Friday, October 13, 2006

Another Lancet lot

Here’s the concluding remarks of Roberts et al in the first Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey report of 2004, a passage which lays bare the devilish political agenda of the authors:

US General Tommy Franks is widely quoted as saying “we don’t do body counts”. The Geneva Conventions have clear guidance about the responsibilities of occupying armies to the civilian population they control... In particular, Convention IV, Article 27 states that protected persons “...shall be at all times humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against acts of violence...”. It seems difficult to understand how a military force could monitor the extent to which civilians are protected against violence without systematically doing body counts or at least looking at the kinds of casualties they induce. This survey shows that with modest funds, 4 weeks, and seven Iraqi team members willing to risk their lives, a useful measure of civilian deaths could be obtained. There seems to be little excuse for occupying forces to not be able to provide more precise tallies. In view of the political importance of this conflict, these results should be confirmed by an independent body such as the ICRC, Epicentre, or WHO. In the interim, civility and enlightened self-interest demand a re-evaluation of the consequences of weaponry now used by coalition forces in populated areas.

Lancet editor Richard Horton editorialises along the same lines in the current edition.

Meanwhile anyone watching ABC-TV’s Lateline last night will have seen this performance by General George Casey, the US Commander in Iraq:

CASEY: I have not seen the study; that 650,000 number seems way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000 and so I don’t give that much credibility at all.

REPORTER: The 50,000 number, where did you see that from?

CASEY: I don’t remember, but I have seen it over time.

Is Casey’s 50 thousand ‘credible’? Did he “see” it recently? That’s 20,000 above the 30,000 the President ‘estimated’ last December, ten months ago, representing an additional 2,000 deaths per month. Is that ‘credible’?

REPORTER: That ... is that a US military estimate?

CASEY: I don’t remember where I saw it. It’s either from the Iraqi Government or us, but I don’t remember precisely. ... We count what the enemy does for our own purposes so we can make some judgments and assessments on the enemy and then we report that and people say that’s the measure of your success. We count everything from a rifle shot to a car bomb as part of those totals.

I have to say that the methodology, as outlined by Casey, seems less than ‘credible’. So, are we now to understand that the Pentagon does do body counts? So, why hasn’t the Pentagon publicly released its own assessments to counter the Lancet’s purportedly suspect figures?

I could be wrong, but it’s just possible that these people aren’t remotely interested in accurate assessments of civilian losses.

Goat Friday

... And Goats Might Fly ...
(photoshoppery by jacob)

Previous Goat Friday
Three Goats of the Apocalypse

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Out-of-whackness denounced

Prime Minister John Howard reacts to the new Lancet study of mortality in post-invasion Iraq:

John Howard: Well, I don’t believe that John Hopkins research, I don’t. It’s not plausible, it’s not based on anything other than a house-to-house survey. I think that’s absolutely precarious.

It is a ... an unbelievably large number and it’s out of whack with most of the other assessments that have been made.

So the problem seems to be that the Lancet study is “out of whack with most of the other assessments”. The interviewing journo either wasn’t competent or didn’t bother to press the PM on the reasons for the apparent out-of-whackness, namely, differing time-frames, methodologies, etc.

I can’t imagine what the PM’s problem with house-to-house surveys might be. Perhaps it’s the association with ordinary people that alarms him.

More importantly, Mr Howard is clearly quite ignorant of the fact that the main assessment usually cited, the UNDP Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004, was based on a house-to-house survey.

Lancet-friendly media critiqued

Applied Hermeneutics’ token right-wing commentator, Piers Bolt, looks at the early state of play in the statistical wars...

In another pungent critique of the latest Lancet study of mortality in post-invasion Iraq, Tim Blair observes:

Lancet came up with [654,965 excess Iraqi deaths] via a survey that identified precisely 547 deaths (as reported by the New York Times). Interestingly, that information doesn’t appear here, or here, or here ...

The links are to articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age in Melbourne, and The Guardian in the UK.

Blasted left-wing media!!

And to add to this grievous factual parsimony, interestingly the 547 figure also is not mentioned in News Corps’ The Australian here and here.

Blasted right-wing media!!!

Ooh, er ... hang on, that needs a little refinement. Um ... Blasted insidious left-leaning unconscious bias in an otherwise pre-eminent and balanced publication!! Yes, that’s it.

As for the mention in the liberal pansy socialist New York Times, well that just had to be an aberration. I reckon.

Previously by Piers Bolt
A leftie society is a girlie society
Nigel Kennedy’s existential crisis over Iraq
Lefties of the world, go f--k yourselves

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


A new study on mortality in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been published in The Lancet, available as a pdf file from here.

The authors conclude that “as of July, 2006, there have been 654,965 (392,979–942,636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war”.

Of course, these findings have been hotly debated since the study was first reported earlier today (AEST), for example here and here.

One wonders if the Coalition of the Willing leadership now regrets having made the decision not to “do body counts” of civilian losses from this war. It might have helped them to have had their own ‘authoritative’ figure with which to counter such unauthorised ones.

211th planetish object discovered

The discovery of planets beyond our solar system apparently continues apace. The latest is the discovery, a paltry 10.5 light years away, of a “Jupiter-sized world” orbiting Epsilon Eridani (which Trekkies will know as the home system of Mr Spock).

But what I want to know is: How many of these cosmic johnnie-come-latelies actually fit the IAU’s newly formulated criteria for what constitutes a planet?

Well, none of them actually, since the IAU has deemed that a planet, by definition, is “a celestial body that is in orbit around the Sun” (GA26-5 1(a)).

But, okay, allowing the definition to stand mutatis mutandis for objects in other solar systems, the issue then becomes one of how many of those 211 objects satisfy the two other criteria for planethood, namely...

(b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and

(c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

Given the limits of observation, one would think that further study of these objects would be required to settle those questions.

In the meantime, if astronomers want to refer to these planetish objects as ‘planets’, then the rest of us may be justified in continuing to refer to our beloved Pluto as our ninth planet.

As a final aside, it’s interesting that most of the so-called planets discovered beyond our solar system seem to be “Jupiter-sized”. Noting the recent demotion of Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’, one is tempted to ask: Do astronomers have some kind of unhealthy obsession about size?

UPDATE: Please Save Pluto petition currently has 1,165 signatures!

Related Previous Post
Pluto belongs to everyone

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tuesday can’t-believe-what-I’m-reading

According to this extract from Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, retired US General Jay Garner was appointed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to head the post-war planning group just before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The job was the result of a presidential directive and gave Garner “responsibility for all the tasks normally run by national, state and local governments.”

In a meeting with President Bush and his staff, Garner told them that, of the nine tasks assigned to his group, four of them were beyond the capabilities of his team, and should instead be assigned to the military. These tasks included defeating terrorists, reshaping the Iraqi military and reshaping the other internal Iraqi security institutions. The assembled luminaries nodded in apparent understanding, but Garner took away with him the impression that the issue of who would take up these tasks instead of his group was not being addressed.

Soon after Garner arrived in Iraq, the president’s envoy Paul Bremer arrived to head up the Coalition Provisional Authority, effectively sidelining Garner, who was back in the US by the June after the invasion.

Garner met with Rumsfeld to tell the Defence Secretary of the “three tragic decisions ... three terrible mistakes” Garner thought had been made in the aftermath of the invasion:

He cited the first two orders Bremer signed when he arrived, disbanding the Iraqi military and banning as many as 50,000 members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party from government jobs — effectively sending them underground. Now there were hundreds of thousands of disorganised, unemployed, armed Iraqis running around.

Third, Garner said, Bremer had summarily dismissed an interim Iraqi leadership group that had been eager to help the United States administer the country in the short term. “Jerry Bremer can’t be the face of the government to the Iraqi people. You’ve got to have an Iraqi face for the Iraqi people.”

Garner made his final point: “There’s still time to rectify this. There’s still time to turn it around.”

Rumsfeld looked at Garner for a moment with his take-no-prisoners gaze. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think there is anything we can do, because we are where we are.” ...

“They’re all reversible,” Garner said again.

“We’re not going to go back,” Rumsfeld said emphatically. ...

They then held a press conference at which Garner completely contradicted what he had privately told Rumsfeld, saying of Bremer: “I think all the things he’s doing are absolutely the right things.”

The two men later met with Bush, Cheney and Rice at the Whitehouse, during which none of Garner’s concerns were addressed in any way. Garner apparently made the conscious decision not to press those matters further, his reasoning being that, having reported his concerns to Rumsfeld, his boss, the ball was in Rumsfeld’s court.

As Woodward observes in this extract, those were “the three tragic mistakes we’re living with now.”

Tuesday book reading

After the expansive optimism of Frank J. Tipler in last week’s reading, we begin this week with a more sombre post-apocalyptic vision, in which our world ends not with a bang so much as a whimper.

Perhaps, after all, the little we knew of love may linger a few seasons in the wild pack that roams the final rubble of the cities. For a century or two the pack may lift its ears to a rockfall or sniff with lifted hair at a rain-worn garment that touches an old racial memory and sets tails to wagging expectantly. Some dim hand that they all feel but have never known will pass away imperceptibly. And when that influence is no longer felt nor remembered, then man will in truth be gone.

Eiseley was a lifelong insomniac, and probably a melancholic to boot. His prose works range from deeply philosophical to deeply personal. The personal stuff emerges usually in the form of vignettes strewn often at random through his work. In All the Strange Hours, his only ‘autobiographical’ work, he gives an account of a death-bed visit to his father:

Leo was the son of my father’s youth, of a first love who had perished in her springtime, and of whom my father could never bring himself to speak. I was born when father was forty, of a marriage that had never been happy. I was loved, but I was also a changeling, an autumn child surrounded by falling leaves. My brother who had been summoned was the one true son, not I. For him my father had come the long way back, if only for a moment.

  • Ch. 2, p. 13.

We learn of Eiseley’s rejection, as a child, of his “savage and stone-deaf” mother:

My comrades of the fields stood watching. I was ten years old by then. I sensed my status in this gang was at stake. I refused to come. I had refused a parental order that was arbitrary and uncalled for and, in addition, I was humiliated. My mother was behaving in the manner of a witch. She could not hear, she was violently gesticulating without dignity. ... And so in the end I broke my father’s injunction; I ran ... with the witch, her hair flying, her clothing disarrayed, stumbling after. Escape, escape, the first stirrings of the running man. Miles of escape.

  • Ch. 3, pp. 31-2.

The “running man” refers to Eiseley’s interlude as a Depression-era drifter, from which he emerged to a life of study in science. His book Darwin’s Century, although hard to find, remains a seminal work in the history and philosophy of those sciences formerly known under the umbrella of natural history.

But with knowledge comes great sorrow...

There is a sense in which the experimental method of science might be said merely to have widened the area of man’s homelessness.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Urban Dictionary wars

There seems to be some kind of internet cultural skirmish happening over the Urban Dictionary entry for Blair’s Law, which is apparently a principle coined by Australia’s own Tim Blair, and is broadly defined as “the ongoing process by which the world’s multiple idiocies are becoming one giant, useless force.”

Two different contributors have each posted what seem to be eminently worthy entries for Blair’s Law, but while one has been given an overwhelming thumbs-up, the other has been somewhat less favoured. Judge for yourselves here.