The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent article following up on the Lancet study. That study is still basically unchallenged, by the way; however many epidemiologists you ask, they’re all going to give the same answer, that it was good science.
The Chronicle’s angle is on the strange fact that the Lancet appears to have shown that the Iraq War made an already horrible state of affairs much worse, and that nobody seems to think that this is something worth thinking about. There was a brief kerfuffle of interest around the time of publication, but other than that, the reaction of the world’s media to the fact that we spent $150bn on trying to help the Iraqis but did it so badly that we increased their death rate by over 50%, appears to be “ho hum”.
Les Roberts, the principal author, is going through long dark nights of the soul, wondering if it was a tactical mistake to request accelerated peer review and to have been so vocal about the US elections (btw, the Chronicle reiterates the point we made here earlier; that accelerated peer review is uncommon but by no means unknown with important papers). The Lancet editor Richard Horton refuses to comment, and well he might given that he wrote an entirely misleading summary of the paper which referred to “100,000 civilian deaths” when the paper did not make this distinction.
But there is no way on earth that I am going to write a comment harping on about this or that minor faux pas on the part of the authors.
Because the fundamental point that Roberts makes in the article is absolutely correct; it is a far greater disgrace that 100,000 people can be needlessly killed and everybody carries on as they were before. You don’t have to accept an entirely consequentialist view of wars to accept that the consequences of wars have to be relevant to assessing whether they’ve succeeded or not. The best evidence that we have is that the consequences of this one were bloody disastrous. And as far as I’m aware, the list of war supporters who have seriously engaged with the possibility that this war was a failure numbers two; Marc Mullholland and Norman Geras. Marc mentions the Lancet specifically and ends up worried about his previous position; Norm doesn’t and doesn’t. If you know of any other examples, I’d be very grateful. But I honestly think, that’s it.
Other than that, the response in the world of weblogs has been exactly the same as the rest of the media; in the immediate aftermath of the report, half-assed attempts to rubbish the survey, or links to same. Then, when this didn’t work, just pretend that it’s all been dealt with and move on. Maybe say “I’ll get back to you on that” and never do. After a few months of this concerted inattention, many pro-war voices have even decided it was safe to use the old slogan “well Iraq is certainly a better place because we got rid of Saddam”, when this claim is quite obviously highly debatable (just like “of course the world is a safer place because we got rid of Saddam” …)
It’s an absolute intellectual disgrace. It might be good enough for Her Britannic Majesty’s Foreign Secretary but surely we ought to hold ourselves to higher standards than that. The debate over whether this war worked is vitally important, because we are talking about setting a precedent for an entirely new world of international relations, and the debate is not being carried on honestly. This is quite literally madness, and also quite literally suicidal.
I think I ended every single Lancet post with the observation that you can tell a lot about people’s character by observing the way in which they protect themselves from hostile information. Les Roberts ought to take some grim pleasure in the fact that the world has paid his work possibly the highest compliment that the establishment can pay to a piece of information; they regarded it as dangerous enough to ignore it, even at the cost of their own credibility.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like this 100,000 number, and it is irksome that the Lancet’s lasting legacy has been that the “100,000 dead!” factoid has become a commonly used stick for antiwar hacks to beat prowar hacks with. But as I say above, there is no way that I’m going to pick nits on this sort of thing while there is such a huge act of ongoing intellectual dishonesty on the other side. The pro-war side have brought this on themselves; until they start engaging with the issue, they can live with it.