Information Warfare: How the Lancet Cooked the Numbers


October 22, 2006: The recent survey, published in the British medical journal, "The Lancet," claiming over 650,000 civilian deaths due to the liberation of Iraq, was quickly labeled propaganda, not science. Is the survey accurate? The answer is, apparently not. The survey is widely out of sync with casualty counts by other organizations, and by a wide margin. A 2004 study by the same authors claimed 100,000 civilian casualties - a survey at odds with one done by the United Nations at the same time (which estimated 18,000 to 29,000 deaths). To compare this with other studies - the group Iraq Body Count only claims 49,000 civilian deaths, the Brookings Institution reports 62,000, and the Los Angeles Times has reported 50,000 civilian deaths since the liberation of Iraq.

The Lancet survey, conducted by researchers from the American Johns Hopkins University, used a method that is generally acceptable for use in developing countries. This method involves the use of cluster points - interviews with a number of households (usually 10 to 40) in a given neighborhood in that country. This survey apparently only used 47 clusters of 40 people each, for roughly 1,800 people. The 2004 Johns Hopkins study used a grand total of 33 cluster points. This is a very small sample when compared to those of other surveys, which have used far more cluster points. For instance, the 2004 UN survey used 2,200 cluster points. The following year, a group of media outlets used 135 cluster points for their study. A survey in Kosovo used 50 cluster points for a population that was less than 6 percent of Iraq's. A 1992 Harvard study of Iraq used 271 cluster points. A survey of the Congo cited by the authors of the Johns Hopkins study used 750 cluster points.

Another sign this number is off is the fact that it implies that, on average, hundreds of civilians per day have been killed since the liberation of Iraq. Not even the mainstream media has reported death tolls that high. One recently reported "surge in violence" involved a total of 110 people killed in a two-day span. That is an average of 55 people killed per day - which would imply a total of roughly 72,000 civilian deaths (somewhat higher the Brookings Institution estimate).

Something else that has been ignored is the fact that in the past, false claims of massacres and a high death toll have occurred. One such example was the alleged massacre in Jenin. Palestinians claimed that over 500 civilians were killed. Later investigations revealed that the death toll was 52 - 30 of whom were Palestinian terrorists from various groups (including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the al-Asqa Martyrs Brigade).

The small samples and the past history of exaggerated casualty counts have not stopped numerous opponents of the liberation of Iraq, like Greg Mitchell of " Editor and Publisher" (a publication geared towards the media), from citing the study - and attacking those who have questioned it. In this case, a highly questionable figure has been seized upon, and is now being bandied about - while the flaws have been ignored. Another favorite subject at " Editor and Publisher" is, "why don't people trust the media." Here is a case where the answer is closer than the editors of " Editor and Publisher" would like to admit. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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