In a highly unusual rebuke, the American Association for Public Opinion Research today said the author of a widely debated survey on "excess deaths" in Iraq had violated its code of professional ethics by refusing to disclose details of his work. The author's institution later disclosed to ABC News that it, too, is investigating the study.
AAPOR, in a statement, said that in an eight-month investigation, Gilbert Burnham, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "repeatedly refused to make public essential facts about his research on civilian deaths in Iraq."
Hours later, the school itself disclosed its own investigation of the Iraq casualties report "to determine if any violation of the school's rules or guidelines for the conduct of research occurred." It said the review "is nearing completion."
Both AAPOR and the school said they had focused on Burnham's study, published in the October 2006 issue of the British medical journal the Lancet, reporting an estimated 654,965 "excess deaths" in Iraq as a result of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. An earlier, 2004 report, in which Burnham also participated, estimated approximately 98,000 excess deaths to that point.
In its original news release on the 2006 study, the Lancet said, "The mortality survey used well-established and scientifically proven methods for measuring mortality and disease in populations." Today, Tony Kirby, the Lancet's press officer, said in an e-mail to ABC News: "The Lancet is making no comment."
Burnham did not reply to e-mail and telephone messages.
AAPOR's standards committee chair, Mary E. Losch, said the association, acting on a member's complaint, had formally requested from Burnham "basic information about his survey, including, for example, the wording of questions he used, instructions and explanations that were provided to respondents, and a summary of the outcomes for all households selected as potential participants in the survey."
Losch said Burnham gave some partial answers but "explicitly refused to provide complete information about the basic elements of his research."
Burnham is not a member of AAPOR, a 2,200-member professional organization of public opinion and other survey researchers in the United States. It last levied a charge of ethics violation for non-disclosure 12 years ago against public opinion researcher Frank Luntz.
Both Iraq casualty studies were widely debated at the time of their release, shortly before U.S. elections. The 2004 report was released Oct. 29, just before that year's presidential election; an Associated Press report at the time said the lead author, Les Roberts, had described himself as anti-war and said he'd insisted the study be released in advance of the election to prompt debate on the subject. The 2006 lead author, Burnham, said he had no political motivations: "We do this from science."
Questions about the studies have included the sampling approach, the estimate of baseline deaths (necessary to compute an "excess" figure) and the sheer level of deaths reported – in 2006, the equivalent of more than 500 a day for more than three years, far outstripping other estimates.