Creative Destruction

October 17, 2006

The Great Wall Of China Fallacy

Filed under: Iraq,Statistical Method — Ampersand @ 3:09 pm

From Gateway Pundit (with a curtsy to Crooked Timber):

What universe are these people living in?

This weeks disgraceful liberal surprise- Another outlandish Lancet Iraqi Death Estimate reporting 660,000 have died in the Iraq War.

To give that some perspective, that’s like:

* 3-10 Hiroshima atomic blasts
* 6-20 Nagasaki atomic blasts
* Or 10 Dresden bombing campaigns

I’ve seen a lot of “it’s soooo biiig” critiques from right-wing bloggers this week – but also from a couple of left-wingers. The most intelligent version I’ve seen is the “reality check” press release from Iraq Body Count. All of these critiques exhibit what I think of as “The Great Wall Of China Fallacy.”

Sherri: Some statisticians calculated that the great wall of China is made out of 3,873,000,000 bricks.

Michelle: That’s an absurd number of bricks! Why, if you combined the Empire State Building with Lenin’s Tomb and added on the Pyramid of King Tut, you still wouldn’t have 3,873,000,000 bricks! Clearly, the methodology used by that study is flawed beyond belief.

Sherri: What flaws are those?

Michelle: Weren’t you listening? More bricks than the Empire State Building, Lenin’s Tomb and a pyramid combined!

I hear again and again that it’s absurd to think that the Iraq government could be undercounting deaths by a large degree, but never an explanation of why this is absurd. It seems to me that if you want to measure how well official statistics measure death rates, the way to do it is to conduct a random representative sample study of the population. The foundations of statistics have not, contrary to what many conservatives believe, collapsed; but the Iraqi government has collapsed; surely the former is therefore a more reliable source.

Meanwhile, in Iraq itself, it’s clear that there are a hell of a lot more bodies than have been counted.

Speaking of Lenin’s Tomb, Lenin’s Tomb has a lengthy response to the Iraq Body Count press release, which is well worth reading. Here’s a sample:

The next implication is that “Over 7% of the entire adult male population of Iraq has already been killed in violence, with no less than 10% in the worst affected areas covering most of central Iraq.” IBC doesn’t like this because – well, in fact, they do not say. They simply tell us that this is what is implied. One assumes that they think this is inherently unlikely, but surely they were supposed to be testing that implication? Another version of this argument would be: “one implication of the report is that close to 655,000 people may well have died in Iraq. Furthermore, as if that wasn’t bad enough, a further implication is that close to 600,000 of those have died violently. In Iraq! In one of the most violent societies in the world right now! Could you credit it?”

There is no inherent reason it’s impossible for an incredibly large number of people to have been killed in Iraq, any more than it’s inherently impossible that nearly 4 billion bricks were used to build The Great Wall of China. Large events sometimes happen, and to date the best-conducted study of mortality in Iraq indicates that, measure by mortality, Iraq is one such event.

More links:

An epidemiologist discusses the Lancet study.

Tim Lambert responds to the Iraq Body Count critique (scroll down).

Echidne explains the Lancet study’s methodology. And a similar post from health blogger Stayin’ Alive.

Iraqi blogger Zeyad reacts to the study: “I have personally witnessed dozens of people killed in my neighbourhood over the last few months (15 people in the nearby vicinity of our house alone, over 4 months), and virtually none of them were mentioned in any media report while I was there. And that was in Baghdad where there is the highest density of journalists and media agencies. Don’t you think this is a common situation all over the country?”

Fred at Stone Court points out that the death rate suggested by the Lancet study is hardly unprecedented in history.


  1. […] [Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comments aren’t being approved here, try there.] […]

    Pingback by Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » The Great Wall Of China Fallacy — October 17, 2006 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  2. Methinks you missed an opportunity:

    “Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comment are failing to appear in official statistics here…”

    Comment by Daran — October 17, 2006 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  3. Okay, I had to steal that idea. Thanks.

    Comment by Ampersand — October 17, 2006 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  4. Remember, it’s n ot 655,000 killed. It’s 655,000 more killed than would be killed if the pre-war death rate had kept up. In other words, as many are kileld as Saddam would have killed, plus 655,000.

    I don’t know whether the numbers are accurate or not, but I don’t think that there is any reason to dismiss them out of hand.

    Comment by Glaivester — October 21, 2006 @ 1:21 pm | Reply

  5. Just posting to note that a new poll of Iraqi households, conducted by the respected UK source ORB, has found results very similar to the Lancet study’s results.

    Meanwhile, the Bush administration keeps on lowballing Iraqi deaths, presumably because they believe that Republican short-term partisan advantage is much more important than the lives of Iraqi people. And most Democrats in congress will more-or-less let this pass. The word “loathsome” is so inadequate.

    Comment by Ampersand — September 14, 2007 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  6. Did you know that The Great Wall of China is not a continuous strip of wall? This is a collection of walls continues along the hills to the south end of the plains of Mongolia. 221-206 was built in BEC mud and rocks, supported by wooden frames to prevent the nomads of Mongolia to enter the Chinese territory.

    Comment by — July 3, 2010 @ 2:29 am | Reply

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