Newspaper Watch: Lancet loses to Lord of the Dance

  • 18 October 2006
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For the last five years, US foreign policy in the Middle East has been the international issue which has garnered the most media attention – with the invasion and occupation of Iraq being the obvious focus for most of the coverage. On Wednesday 12 October, the Lancet published the results of an epidemiological study into excess deaths in Iraq. It examined the death rate, in the periods before and after the invasion, in 1,819 randomly selected households. It found that the increase in the death rate of the Iraqi population since the US invasion is such that approximately 650,000 people have died since the invasion who would otherwise be alive today. In the five days following its publication, its shocking findings were reported in three articles in Irish broadsheets, all tucked away on the inside pages while weightier matters such as Michael Flatley's wedding grabbed the front pages.

Both the Irish Times and the Independent carried short articles which summarised the report's findings and contrasted them with other estimates. The Examiner covered the report in an article which was primarily devoted to a different study, carried out by the Iraqi government. The article described how the Lancet's "controversial study" had "quickly raised scepticism among some Iraq experts" and devoted twice as much space to the dismissals of George Bush and his officials as it did to the report itself. Other than that, nothing at all. Not a single editorial writer or columnist thought it significant enough to merit a comment in any of the Irish broadsheet dailies or Sunday papers. The overall impression in the media was that the report was not particularly significant in the grand scheme of things.

In reality, the Lancet study actually provided an answer to one of the great unknowns of the debate over Iraq. It detailed the human cost of the invasion. It did so in a way that is rigorously scientific. It applied the tried and trusted methodologies of epidemiology, which have such a strong track record that their utility is beyond question. It was published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world and would have been peer-reviewed by some of the world's leading epidemiologists. Unlike the various "body-count" figures issued by government and media sources, it did not ignore non-combat deaths caused by the invasion. Thus, for example, it counted deaths caused by the destruction of hospitals and water-treatment plants as well as those killed by airstrikes and car-bombs.

There has only been one other scientific study into mortality in Iraq before, carried out in 2004 by the same authors and also published by the Lancet. That study was widely attacked by supporters of the war who pointed out that it was "just an estimate" and focused on its wide margin of error.

Despite the fact that these attacks were mostly just propagandistic appeals to the public's scientific ignorance, they were sufficently voluminous to cast doubt on the figures in the minds of many. The Irish media, for example, has almost universally continued to use mortality figures which are compiled in laughably unscientific ways in preference to the Lancet's earlier findings, despite the fact that such epidemiological studies are accepted without question as the most accurate mortality figure in all other modern conflicts, such as Darfur and Congo. p