Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

UK officials believed, but still denied, the Iraq bodycount

Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007

The BBC reported yesterday that despite publicly rejecting the findings of the so-called Iraq study group, British officials had privately accepted them.

LONDON: British government officials backed the methodology used by scientists who concluded that more than 600,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported Monday.

The government publicly rejected the findings, published in The Lancet medical journal in October. But the BBC said documents obtained under freedom of information legislation showed advisers concluded that the much-criticized study had used sound methods.

I’m quoting from an AP account, which appeared in the International Tribune and elsewhere yesterday.

The conclusion, based on interviews of households and not a body count, was disputed by some experts, and rejected by the U.S. and British governments.

U.S. President George W. Bush said he did not consider it “a credible report,” and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said the study had extrapolated from an unrepresentative sample of the population.

However, the chief scientific adviser to the Defense Ministry, Roy Anderson, described the methods used in the study as “robust” and “close to best practice.”

A memo from Anderson’s office to senior officials, obtained by the BBC World Service, said the chief scientist “recommends caution in publicly criticizing the study.”

In another document, a government official — whose name has been blanked out — said “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.”

The “more than 600,000” figure is 655,000, which itself is a midpoint between the high and low figures in the study.

The researchers, reflecting the inherent uncertainties in such extrapolations, said they were 95 percent certain that the real number lay somewhere between 392,979 and 942,636 deaths.

I wrote about the body-count deniers earlier this month. That post didn’t discuss the deniers in the UK, about which a column by Richard Horton in today’s Guardian Unlimited offers some more detail:

Immediately after publication, the prime minister’s official spokesman said that The Lancet’s study “was not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate”. The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were “extrapolated” and a “leap”. President Bush said: “I don’t consider it a credible report”.

Scientists at the UK’s Department for International Development thought differently. They concluded that the study’s methods were “tried and tested”. Indeed, the Hopkins approach would likely lead to an “underestimation of mortality”.

The Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific advisor said the research was “robust”, close to “best practice”, and “balanced”. He recommended “caution in publicly criticising the study”.

When these recommendations went to the prime minister’s advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing Tony Blair wrote: “are we really sure that the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?” A Foreign Office official was forced to conclude that the government “should not be rubbishing The Lancet”.

The prime minister’s adviser finally gave in. He wrote: “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones”.

When government officials, in the UK or the U.S., know and accept scientific facts and still deny them, they undermine the scientific enterprise. When the subject at hand is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, their denials are unconscionable. When the denials are used to twist public policy toward sordid, deadly ends, it ought to be criminal.


2 Responses to “UK officials believed, but still denied, the Iraq bodycount”

  1. Damn you, Steven. Scooped again.

    What I thought was interesting about the revelation was the implication that the British science advisers were consulted about the study. It would be extremely interesting to know how far up the line the assessments of the study went and whether they were in response to queries from high ranking officials.

  2. Swanny said

    Who’s the Iraq Study group? So one guy says it’s legit so that means that all debate is over? OK, I would like to state once and for all that there’s no such thing as terrorism. Now that I’ve said it, it clearly has become a fact and there’s no point in talking about terrorism anymore. So let’s move on.

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