Not Saussure

October 25, 2006

Keeping a sense of perspective about Iraq deaths

Filed under: Iraq, Opinion polls, press — notsaussure @ 7:31 pm

The First Post has a piece, extracted from a longer article at Media Lens, about the way The Lancet study of civilian deaths in Iraq was pretty much buried by the British media; they have a telling statistic of their own:

A Media Lens database search of British newspapers (October 20) says it all. Our search found that the words ‘Jack Straw’ and ‘veil’ had been mentioned in 422 articles over the previous nine days. The words ‘Madonna’ and ‘adoption’ had been mentioned in 312 articles. The words ‘Iraq’ and ‘Lancet’ had been mentioned in just 53 articles across the entire British press.

The longer article provides an impressive list of statisticians and polling companies whose comments on the study’s methodology confirm that the only people who find it contentious are politicians who don’t want to believe the figure of 655,000 killed.    They also observe that these same politicians who complain about ‘extrapolating from small samples’ are perfectly happy to pay for polling companies to do just that (though when the figures go against them, of course ‘the only poll that matters is the one on election day’).

Or, as Daniel Davies put it in The Guardian,

There was a sample of 12,801 individuals in 1,849 households, in 47 geographical locations. That is a big sample, not a small one. The opinion polls from Mori and such which measure political support use a sample size of about 2,000 individuals, and they have a margin of error of +/- 3%. If Margaret Beckett looks at the Labour party’s rating in the polls, she presumably considers this to be reasonably reliable, so she should not contribute to public ignorance by allowing her department to disparage "small samples extrapolated to the whole country". […]

If a Mori poll puts the Labour party on 40% support, then we know that there is some inaccuracy in the poll, but we also know that there is basically zero chance that the true level of support is 2% or 96%, and for the Lancet survey to have delivered the results it did if the true body count is 60,000 would be about as improbable as this. Anyone who wants to dispute the important conclusion of the study has to be prepared to accuse the authors of fraud, and presumably to accept the legal consequences of doing so.

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