Separation

We talk often about the constitutionally mandated separation of Church and State, and generally consider it to be a good thingTM. Well, ok. Sometimes we misunderstand the reasons it’s supposed to be a good thing, but we accept the notion nonetheless.

But after reading this I’m considering starting a nationwide movement for a constitutional change to mandate separation of Science and State. First, some history.

Three weeks before the 2006 elections, a study was released in the British medical journal,The Lancet, that indicated there were in excess of 650,000 deaths of Iraqi civilians attributable to the US military efforts there. This number was ten times greater than the official government estimates of civilian deaths, and caused quite a stir.

How to explain the enormous discrepancy between The Lancet’s estimation of Iraqi war deaths and those from studies that used other methodologies? For starters, the authors of the Lancet study followed a model that ensured that even minor components of the data, when extrapolated over the whole population, would yield huge differences in the death toll. Skeptical commentators have highlighted questionable assumptions, implausible data, and ideological lea! nings among the authors, Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, and Les Roberts.Some critics go so far as to suggest that the field research on which the study is based may have been performed improperly — or not at all. The key person involved in collecting the data — Lafta, the researcher who assembled the survey teams, deployed them throughout Iraq, and assembled the results — has refused to answer questions about his methods.

H/T to Instapundit.
How important and influential was this study? The 650,000 death-number was repeated again and again on network news, and used in the halls of Congress

Democrats who had opposed Bush’s Iraq campaign embraced the report. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for example, issued a statement saying that the “new study is a chilling and somber reminder of the unacceptably high human cost of this war…. We must not stay on the same failed course any longer.” Such remarks, amplified by myriad articles, broadcasts, and blogs, helped to cement Americans’ increasingly negative perceptions of the war. “For those who wanted to believe it, it gave them a new number to circulate, [and] it was a defining moment” in attitudes toward the war, said pollster John Zogby, who commended the report in a CNN interview.The Lancet II article was also publicized widely overseas, especially in the Middle East. One Al Jazeera pundit said that the study revealed “what is surely the greatest crime in human history.” A Pakistani columnist declared, “According to [the] highly reputed Lancet, an English science and medical journal, 650,000 Iraqis have been killed since the American invasion … to fulfill the imperial lust of Washington and its cohorts.”

Neil Munro and Carl M. Cannon at the National Journal bring up the possibility of scientific fraud in this study:

Surprisingly, not one of the peer reviewers seems to have thought to ask a basic question: Are the data in the two studies even true? The possibility of fakery, editor Horton told NJ, “did not come up in peer review.”! Medical journals can’t afford to repeat every scientific study, he said, because “if for every paper we published we had to think, ‘Is this fraud?’ … honestly, we would fold tomorrow.”In Belgium, Guha-Sapir’s team is completing a paper outlining numerous mathematical and procedural errors in the Lancet II article, and its corrections will likely lower the estimate of dead Iraqis to 450,000, even without consideration of possible fraud during the surveying, a source said.

Perhaps medical journals, like respected news organizations, will learn that they have to factor the possibility of wartime fraud into their fact-checking.

Today, the journal’s editor tacitly concedes discomfort with the Iraqi death estimates. “Anything [the authors] can do to strengthen the credibility of the Lancet paper,” Horton told NJ, “would be very welcome.”

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