Feb. 4, 2009 -- 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.
In AAPOR's statement, its president, Richard A. Kulka, said: "When researchers draw important conclusions and make public statements and arguments based on survey research, then subsequently refuse to answer even basic questions about how their research was conducted, this violates the fundamental standards of science, seriously undermines open public debate on critical issues, and undermines the credibility of all survey and public opinion research."
The inquiry by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School was disclosed in an e-mail from Tim Parsons, the school's public affairs director, as follows:
"The level of civilian mortality in Iraq is a controversial subject. Questions have been raised regarding the findings and methodology of the 2006 Iraq mortality study conducted by Dr. Gilbert Burnham and published in The Lancet. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health takes any allegation of scientific or professional misconduct very seriously. It believes that the correct forum for discussing the reported findings of the Lancet study and the general methodology that led to those findings is in the regular exchange of views in the scientific literature. The Bloomberg School of Public Health has undertaken a review of the study to determine if any violation of the school's rules or guidelines for the conduct of research occurred in the conduct of the study. That review is nearing completion and the school is unable to discuss the results at this time."
Parsons added: "The American Association for Public Opinion Researchers (sic) chose to criticize Dr. Burnham for failure to fully cooperate with the organization's review of his 2006 study. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is not a member of the organization and does not know what procedures or standards were followed in reaching the decision regarding this study and therefore is not in a position to comment on the decision."
Parsons declined to specify what initiated the school's review, or when it began.
Full disclosure: Gary Langer is a member of AAPOR and past president of its New York chapter.