Misleading Numbers in the News

100,000 Iraqi Civilians Killed?

The number of Iraqi civilians killed since the war began has also recently been in the news. Published last month in the British journal Lancet, research conducted in Iraq by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and his associates attempts to estimate this number. To do so, the researchers surveyed the civilian war deaths in 33 clusters of 30 households each. The clusters were randomly selected from across the country. Projecting these neighborhoods' higher death rate since the war onto the country as a whole, they argued that the number of civilians killed since the war is approximately 100,000, more specifically 101,000 plus or minus 93,000; i.e, somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000. Most of these civilian deaths, the study maintains, have been caused by American air attacks.

There are reasons to be skeptical (but not dismissive) of the 100,000 figure. One, of course, is that the interval is quite large reflecting the sample size and study design. Given the conditions in Iraq, the samples were not only small, but sometimes not quite random either. When one selected neighborhood cluster couldn't be visited, say because of blocked roads, another was substituted. (Fallujah was excluded as being clearly unrepresentative.) Furthermore, some of the study's assumptions were less than certain. The 100,000 figure depends crucially on a comparison of the death rate before and after the invasion, and there have been claims that the researchers pegged the pre-invasion rate too low. The number also depends on truthful reporting by the distraught families involved since a death certificate was often not available.

Even if the number of civilians killed is not as large as the Lancet study suggests, the number is no doubt bigger than the figure reported by Iraq Body Count. IBC is a group of British researchers who compile as extensive a list of Iraqi civilians killed as they can from published reports, hospital records, and morgue reports. They doublecheck and otherwise fully document the names and associated details of those killed, but miss those whose names don't make it into the papers or onto hospital or morgue lists. Their list contains approximately 15,000 names.

So what's the real number? Despite the brave efforts of the Lancet researchers, my guess, and it's only that, is that the number is somewhat more than the IBC's confirmed total, but considerably less than the Lancet figure of 100,000. Interestingly, the number of civilians said to have been killed by Saddam Hussein during his long reign is usually put at 300,000, and this number too is probably overstated, since only a small fraction of these have appeared in mass graves.

There are many more numbers to deconstruct, most of them much less depressing than the last example, but doing so is strenous work, and I'll need to take some vitamin E to keep going. Oops, that's another story -- and another number.

-- Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books, including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His Who's Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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