In Memoriam: Adrian Grey-Turner (1955-1986)

by Harry on October 12, 2006

About 23 years and 3 weeks ago You and Yours had one of those “off to University” shows, helping parents and about-to-be new undergraduates to understand what the first few weeks of University was going to be like. Although fitting in one of those categories, I only listened because at the time You and Yours was among my regular listening. One comment has stayed with me ever since then. A woman in her thirties, commenting on Fresher’s Weeks, said that “in that first week of college you meet people who will be your friends for the rest of your life”.

I was skeptical. And it turned out to be untrue for me. I’m in closer touch with several friends from secondary school than anyone from college (I did meet CB sometime in 1984, but only for a few minutes, and not again till Sept 12, 2001, so he doesn’t count). My first day was spent almost entirely with a girl who decided the next day to leave (not because she spent the first day with me, but because she was trying to escape her home town of Egham, to which my college suddenly announced it was moving). I’m still in touch with two other people I met that week, but I’ve seen them each only once in the past ten years, and have spoken to them only once or twice more.

But it was also that week that I met Adrian.

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Death rates and death certificates

by Daniel on October 12, 2006

Look, can we knock these two on the head, please, gang? I realise that we have no chance of stamping out these fallacies all over the internet – it’s almost as if there were a whole network of right-wing talking points sites out there all taking in each other’s washing! – but we can at least stop regurgitating them ourselves.

1. Iraq is a young country. Therefore, it has a low “crude” death rate. “Crude” in this case means “not adjusted for demographic structure and therefore not meaningfully comparable across countries”. Therefore, it is not surprising that pre-war Iraq had a crude death rate similar to that of Denmark, any more than it is surprising that any other two completely non-comparable statistics might happen to be the same number.

2. When someone dies, you get a death certificate from the hospital, morgue or coroner, in your hand. This bit of the death infrastructure is still working in Iraq. Then the person who issued the death certificate is meant to send a copy to the central government records office where they collate them, tabulate them and collect the overall mortality statistics. This bit of the death infrastructure is not still working in Iraq. (It was never great before the war, broke down entirely during the year after the invasion when there was no government to send them to and has never really recovered; statistics agencies are often bottom of the queue after essential infrastructure, law and order and electricity). Therefore, there is no inconsistency between the fact that 92% of people with a dead relative could produce the certificate when asked, and the fact that Iraq has no remotely reliable mortality statistics and quite likely undercounts the rate of violent death by a factor of ten.

Go on and sin no more, or at least not on our Lancet comments threads.

Statistics and the Scale of Societies

by Kieran Healy on October 12, 2006

How many people are murdered in the U.S. every day? How many people die in car accidents every day? How many people die of heart disease in the U.S. in a year? What about the number who die for any reason at all? If you don’t know the answer to these questions, do you have immediate, confident intuitions about what the answers must be?

The “Lancet paper”: by Burnham _et al._ study estimates about 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq for the period of March 2003 to July of 2006, of which about 600,000 are directly attributable to violence — an appalling number. Right-wing reaction has been, understandably, that the 600,000 estimate is unbelievably high. (“Tim Lambert”: gives a roundup.) Convincing those critics who see this number and declare “that can’t possibly be right,” or “my gut says no” or “this doesn’t even pass the smell test” is difficult. This is partly because some will just think that any estimate that sounds bad must be false, and take refuge in old saws about lies, damned lies, and what have you. But it’s also partly because six hundred thousand violent deaths since the war began seems huge — and, frankly, it is. As “this typical guy”: says, that’s equivalent to 3 to 10 Hiroshima atomic blasts, 6 to 20 Nagasaki atomic blasts or 10 Dresden bombing campaigns. Yes, that’s right. Those events happened in a single day or over a very short period. The present estimate is for a large country of twenty six million people over three and a half years. Sadly, this means it’s quite achievable. As “Juan Cole”: points out, you just have to believe that four our five people a day are being shot or otherwise killed in each of Iraq’s major towns outside of Baghdad.

The incredulous ones will then say, “But that’s about 500 violent deaths a day over the period! Why hasn’t this been reported! “So, does this mean all of those headlines of 18 or 30 deaths were off by 700 or so?”: Inconceivable!” As David Lewis once said, it is hard to know how to refute an incredulous stare. If neither a careful reading of the study itself nor examples like Cole’s will do anything to make you doubt the cognitive power of your bowels, then there’s probably not much to be done. Consider this, though. Even small societies are big. And big societies are huge. Nearly two and a half million people die in the United States every year. Nearly seven hundred thousand people die of heart disease. Lots of things happen that you don’t hear about. I can say with confidence that about a hundred and fifteen people died in road accidents today in the U.S., as did yesterday, and will tomorrow, and the day after that. And about fifty people in the U.S. died today as the result of assault, and will again tomorrow. These numbers are accurate, but I don’t mean them as any kind of serious comparison. They’re just a catalyst for the imagination. Fifty in the U.S., five hundred in Iraq. The two countries are very different, but is it really so inconceivable that ten times as many people might be dying violently on any given day in Iraq than in the United States?