March 6, 2007

Les Roberts Weighs in on Lancet Controversy

Les Roberts Weighs in on Lancet Controversy

When Les Roberts and his team published their Lancet study on Iraq Mortality back in October, they knew it would be controversial. The study estimates that 655,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the beginning of the war, a figure that dwarfs all other estimates. Official U.S. and UN estimates mark the total at closer to one tenth of that number.

In January, the Iraqi government added its own count — 50,000 civilians dead since 2003. If that were true, Roberts wrote in a recent op-ed in The Independent, New Orleans would be a more dangerous place to live than Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Roberts’ op-ed has re-ignited the controversy over The Lancet study, especially in Europe. Two articles, one in the British journal Nature, and one in London’s The Times, have recently been published; Nature‘s article rehashes many of the old arguments about sampling methodology, The Times just rehashes the Nature article, and Les Roberts says the author never asked his team for comment. We called him last night to respond to the new criticisms.

The two main criticisms which were in both the Nature article and The Times article are completely without merit. They said there wasn’t enough time to have done the interviews. We had eight interviewers working ten hour days for 49 days, they had two hours in the field to ask each household five questions. They had time.

The other criticism was that our people stayed close to the main streets of towns to conduct their surveys. They say that bombs disproportionately go off near the main streets — the car bombs, the IEDs. But the vast majority of these deaths are Iraqis shooting Iraqis, or from coalition forces. I’d have to check the figures, but I think less than 15 percent of deaths are from car bombs and IEDs.

Les Roberts, in a conversation with Open Source, March 5, 2007.

A few bloggers have lept to The Lancet team’s defense. Roberts is particularly fond of Tim Lambert’s close reading of the controversy over at Deltoid.

For a more high-concept treatment of the quantification of war, take another listen to our show with Les Roberts from December. Chelsea’s questions from that post still hit home:

Once you get into the thousands and tens of thousands does it really matter? 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?

Chelsea Merz, The Quantification of War, December 19, 2006.

Related Content