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Sunday, January 06, 2008

British Medical Journalism: Corrupted by Hatred of the Iraq War

As a trained epidemiologist, I regret being forced by the Lancet to reveal the underlying sleaziness of a sub-layer of the epidemiologic profession, as well as medical journalism. When the Lancet published its reports on Iraqi civilian casualties[pdf]--immediately before the US 2006 mid-term elections--it was clear to me that the authors had taken some unwarranted shortcuts in methodology. What was even clearer, was that the Lancet editorial staff was willing to overlook the methodologic deficiencies of the report, and publish anyway--just in time to influence the US elections. Since then, I have had no respect for the Lancet.
How to explain the enormous discrepancy between The Lancet's estimation of Iraqi war deaths and those from studies that used other methodologies? For starters, the authors of the Lancet study followed a model that ensured that even minor components of the data, when extrapolated over the whole population, would yield huge differences in the death toll. Skeptical commentators have highlighted questionable assumptions, implausible data, and ideological leanings among the authors, Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, and Les Roberts.

...Lafta had been a child-health official in Saddam Hussein's ministry of health when the ministry was trying to end the international sanctions against Iraq by asserting that many Iraqis were dying from hunger, disease, or cancer caused by spent U.S. depleted-uranium shells remaining from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In 2000, Lafta authored at least two brief articles contending that U.N. sanctions had caused many deaths by starvation among Iraqi children.

...Little is known about Lafta's decision-making in amassing the data for the Lancet surveys....Even though the second study was even further out of line with other sources' estimates than the first, it got tremendous attention -- probably because its findings fit an emerging narrative: Iraq was a horrific mess....Democrats who had opposed Bush's Iraq campaign embraced the report. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for example, issued a statement saying that the "new study is a chilling and somber reminder of the unacceptably high human cost of this war.... We must not stay on the same failed course any longer." Such remarks, amplified by myriad articles, broadcasts, and blogs, helped to cement Americans' increasingly negative perceptions of the war. "For those who wanted to believe it, it gave them a new number to circulate, [and] it was a defining moment" in attitudes toward the war, said pollster John Zogby, who commended the report in a CNN interview.

...In the Middle East, both Sunni and Shiite Islamist groups have used the study to bolster their claims that the West is waging a war against Islam. In an October 30, 2007, debate on Al Jazeera, for example, an Egyptian cleric, Sheik Ibrahim al-Khouli, slammed a Syrian author's criticism of fundamentalist Islam. The United States and Europe had "fought in Iraq and destroyed it," he said. They "killed one and a half million people ... [and] killed a million Iraqi children during the [1990s sanctions] siege; left traces of enriched uranium from the weapons that were used [in 1991]; and destroyed the environment for the next 35 billion years, according to American estimates."

...the authors have declined to provide the surveyors' reports and forms that might bolster confidence in their findings. Customary scientific practice holds that an experiment must be transparent -- and repeatable -- to win credence. Submitting to that scientific method, the authors would make the unvarnished data available for inspection by other researchers. Because they did not do this, citing concerns about the security of the questioners and respondents, critics have raised the most basic question about this research: Was it verifiably undertaken as described in the two Lancet articles?

"The authors refuse to provide anyone with the underlying data," said David Kane, a statistician and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Statistics at Harvard University. Some critics have wondered whether the Iraqi researchers engaged in a practice known as "curb-stoning," sitting on a curb and filling out the forms to reach a desired result. Another possibility is that the teams went primarily into neighborhoods controlled by anti-American militias and were steered to homes that would provide information about the "crimes" committed by the Americans.
National Journal

This Lance/Johns Hopkins article has become a cluster fuck--damning politically interested medical journalism, the Lancet, epidemiology, Johns Hopkins, and specifically damning the authors of the study.

It seems likely that Lafta--a former Saddam Hussein official--has been faking his research ever since the first Gulf War in 1991. Lafta's co-authors allowed their political leanings to influence their judgment. The Lancet's editors allowed their anti-Americanism to bring them to the precipice of journalistic integrity--and they stepped over the brink.

It is a sad story of corruption, sleaze, failed ethics, and lost journalistic integrity and reputation. It will be instructive to see how the mainstream media covers the aftermath of a journalistic catastrophe that they themselves elevated to monumental proportions when they believed the story to be true.

Al Fin

From abu al-fin

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1 Comments:

Blogger Roger said...

Please, contact me, I am sort of the lone voice on the net who is virulently opposing what I call the anti-DU crusade. Your comments about Lafta

"Riyadh Lafta ... had been a child-health official in Saddam Hussein's ministry of health when the ministry was trying to end the international sanctions against Iraq by asserting that many Iraqis were dying from hunger, disease, or cancer caused by spent U.S. depleted-uranium shells remaining from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In 2000, Lafta authored at least two brief articles contending that U.N. sanctions had caused many deaths by starvation among Iraqi children."

"It seems likely that Lafta--a former Saddam Hussein official--has been faking his research ever since the first Gulf War in 1991."

are something that I would like to expand upon. I am hoping that you subscribe to comments on your comment. Thank you.

Roger Helbig
rwhelbig at gee mail dot com

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 4:10:00 am  

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