"Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons." Bertrand Russell

Monday, April 03, 2006

RTE finds the Lancet "unreliable"

In response to my email:


Someone at RTE's Foreign Desk responded and then I returned the favour:

In response to your email about Iraqi death toll

Thanks for taking the time to write.

The figures used were taken from iraqbodycount.org.

However you are correct that this is only a baseline figure and that the real number is probably much

Subsequent reports have used the format- " At least (the baseline ) number of Iraqis have died...

We do not consider the Lancet report a realistic way of calculating the figures as it is based on a sample and extrapolates from this.

We appreciate that more civilians have died but with no reliable means of counting them we use the
iraqbodycount figures instead.

I don't think the audience are in any doubt that thousands of people are dying there.

Thanks again for getting in touch

Foreign Desk
Dublin 4

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for responding so quickly.

When you write, "We appreciate that more civilians have died but with no reliable means of counting them we use the IraqBodyCount figures instead," is it a case that you are using these figures because they are the "most reliable" or that the figures represent an acceptably conservative estimate of Iraqi deaths?

Since the IBC figure accounts for only a fraction of the deaths estimated by other reports, referring to it as a "baseline" is misleading. The Independent reported recently, "IBC admits that with the increasing inability of journalists to move around and report freely, its method of monitoring civilian deaths is becoming increasingly inaccurate." The IBC figure is not a baseline mortality study, it is simply a database of deaths reported by English language newspapers. The term "baseline" does not even suggest the actual extent of Iraqi deaths that go unreported. In fact Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the report, published in a well respected peer reviewed scientific journal, has said that there may now be as many as 300,000 Iraqi civilian deaths.

While I can understand that you may consider "the Lancet report an unrealistic way of calculating the figures, as it is based on a sample and extrapolates from this." I feel this is, unless you are a qualified expert, an unfair and unprofessional judgement. Mr. Roberts has responded to this sort of criticism before:

"I understand that you feel that the sample was small: this is most puzzling. 142 post-invasion deaths in 988 households is a lot of deaths, and for the setting, a lot of interviews. There is no statistical doubt mortality is up, no doubt that violence is the main cause, and no doubt that the coalition forces have caused far more of these violent deaths than the insurgents (p<.0000001)."

"there are now at least 8 independent estimates of the number or rate of deaths induced by the invasion of Iraq. The source most favored by the war proponents (Iraqbodycount.org) is the lowest. Our estimate is the third from highest. Four of the estimates place the death toll above 100,000. The studies measure different things. Some are surveys, some are based on surveillance which is always incomplete in times of war. The three lowest estimates are surveillance based." [Les Roberts from Media Lens: Burying the Lancet]

It seems strange that the methodology, you refer to as "not realistic", has been found to be quite acceptable in previous conflicts. For instance, Mr. Roberts has studied mortality caused by war in several different countries, one example being the Congo. The results of this study were treated with a lot less hostility and suspicion:

"around 4 million people have died from violence and disease in the Congo over the past five years." [RTE 2003]

"It is part of a wider war held responsible for millions of deaths in Africa's third biggest country over the past five years." [RTE 2003]

"The former Zaire is struggling to recover from a wider five-year war that at one stage sucked in six neighbouring countries and, according to an international aid agency, has killed up to four million people." [RTE 2005]

"An estimated three million people, including many civilians, have been killed." [RTE 2003]

Can I ask why the figures for mortality are unreliable when it comes to Iraq, but perfectly acceptable when in reference to other war torn regions?

Thanks for your time. I look forward to your response on this important issue.


UK based media monitoring organisation Media Lens:



Les Roberts (Do Iraqi Civilian Casualties Matter?, By Les Roberts, AlterNet, February 8, 2006 - http://www.alternet.org/story/31508/ )