Sunday, January 30, 2005

Yes, 100,000 Iraqi deaths. But facts are ignored when they don't fit the frame 

That's deaths not casualties.

Of course, just today, WaPo is using 10,000—the CW's estimate is an order of magnitude too low.

Nick Lewis has an excellent summary of why the LWRM is ignoring the numbers, originally developed by the Lancet, in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is a must read, since it exhaustively explains and defends the methodology used in the studies:

In late October, a study was published in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, concluding that about 100,000 civilians had been killed in Iraq since it was invaded by a United States-led coalition in March 2003. On the eve of a contentious presidential election -- fought in part over U.S. policy on Iraq -- many American newspapers and television news programs ignored the study or buried reports about it far from the top headlines.

The paper, written by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University, was based on a door-to-door survey in September of nearly 8,000 people in 33 randomly selected locations in Iraq. It was dangerous work, and the team of researchers was lucky to emerge from the survey unharmed.

Neither the Defense Department nor the State Department responded to the paper, nor would they comment when contacted by The Chronicle. American news-media outlets largely published only short articles, noting how much higher the Lancet estimate was than previous estimates. Some [covertly subsidized?] pundits called the results politicized and worthless.

Mr. Roberts and his colleagues now believe that the speedy publication of that data created much of the public skepticism toward the study. He sent the manuscript to the medical journal on October 1, requesting that it be published that month. Mr. Roberts says the editors agreed to do so without asking him why.

Despite the sprint to publication, the paper did go through editing and peer review. In an accompanying editorial, Richard Horton, editor of the The Lancet, wrote that the paper "has been extensively peer-reviewed, revised, edited, and fast-tracked to publication because of its importance to the evolving security situation in Iraq."

Mr. Garfield now regrets the timing of the paper's release because he believes that it allowed people to dismiss the research. "The argument is an idiotic one of, 'You're playing politics, so then the data's not true,'" he says.

Isn't this a case study that shows how Lakoff's frames work?

George Lakoff, an author and professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who calls himself a "cognitive activist," says this: "One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors -- conceptual structures. The frames are in the synapses of our brains -- physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don't fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored."
( Kenny Ausubel, AlerNet

Here, it seems like a very odd definition of political is operating. "Political" means anything that would alter a frame—here, the frame that the US military is capable of fighting an urban insurgency without causing mass casualties. So, "not political" is whatever does not alter, or reinforces, an existing frame.

Which is interesting, because the bottom line is that facts can only be raised as issues when it doesn't matter. You'd think that the most important time to bring up new facts would be during an election, but no, that would be "political." Of course, elections are not really "political"—they are about national regeneration, feelings, etc.


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