have done to them, even if they don’t like George Bush. That could change real fast with fresh footage flooding Al Jazeera of Iranian women and children with their faces blown off. I’ll post the MP3 of the interview as soon as AAR archives it.

    The phone numbers (free calls) to your congressmen are still on the front page of the main website. Make your Christmas present to the troops a couple of phone calls to your congress-people telling them to cut the shit and get them the hell out of there. As many calls as we can manage between now and Christmas.

    from May8th

  • Igor

    plnelson:

    Good questions, I mean, good spin. I just wonder, how is it that discussions of american policy are always about future actions, but never about responsibility for the actions in the past?

    Also, there _is_ a huge difference, just imagine Bush, etc. in 2003 saying in plain English, to borrow your own words, that the price of invasion of Iraq would be more then 3000 US troops dead and 660,000 Iraqis dead. Would’ve _that_ changed policy? I bet it would’ve. And that’s why it’s important. You just can’t go on saying, sorry, I screwed up, let’s forget about it and plan for the future.

  • Igor

    From another, more scientific, angle. Human (societal, intitutional, etc.) actions depend upon feedback. If information flow is impaired the ability for coordinated action is severely affected. In physiology it’s called tremor. In fact, father of cybernatics Norbert Wiener made his initial observations on a role of feedback in a hospital for war veterans, of all people.

    So even from this purely scientific perspective truth is indispensible. And you just cannot say “this amount of truth is enough” or “that’s too much truth”, can you? It surely sounds silly (or outright cynical).

  • plnelson

    Igor sex: plnelson:

    Good questions, I mean, good spin. I just wonder, how is it that discussions of american policy are always about future actions, but never about responsibility for the actions in the past?

    “Responsibility” is an abstract philosophical concept. Since we have no rigorous science of human behavior it is scientifically impossible to assign a clear chain of cause-and-effect in many cases. American invades Iraq, topples their leadership , and later one Iraqi blows up another Iraqi’s mosque. Are the Americans “responsble” for that act? Or are the Iraqi’s? Or is the irrationality of religion “responsible”. Granted the Americans failed to maintain odrder, but in a civilized country if someone goes off their nut and shoots up a schoolhouse, are the police “responsible”?

    What matters at this point is what we do NEXT. Personally I advocate we just LEAVE as quickly as possible.

    Also, there _is_ a huge difference, just imagine Bush, etc. in 2003 saying in plain English, to borrow your own words, that the price of invasion of Iraq would be more then 3000 US troops dead and 660,000 Iraqis dead. Would’ve _that_ changed policy? I bet it would’ve.

    Read more carefully.

    I asked whether the difference between 250,000 and 400,000 would make any difference.

    And that’s why it’s important. You just can’t go on saying, sorry, I screwed up, let’s forget about it and plan for the future.

    What is your evidence that you “can’t”? I say that it’s done all the time, as has been throughout history.

    As I’ve said many times before on ROS, there IS no science of human behavior. Unlike the physical sciences where precise, objective measurements can be used to create or improve a theoretical framework, there is no equivalent to this in history, sociology, or political “science”. A physicist in 2006 can legitimately claim to understand his domain far better than a physicist of 1906 or a “natural philosopher” of 1506. Not so in matters of human affairs. It’s not at all clear that there is a systematic progression of knowledge in political “science” that allows a political leader today to understand or predict the outcome of political decisions any better than leaders of centuries ago.

    That the war in Iraq was a disaster for the US would have been obvious to any king in 1500. But kings in 1500 also made similar disasterous decisions. Likewise, while my gut instincts motivated me to oppose the war from the beginning, I could not PROVE scientifically that it was a stupid idea. It is not obvious that the kind of numerical hair-splitting exercises being advocated here demonstrably lend any greater “understanding” to the situation.

  • plnelson

    Igor says From another, more scientific, angle. Human (societal, intitutional, etc.) actions depend upon feedback. If information flow is impaired the ability for coordinated action is severely affected. In physiology it’s called tremor. In fact, father of cybernatics Norbert Wiener made his initial observations on a role of feedback in a hospital for war veterans, of all people.

    So even from this purely scientific perspective truth is indispensible. And you just cannot say “this amount of truth is enough”

    The flaw in the above is to compare physiology, which is a real science, to the social “sciences” which are not.

    In the context of the physical and biological sciences precise measurements allow us to improve theoretical frameworks, or propose new ones where none existed before. This has been the whole process of the advance of science

    throughout history. Today a physicist, chemist, astronomer, neurophysiologist, etc, can legitimately claim far better understanding of her domain than her counterpart centuries ago. This better understanding is not just theoretical – she can make better practical decisions and more accurate predictions.

    It is NOT obvious that any of this is true in the social “sciences”. There is no rigorous theoretical framework to plug precise numbers into. Nor is it clear whether more precise numbers enhance decision-making ability. It is far from clear that a wise political or military leader of 500 years ago couldn’t do JUST as good a job making good decisions as one today.

    One could argue that the difference between 1000 dead and 500,000 dead might matter from a policy standpoint. But THAT big a difference would be apparant to even a casual observer centuries ago – it would not have required rigorous counting. It is NOT clear that smaller differences, such as 250,000 -vs- 400,00 matter from a policy perspective. Certainly no one here has provided a rigorous reason to think so.

  • rc21

    Debating the war in Iraq is a topic many people talk about. But why would we use a report that has been widely discredited as a jumping off point. The Lancet report was released for political reasons. The authors have admitted this. Les Roberts has said ”Liberation of Iraq was done under unsupportable, and probably illegal pretenses” Even the liberal group Human rights watch has said the reports are certainly prone to inflation due to over counting.

    To me this is poor journalism on the part of Open Source.

    Debate, argue show why the war is wrong, But dont give me a biased inaccurate report from a group that has an axe to grind, as the centerpiece of a disscusion.

    This only takes away from those who are serious about the subject. It also gives me more reason to be sceptical of the media.

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