01 March 2007

Letter to Nature re: Death toll in Iraq: survey team takes on its critics

The latest edition to Nature has an article by Jim Giles "Death toll in Iraq: survey team takes on its critics" (1 free view then subscription required).

Here is my e-mail to the Editor:

Dear Philip Campbell,

I have just read the article authored by Jim Giles in the latest edition of Nature. In it, he gives substantial space to the views of "researchers" such as "Madelyn Hicks, a psychiatrist at King's College London" and "Michael Spagat, an expert in conflict studies at Royal Holloway, University of London", who have both "published criticisms of the study's methodology". The first regarding "whether the interviews could have been done in the time stated", the latter regarding "main-street bias".

I am writing to you to ask if your publication made any checks as to why these two researchers should be so interested in challenging the Lancet figures? So interested in fact that Spagat has dedicated a whole section of the Royal Holloway Dept of Economics web page entirely to this issue and even published a research paper ("Bias in epidemiological studies of conflict mortality") on the subject. Is this purely scholarly interest? I believe not and my own research has lead me to this conclusion.

Prof. Michael Spagat (along with the co-author of his Bias 'paper - Prof. Neil Johnson) is an "academic visitor" to CERAC. Madelyn Hicks is a "research associate" for CERAC.

CERAC is the "Conflict Analysis Resource Centre, a private research organization specialized in data-intensive studies of conflict and criminal violence. Based in Bogotá, Colombia, CERAC was established in December 2004 by an international and multidisciplinary group of researchers."

CERAC is according to Spagat himself "the brainchild of my infinitely energetic and entreprenuerial PhD student, Jorge Restrepo" and Spagat further describes CERAC as "a think tank that we have set up in Bogota specializing in the analysis of conflict and violence".

CERAC has compiled its own Integrated Data Set for Iraq, the CERAC Integrated Iraq Dataset (CIID). According to Spagat et al "The CIID builds on the event description from three datasets that monitor violence in Iraq: Iraq Body Count (IBC), iCasualties and ITERATE." Prof. Mike Spagat is one of the co-authors (along with the aforementioned Prof. Neil Johnson) of the research paper called "Universal patterns underlying ongoing wars and terrorism" which uses the CIID. The Dept. of Economics at the Royal Holloway, University of London, also uses IBC in its country specific datasets.

To summarise, both Hicks and Spagat have connections to CERAC, both CERAC and Spagat's Dept. of Economics base their research on figures provided by Iraq Body Count. This leads me to believe that there is a conflict of interest here.

Iraq Body Count has been in the forefront of attacks on the Lancet study. On 16 October 2006 Iraq Body Count issued a Press Release: "Reality checks: some responses to the latest Lancet estimates" by Hamit Dardagan, John Sloboda, and Josh Dougherty. In it IBC state "In the light of such extreme and improbable implications, a rational alternative conclusion to be considered is that the authors have drawn conclusions from unrepresentative data."

On 21 October 2006, an international group of eminent epidemiologists and other Public Health researchers published a letter in the Melbourne Age in which they stated that "the study was undertaken by respected researchers assisted by one of the world's foremost biostatisticians. Its methodology is sound and its conclusions should be taken seriously."

On 23 October 2006, John Sloboda, IBC's director, sent an e-mail to many (if not all) the signatories of that letter, pointing to IBC's own attack and the further attack in Science which used the arguments put forward by Spagat, Johnson, Hicks - the CERAC group, and challenging the signatories "how, in particular, you would defend the study against these criticisms which we, and many others, believe cast serious doubt on the author's claims that the study's results can validly be extrapolated to provide a meaningful estimate for the whole of Iraq."

Why has IBC been at the forefront of attacks on the Lancet Study? One doesn't need to be a scientist to understand this. If the Lancet figures are correct, then IBC figures are quite simply a gross undercount, not surprising given the chaotic conditions in Iraq and IBC's own methodology, which relies on 'reported deaths'. Indeed, IBC states on its own web page (click on the Quick-FAQ link on the Home page) "Our maximum therefore refers to reported deaths - which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war."

And the CERAC group, Hicks, Spagat, et al? They have spent a lot of time and energy producing research papers for their specific Universities and for CERAC, using IBC data. If IBC figures are wrong, and the Lancet figures are correct, then the conclusions reached in these research papers and indeed any other that used the IBC figures, could be seriously compromised.

Consequently, IBC, Spagat and Hicks all have a vested interest in seeing that the Lancet report is discredited. On 03 November 2006, I e-mailed Dr. Hicks with the same informaton and asked for her comments. I am still waiting for a reply.

Curiously, the overwhelming opinion of scientists in the field of bio-statistics support the Lancet study, yet politicians such as Bush, Blair, Howard rubbished it the day it came out, and the further criticisms have come from 'interested' quarters. The attacks on the Lancet study appear to be political, not scientific, and I would be interested to hear your comments on this matter.

Yours Sincerely,

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