Noam Chomsky once observed:
“If you are not offending people who ought to be offended, you’re doing something wrong.”
One indication that the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project is doing something wrong is that it is deemed, not merely inoffensive, but is eagerly embraced by people who really ought to be offended.
Consider Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt, described by John Pilger as “the lowest of journalism’s low, an extreme right wing and aggressively idiotic member of Murdoch’s dominant press group in Australia”. (Email to Media Lens, April 4, 2006)
Bolt’s recent article, ‘Body of evidence,’ provides a jaw-dropping display of propaganda. Bolt asserts, for example, that Saddam Hussein “claimed on average between 90 and 120 victims each day. Every day. For 24 years. That’s three or four times higher than the daily deaths in fighting in Iraq today”. (Bolt, ‘Body of evidence,’ Herald Sun, March 22, 2006; http://www.heraldsun.news.com.au/printpage/0,5481,18552865,00.html)
While this is sheer fantasy, Bolt +does+ accurately cite IBC’s maximum tally for reported civilian deaths by mid-March – 37,800 – to make his point:
“It is a shocking loss of life, but see how many more Saddam killed or ordered to their death each day.”
Elsewhere, a Media Lens reader challenged one G. Jefferson Price III – an editor at the Baltimore Sun – on his reference to the claim that there have been “about 35,000 Iraqi dead” (http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0404-21.htm). Our reader suggested to Jefferson Price that, assuming IBC had been the source of his figure, he should be aware that IBC’s methodology and figures have been subject to challenge. Jefferson Price responded:
“Thank you for your note. I will definitely take that into account the next time. I’ve used the 35,000 figure because that is the lowest number but still, tragically, too high.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, April 6, 2006)
One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry! Instead, we asked Jefferson Price why he felt the need to choose “the lowest number” – we received no reply.
Sometimes the use of IBC’s figures borders on the surreal. The website of the Liberal Democrat party – which proudly proclaims its opposition to the war – currently features this comment:
“Well over 15,000 Iraqi civilians have died, and thousands more injured – in military operations and the ensuing insurgency. (Figures correct to February 16th 2006.)” (http://www.libdems.org.uk/internationalaffairs/issues/iraq.html)
When challenged, a Lib Dem press person pleaded ignorance other than to say “the number comes from a site on the
internet”. (Email from Gabriele Zamparini, April 7, 2006)
It certainly does – it comes from IBC in early December 2004 – some 16 months ago!
These uses of IBC’s figures give the lie to the website’s sole substantive response to criticisms we have made in our Media Alerts. The comments appear on page 14 of a recent addition to their website:
“Somewhat more surprising are approaches to our work from some sectors of the political left, who take the difference between our total and that of the ‘Lancet study’ to indicate that we are witting or unwitting lackeys of the Pentagon in helping them massage the figures downwards: (See, for instance, ‘Paved with Good Intentions: Iraq Body Count’ (David Edwards, Medialens.org, January 25 2006). We are particularly surprised at this line of argument, because all but a handful of media commentaries use our figures – appropriately – as a means of highlighting the tragedy of the civilian death toll, rather than to engage in a comparison between different estimates.” (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/onibc/)
This is truly shocking. First, comparisons are extremely common. Consider recent comments made by Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news:
“The Lancet study is a snapshot taken more than 18 months ago and though the methodology has been widely acknowledged as standard, there has been argument about whether the sampling method is the most appropriate for this kind of survey… I have also consulted our specialist in our analysis and research department and we conclude that the best source is probably the Iraq Body Count website.” (Email to Media Lens, March 31, 2006)
Second, as the Bolt and Lib Dem examples indicate, any number of politicians and journalists, particularly of the pro-war variety, have leapt on IBC’s figures precisely to +downplay+ the tragedy of the civilian death toll. They are using the lowest number they can find to suggest, for example, that the results of the invasion have been far less severe than the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power.
As Stephen Soldz has commented: “That IBC misses this elementary point is quite disturbing. I would have to put on my psychoanalyst hat to speculate as to why this is the case.” (Soldz, ‘Iraq Body Count replies to critics but ignores criticism,’ March 29, 2006; http://psychoanalystsopposewar.org/blog/2006/03/29/iraq-body-count-replies-to-critics-but-ignores-criticism/)
“Run By Amateurs” – A Professional Epidemiologist Speaks
IBC insist that they do not have the resources to challenge the use and abuse of their figures by incompetents and cynics in the media. Even accepting this argument at face value, questions remain.
Is the IBC project characterised by flaws and oversights that have helped make it serviceable to power? Is it in fact right for IBC to present itself as a rigorously scientific enterprise? Could it be much more scientific, much more professional, and as a result less open to cynical use and abuse? Could its propaganda value be, in part, the result of IBC personnel being scientifically out of their depth?
One of the world’s leading professional epidemiologists, who has chosen to speak anonymously, has this to say:
“IBC is run by amateurs. It is easy to calculate the sensitivity of their surveillance system. They would take another list or independent sample, and see the fraction of that sample that appeared in their data base. I have asked them to do this over a year ago, they have not.
“There are other databases out there (NCCI being the most complete), they could do a capture-recapture analysis (as lots of experts have been calling for) and see how many people have died but they have not.
“Attached is a graph [not included here] of deaths in Guatemala from 1960 to 1995 put together by Patrick Ball at UC Berkeley. Murders are with the black line, the % reported in the press with the dashed line. Note, when violence goes up, reporting in the press goes down. I have calibrated surveillance systems during times of war (always in Africa admittedly) and would be astonished if their system could capture 50% of deaths.
“In Saddam’s time, morgues + hospital reports + death certificates reported to the central Gov. only accounted for about 1/3 of the deaths that must have been occurring in Iraq. There have now been 15,000 excess violent deaths just in the Baghdad Morgues! If Baghdad is about 1/5th of the country, and the morgues do not capture all deaths, what does this imply… the UNDP number (more than twice IBC at the time it was done) is known by the authors to be an underestimate and was based on a couple of questions out of a long (88 min.?) interview.” (Email to Media Lens, March 23, 2006)
What does it tell us that, according to this leading epidemiologist, the organisation providing the most commonly cited figures for civilian deaths in Iraq – one of the most important political issues of our time – is “run by amateurs”?
How many journalists are aware that IBC is not in fact run by professional epidemiologists? What would we say if, in discussing climate change, politicians and journalists consistently highlighted information supplied by a group deemed by professional climate scientists to be “amateurs”?
And why have the amateurs at IBC not responded to elementary suggestions made by professional experts in the field to test the accuracy of their surveillance system? Why were the two suggestions described above not pursued? Why is the graph of deaths in Guatemala not available on the IBC site and its implications for the project explored? What, again, would we say of amateur climate researchers who failed to respond to such obvious suggestions and points made by eminent, professional climate scientists?
We asked IBC co-founder John Sloboda (April 6) if it was true that IBC had not responded to the above suggestions. Sloboda responded:
Thanks for your letter.
Unfortunately the events of the last three months have convinced us that direct correspondence with you is unproductive. We’ve said it before, and we say it again, though we do so with regret.
John Sloboda (April 7, 2006)
Isn’t it clear that none of the above questions have been investigated or deemed to matter by our media for the simple reason that powerful interests care so much about the dead of Iraq? That is, they care deeply that the true number of dead be +obscured+ as far as possible. Isn’t it clear that this is why the lowest suggested tally for Iraqi dead – however flawed, however amateurish – has sailed effortlessly through the propaganda filters and biases protecting the powerful?
One remarkable consequence is that IBC is able to pass judgement on the work of leading experts in the field. The November 2004 report estimating 100,000 excess civilian deaths was produced by some of the world’s premier research organisations – the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Columbia University, and Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University – and published in the prestigious science journal, The Lancet, following an intensive peer-review process. And yet it is of this report that the amateurs at IBC declared in March:
“We have little confidence in the estimates based on the Lancet study and recent extrapolations, for the reasons explained. We think that the UNDP study offers a more reliable estimate for the period covered by the Lancet, and one which is not inconsistent with the type of data we have gathered. (para 6.0 a of ‘On IBC’).”
This was written by John Sloboda, a professor of psychology at the University of Keele, described on his university website as “internationally known for his work on the psychology of music” (http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/ps/jasbiog.htm). The second author is listed as Hamit Dardagan, described on the IBC site as “a freelance researcher currently working in London. He has made an in-depth study of the research methods of Professor Marc Herold, who pioneered a media-based methodology for estimating civilian deaths in the Afghan war of 2001-2″. (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/contacts.php)
A Shame Becoming Shameful – John Pilger Challenges John Sloboda
On March 15, in response to our earlier Media Alerts, John Pilger wrote to John Sloboda:
I hope this finds you well. Congratulations on the good work IBC did in the early days when others shied away from the subject of civilian deaths in Iraq. How times have changed and, as one who has read most of the studies on civilian deaths, I am puzzled why you and your colleagues do not engage in the vital debate initiated by Media Lens, whose good faith and integrity I can personally vouch for. There is no doubt in my mind that the issue of the civilian slaughter is one of those that can end the suffering in Iraq. In my experience of war, silence will prolong it.
“I intend to write about this, and I urge you and your colleagues to engage the crucial questions raised by Media Lens.
All good wishes
John Pilger (March 15, 2006)
Thanks for this. Your position is understood.
Before you write anything, I wonder if you would do us the courtesy of reading our most recent article, which went up on our web site today. the direct link is http://www.iraqbodycount.org/onibc/
If you want to print it out to read on paper, there is a pdf button near the bottom of the first page.
A number of people have written to us as a result of the Media Lens pieces. We are sending them the reply below [not included here], which you may also find of interest.
John (March 16, 2006)
Pilger wrote again on March 16:
I did you the courtesy, as you suggested, and read your “presentation” to a conference. It answers none of the questions raised about IBC’s appropriation by defenders of the Iraq invasion, including George W. Bush.
Neither do the other pieces you recommend to people who write to the IBC. Why do you waste time and not answer valid criticisms? This surely suggests something concealed. And who is the “highly respected” member of the anti war movement [mentioned in Sloboda's reply]? There are plenty of similar voices who support the Democrats’ position in the US or hope Blair will see the light. This anonymous person also apparently disapproves of a public debate, preferring a quiet word between Media Lens and IBC, which the public would not know about. Such a shame becoming shameful.
Sloboda responded the same day:
Your gratuitous slur on our anonymous correspondent is offensive, inaccurate and misplaced . We have, of course, passed it straight to him, and he must act as he sees fit.
With the greatest of respect, but I do believe that we have responded to the main thrust of the Media Lens attack against us through the materials now on our site as well as previous correspondence with Media Lens. Can I walk you through this? And then perhaps you could clarify what are these “pretty straightforward” questions asked by Media Lens which you claim not to be answered by what follows.
Sloboda then pasted a presentation from the website, including:
“100,000 OR MORE DEAD?
“1. We have little confidence in the estimates based on the Lancet study and recent extrapolations, for the reasons explained. We think that the UNDP study offers a more reliable estimate for the period covered by the Lancet, and one which is not inconsistent with the type of data we have gathered. (para 6.0 a of “On IBC”)
“2. Thus, the Lancet is not strong evidence for a massive deficit in accounting for war deaths (although this does mean there is not any deficit – just that the Lancet doesn’t show what that deficit is).”
The rest of the presentation can be read here: http://www.iraqbodycount.net/onibc/
Sloboda then concluded his email thus:
In the light of all this, only those who wish to deliberately misrepresent us can possibly doubt where we are coming from.
We believe that public attacks on one sector of the anti-war movement towards another are completely counterproductive. By attacking our work, you will be giving a gift to the war camp. We do sincerely hope you do not contribute further to Media Lens’ campaign against us
John Sloboda. (March 16, 2006)
Finally, Pilger wrote (March 17):
Talk of a “gratuitous slur” on the anonymous person you quoted is silly. I wonder how many “respected” anti war figures speaking across the world tomorrow would be willing to put their names to supporting IBC’s current confused position. Having tied yourself to the media coverage of Iraq — useful at the start of the invasion — you are now trapped within its discredited Green Zone, so to speak.
Instead of attacking The Lancet report, which, as you well know, was drawn from a rigorous, transparent and brave academic study (by the way, it’s you who are doing the “attacking”; Media Lens seemed to me merely to be raising crucial and, I repeat, straightforward questions which you have declined to answer), you could have included IBC in an overdue public debate; but you have chosen not to.
What is beyond doubt is that IBC’s “conservative” figures have provided an utterly false impression of the degree of suffering in Iraq and handed a propaganda tool back to your sources. No one suggests you and your colleagues intended this. As I said in an earlier message, I admired IBC’s initiative; but you ought to be setting the record straight now; reflecting merely the media coverage makes no sense and is wrong.
It all reminds me of how the number of victims of the embargo in the 1990s was measured and distorted and conveniently minimised — so that today this horrific episode has been largely written from recent history.
Yours, as ever
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to IBC co-founder John Sloboda
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George Monbiot at the Guardian
Peter Barron, editor of BBC’s Newsnight
Paul Reynolds, the BBC’s World Affairs correspondent
John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman
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