A note on the body count

I'm getting queries about various things in the article, especially the fact that there is not very much about the statistics. I know you're disappointed. I too was disappointed when my editor informed me that there really wasn't room for 2,000 words on the fascinating topic of survey interview technique and small sample confidence intervals. Unfortunately, there's only so much space in the magazine; I had fifteen hundred words, and statistical arguments, dry and complicated, are extremely hard to fit into a small space.

There are also various odd quibbles about usage or turns of phrase. I'm not writing for academics; I'm writing for a general audience. The fact that something is obvious to you does not mean that it is obvious to laymen, and unfortunately, that + space constraints mean journalists have to simplify a lot, especially technical questions. This is, believe it or not, as unsatisfying to us as it is to professionals in various fields. But we don't have the space to write a textbook, and unlike professors, we can't flunk our readers if they drop out because they're bored and confused.

Luckily, I have this blog, and you, dear readers, to bombard with the accumulated dross of hours of interviews and a multi-foot stack of printouts. I'm heading to Puerto Rico on Sunday for vaction, leaving you in the hands of a crack team of guest bloggers who will make you sad to think that I'm coming back. Before then, I'll lay out as much as possible of the various arguments about the studies, the problems and advantages of cluster sampling, the specific issues in Iraq, and the more theatrical public controversies. The rest, I'll finish up when I get back, or third degree sunburn, whichever comes first.

Unfortunately, this takes a while: the whole thing is complicated, and thankfully, very few people have spent as much time absorbed in the question as I did while writing this story.

What I hope to do is the one thing that, as far as I know, no one has done so far: lay out a moderately detailed explanation of the history and issues of counting the Iraq war dead. I want it to be accessible to people who have no, or only a passing familiarity, with conflict epidemiology and the specific problems in Iraq, or even basic statistics. If you're already familiar with what I'm writing (or don't care about conflict epidemiology, which is somewhat understandable), just skip those bits. The blogging about Burnham et. al., and to a lesser extent some of the other counts, has been . . . well, let's just say, extremely passionate. However, as far as I know (and I think I managed to find all of the major blogs that were writing on the topic, as well as any significant article written in an English language publication), no one has laid out the entire subject in any sort of orderly fashion; it's mostly just critics responding to critics responding to critics . . . by which point anyone who isn't completely obsessed with survey technique has lost any understanding of, or interest in, what's going on. Print can't do what I can, which is utilize essentially unlimited space, hyperlinks, and reader feedback on what's unclear. I make no guarantee that at the end of it, I'll have made the thing any plainer . . . but darn it, I'm sure going to give it that old Hoover High Try.

Meanwhile, I'm afraid I'm going to ignore the various insistent questions about whether I thought of . . . whatever. So far, no one's asked me something that I (or really, all the people I interviewed) haven't asked and tried to answer. In other words, I'm getting there. If you do hit on something new, I'll look for an answer, throw it out to my sources, or say "Here's a good question". But if I start trying to answer all these queries out of order, we'll get bogged down in a labyrinthine set of disjointed explanations.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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